Twenty-two years ago, we in the United States watched as Poland held its first multi-party elections in the spring; as China teetered on the brink of revolution, only to have its dreams of democracy drown in blood and horror; as Hungary opened its border with Austria; as, first, people danced on top of the Berlin Wall, then took sledgehammers to it, bringing it down; as the people of Czeckoslovakia marched on St. Wenceslaus Square and their government collapsed like a rotten fruit; as Romania, the heavy-hand of the Ceaucescu clan desperately trying to cling to power, erupted in violence, with the images of their dead leaders beamed around the world; as Bulgaria, reading the tea leaves, quietly ended forty-five years of communist rule. The process, spread over the course of much of that amazing, frustrating, sad, and finally triumphant year, was relatively rapid, In the late spring, from China, there was much discussion over the role of new communications technology, as people discussed the role of the fax machine in the simmering pro-democracy movement. Once the first supports were removed from the first regime in central Europe, the rest toppled not least because the people not only understood that change was in the air. More important, even when they were met with resistance - in Czeckoslovakia and Romania - they proved they were no longer afraid of the threat even of violent death.
The events of that year are usually considered the end of the Cold War. One historian, John Lukacs, wrote that the events marked not only the end of a period of history, but marked the end of the historical cycle of the 20th century. The most famous and influential verdict on the events of that year was Francis' Fukuyama's claim that History was at an end.
Large swaths of humanity were surprised to hear these considered verdicts on the victory of freedom. Not only China, but Indonesia, to name two of the most populous nations on the planet, were in different ways still laboring under dictatorships. Much of the African continent was suffering the ravages of neo-colonial exploitation and the imposition of kleptocrats. Central and South America was only beginning to emerge from two decades of military dictatorship, with all the violence, official domestic terrorism, and repression that entailed. The Muslim world, stretching from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the East, was still groaning under the weight of regimes, many of which were imposed at the end of the First World War by then-fading imperial powers who sought to safeguard their access to resources.
This band, in particular running from Morocco to Pakistan, is now in turmoil. The last vestiges of absolute monarchy, of the military revolts of the height of the Cold War, of a new age of what Noam Chomsky called, in the title of one of his books, The New Military Humanism, and the beginnings of a theocratic democracy in Iran all simmer with unrest as the people of various nations demand an end to extrinsic definition and imperial dominance. Since the collapse of the Tunisian autocracy in January, the entire region has not seen a day without several of the states experiencing protests, violence, state-sanctioned murder, and the growing sense that this state of affairs has yet to play itself out.
Even as our troops sit in Iraq, on bases in Kuwait and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, our money pours in to Turkey and Iraq and Israel, and our covert military forces engage various "targets" in Yemen, the amount of influence the US actually possesses can be rated at or near zero. For all our might, for all our economic influence as a purchaser of the principle export of petroleum, for all that ours is still, by far, the major cultural, social, military, and economic power in the world, we have sat idly by as two long-time dictators went the way of the Dodo. In Libya, long a focus of American angst (and target of its bombs in the 1980's), Moammar Qaddafi's rule hangs by the slenderest of threads. The royal family of Bahrain is under siege. In Yemen and Algeria, Djibouti and Morocco, the people have gathered to demand changes that include a greater voice for the management of their own affairs, as we who were once called the "last best hope for mankind", sit around and argue as to what we should do.
Whether or not Qaddafi, or the al-Khalifa dynasty, or military junta in Algeria, or Pres. Saleh, or any of the others remain in power is, at this point, anyone's guess. Far more important is the reality that, no matter what happens, that stretch of the world we mistakenly call "the Middle East" will not be the same when these fires of revolution finally burn themselves out (as such fires have always done). We Americans have yet to grasp how profound, how important, how world-historical is the shift happening in the western half of the pre-dominantly Muslim world. Our leaders stutter and contradict themselves, trying to find their voices amidst the clamor for freedom and the sound of gunfire. In many ways, our hands-off approach resembles that of Gorbachev's Soviet Union as the former satellites down the heart of Europe shuddered then fell. For that, we should be thankful. All the same, it is my opinion that our leaders have not grasped the gravity and scope of the reality they face now, nor the new future that awaits on the other side of the democratic revolutions shaking the foundations of the Muslim world. As more of the vestiges of 20th century imperialism and neo-imperialism collapse, I wonder if we in the US will understand we shall awake one day to a world far different from that we have known. Better, to be sure, for the millions who had lived under the thumb of imposed dictators. Yet, perilous for anyone thinking we Americans can still work our will regardless of the cost.