We've blown it so far by thinking in terms of stability, or security. We should have been thinking most about values: our own. The opportunities for progress are far greater with a democratic Middle East. And the implications will dwarf both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.
One of the great challenges in intelligence analysis is predicting big changes. The safest analysis is nearly always that the forces that have shaped things until now will continue. A continuation of the status quo is thus the most likely outcome – right up to the moment that status quo disappears.
This makes policymakers cautious. Even amid new developments – demonstrations, economic crises, warfare – the expectation is that the ship will right itself and things will revert to normal. It therefore pays to wait, to be cautious, to see who comes out on top, to attempt to safeguard other national security interests. Why leap into a situation to support one side, if there’s a good chance the other side will come out on top?
Yet big, unexpected changes do happen. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The collapse of the Soviet Union. And getting on the wrong side of change carries its own substantial costs. Moreover, when change is inevitable, caution can prolong a crisis, while action might bring about a swifter, more peaceful, and more beneficial resolution.
The trick is to know when a big change is underway, and when it is business as usual. This is where the West has consistently gotten it wrong on the revolutions sweeping the Middle East.
First it was Tunisia, where most observers believed that demonstrations couldn’t topple a dictator. Then it was the supposed uniqueness of Tunisia, where most observers did not really believe that regime-change there could mean regime-change elsewhere.
In Egypt, most observers didn’t believe the protests could really bring down former President Hosni Mubarak. Most observers did not believe that in Libya, with a regime ready to use brute force, change was possible.
Each time, we have gotten the analysis wrong. Each time, we have been slow to speak out, slow to support change, slow to take action. Those who have been willing to risk their lives for their own freedom in the Middle East can be forgiven for believing that the United States and the West have been against them.