War Stories

The Beirut Wall Isn’t Falling

Why Berlin 1989 isn’t the right analogy for today’s Middle East.

Walid Jumblatt, a longtime leader of Lebanon’s intifada, caused something of a stir last week when he said of the election in Iraq and the subsequent uprisings in his own country, “Something is happening, the Berlin Wall is falling, we can see it.” Something definitely is happening. It’s riveting, breathtaking, teeming with hope and possibility. But contrary to the news reports that have eagerly adopted Jumblatt’s rhetoric, the events sparking excitement in the Middle East today don’t bear the slightest resemblance to those that swept through Eastern Europe in 1989.

This is not historical nitpicking. The differences between the two phenomena explain why the current tumult may not evolve the same merry way, or toward the same peaceful end, as the democratic rebellions of 16 years ago. Maybe things will end up fine; I certainly hope so. But it will take more than dreamy rhetoric and stern pulpit warnings for the march to wend its way to freedom.

The tumbling of the Berlin Wall was the product of a peculiar convergence of events. The Soviet empire was collapsing. The Soviet president was a singular man, Mikhail Gorbachev, who actively pushed for reform and Westernization (which he hoped would avert collapse but in fact accelerated it). Meanwhile, indigenous democratic movements were fomenting within the empire (Lech Walesa’s Solidarity in Poland, Václav Havel’s Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, the perpetual secessionists in the Baltics). Detente, black markets, and jam-free broadcasts had whetted an appetite for Western ways. The nations suffering a generation of Soviet rule—especially the Baltics, East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia—had longer traditions of democracy, capitalism, and European cosmopolitanism. Finally, their anti-Soviet sentiments were blooming in a bipolar world; repulsion toward Moscow translated very easily into attraction toward America. When the wall came down in ‘89 and the Soviet Union itself imploded two years later, the adoption (or resumption) of Western-style democracy was natural; emissaries from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the CIA, McDonald’s, and all the rest were, at least initially, most welcome.

Now let’s look at the aspiring democracies of the Middle East. The nations in question—mainly Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt (with noises rustling in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia)—are not joined by a common empire or target of revolt. There is no Gorbachev among them, in any case. Nor are there signs of Walesas or Havels. These countries never experienced a Reformation and thus have no Western traditions. And their rebellions are festering in a world that offers many models beyond communism or capitalism, some of them notably hostile to both.

So, three questions arise from the stirrings of 2005. First, are they real movements or brief flashes? The election in Iraq, however inspiring, has not yet produced a government; violence persists; a democratic regime may yet emerge, but a civil war isn’t out of the question either. The anti-Syrian street demonstrations in Lebanon were very impressive; but so was the pro-Syrian rally that followed. Hosni Mubarak’s pledge of free elections in Egypt is intriguing, but the fine print is still to come.

Second, if these movements are successful, what will they do next? Will an Islamic Republic of Iraq seek alliance with Iran? What effect will that have on Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds, to say nothing of Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel? If Syrian troops do pull out of Lebanon, what role will Hezbollah play in an independent Lebanese government? What effect might that have on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks? If Egyptians really do choose their own leaders, what’s the chance that they’ll elect the Muslim Brotherhood to power?

Third, what does President Bush plan to do about these developments in the meantime? It’s a tricky situation. If he cheers the rebels on too openly, they will be denounced—and potentially discredited—as American agents (which, tellingly, is still a pejorative in that part of the world). The Syrians are clearly trying to play this card in Lebanon now. Yet at the same time, Bush shouldn’t back away and let nature take its course. There’s talk of a “Beirut Spring,” but it’s worth recalling that the first Prague Spring, in ‘68, ended with Soviet tanks in Wenceslas Square and five armored divisions occupying the countryside. Democracy finally triumphed in the “velvet revolution” of ‘89, but the Soviet collapse, which abetted it, also unleashed the savage ethnic cleansings in Yugoslavia. Freedom was on the march in Afghanistan when the mujahideen beat back the Soviet army; but the United States withdrew its assets too, thinking the contest was over, and the Taliban rose to power in the vacuum—leading to the sanctuary for Osama Bin Laden and our most serious troubles now.

Bush may have grasped a larger picture than many of us realized when he spoke about the appeal of freedom and the imperative to promote it. But he has only vaguely defined the term. He sees it as not merely a political right but a God-given trait, humanity’s default mode, which gushes forth like a geyser once a tyrant is blown from his throne. History shows us there’s hot lava in this geyser, a volcano of energy, which can be creative, destructive, or both. Which way it flows is a matter of gravity, chance, the contours of landscape, or human engineering. To translate the metaphor to today’s political geyser, it’s a matter of indigenous culture, sheer luck, shrewd diplomacy, or brute force. Which way it goes will depend on some mix of all four. No outcome is inevitable. History is molded, not fated. Euphoria, for the moment, is beside the point.