With the summer solstice on the horizon, we can’t help thinking about what the recent Arab spring has meant. Protests and revolutions developed from Algeria to the Persian Gulf. Some deposed tyrants—Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Others keep trying in Libya and Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, where Bashar al-Assad seeks to maintain his family’s forty-year stranglehold with bloody force.
I’d like to tell you that democracy will bloom—that green shoots that appeared several months ago will turn into a garden of fragrant flowers and delicious fruits. But I’m doubtful. Not that I don’t think democracy can flower in the Middle East eventually. Ardent supporters of democracy can be found almost everywhere in the region. But I’d hate to have to define “eventually” because I believe in the Humpty Dumpty syndrome. Or to put it another way, sometime’s the media is the message. Here’s what I mean.
In the June 13/20 double issue of Newsweek, the historian and author Niall Ferguson offers a column, “The Revolution Blows Up.” Ferguson questions whether Egypt’s deteriorating economy is undermining the hope created in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that a new Middle East at peace with itself and the rest of the world would be born.
Ferguson asks what the West is doing to help Egyptians—and others—climb out of their deep economic hole. “The answer is,” he offers, “not enough.” Now, that may be a fair assessment. But here’s what strikes me. In an article of roughly 1,000 words, Ferguson—a brilliant man—offers not one word regarding a solution. He describes the Middle East’s various dire economies, suggesting that we must help them grow, but never declares how we should do this and why financial institutions and corporations should disregard the considerable risks their investments would run in such unstable environments. Egyptian money is, after all, fleeing the country.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing Ferguson because he didn’t come up with a detailed program to make the Middle East a garden spot of democracy and free enterprise. But it’s easy to day, “Do something” when the real task involves providing some form of concrete guidance. This is where Humpty Dumpty comes in.
We know from our childhoods that Mr. Dumpty had a great fall, and that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put him back together again. There’s a lesson here. Think of a few people fueled by sufficient pizza and beer demolishing an old, rotted house. They can do it in days. Maybe only hours. But how long would it take to rebuild that house—and turn it from a run-down building into a beautiful, weatherproof home?
In the months ahead, Americans will keep asking for fixes to all sorts of problems from our involvement in the Middle East to the sluggish economy. Many will be quick to pick up sledgehammers and crowbars. I hope we’ll all consider what it means to patiently draft blueprints, carefully pour foundations and take a craftsman’s approach to using our saws, hammers and drills. Anyone can destroy. Building demands attention to detail.
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