One interesting book that I haven’t yet read is Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, but I pretty well understand the thinking behind it. I’ve also been thinking about a lot of things I’ve read about the Arab world, and our war on terrorism, and the threat posed by the incompatability of Western liberal values with a certain set of values held by some Muslims. Steven Den Beste presents a powerful and reasoned argument here about the nature of our enemy. There’s plenty there to disagree with, but unlike many other things I read, it’s internally consistent and carefully considered. One of Den Beste’s favorite articles is Ralph Peters’ Spotting the Losers: Seven Signs of Non-Competitive States, and I confess to being a Peters fan myself. Certainly the seven signs article has the ring of truth, and thinking about it, Den Beste’s article, and tipping points led me in a somewhat new direction.
Here are some things that I know. I know that there is some number of people in the United States who wish that the United States bore some or all of the points that characterize a failed state. I’m not talking about immigrants either, but home grown folks. And yet the United States is clearly not a failed state. Another thing I know is that there are plenty of Muslims who come to the United States to partake in the opportunities that exist here without foresaking their traditional Muslim values, at least not at first. Furthermore, I know that there are people in Muslim countries that recognize the failings of their culture and want to change things from within. The terrorists, revolutionaries, radicals, and Islamists get nearly all of the press, but there are a good number of progressives in these countries as well. More importantly, there are a large number of just regular people who yearn for a decent standard of living and a way to support themselves. The Palestinians just tossed Yasser Arafat’s entire cabinet — that’s a pretty bold step forward.
So, where’s the tipping point that turns autocratic Middle Eastern states into democratic states where people are free to focus on pursuing economic opportunity and a better life for themselves and their families? Are there alternatives to a new imperialism? At what point do Iran’s progressives cause the iceberg to flip over and relegate the Islamic fundamentalists to the pissed off minority? What seemingly insignificant variable can we manipulate to defuse what truly is a ticking bomb?
The bottom line from where I sit is that imperialism isn’t going to work. We can’t impose our culture on other countries, even if we grind them into the ground militarily first. How do I know this? Because we’re still dealing with the fallout from the last time the great powers thought that carving up the world and remaking it in their own image was a good idea. Look at the world’s trouble spots — the Middle East, Africa, South Asia. The borders in every one of those regions were drawn by Europeans, and they really screwed everything up. I’m not so confident that we could do a better job. And ultimately, the fundamental nature of our federal government prevents us from going forward with a coherent plan for any length of time. There are plenty of people who have a grand (and perhaps workable) vision for remaking the Arab/Muslim world over the next few decades. That’s not going to happen, because in 2003 Bush is going to start working mainly on getting himself reelected. In 2005 or 2009, we’ll have a different administration. In the meantime, all sorts of new problems are going to crop up. Unless we’re attacked continually by terrorists throughout that time, this country is going to be distracted by what people consider to be more pressing problems.
So, what are the alternatives? I’d bet that if you went and surveyed Palestinians living around the Middle East, and you asked whether they would immigrate to the United States, you’d find that a large number of them would do so. These same people may have danced in the streets on September 11, 2001, but ultimately, they understand that the US has something to offer that their current existence doesn’t. They may even bitch about the US after they move here, but I have a feeling that their kids wouldn’t. I think there’s a tipping point here, and I know it’s worth more effort in trying to find it.