Liberal journalist and influential interventionist Paul Berman has a long, solipsistic, and interesting essay for The New Republic's 9/11 anniversary issue, attempting (among other things) to compare the collapse of communism to Arab Spring. Excerpt:
Once the communist system had lost its legitimacy, every country in the old Soviet bloc found itself caught in a three-way battle over the shape of the new society. The heroic anti-communist dissidents, basking in their glory, stood in one corner, upholding the principles of liberal democracy, although not always in a well-defined form. Ethnic haters stood in another corner, trying to incite pogroms and wars—the ethnic haters, whom the old communist regimes had always invoked as the justification for communist dictatorship. The communists themselves occupied still another corner, vacated of any doctrine but in no rush to vacate their offices, too.
In each country, the three-cornered battle yielded its own result: a mostly brilliant liberal success in the Czech Republic, besprinkled for a little while with fairy tale elements; an unexpected alliance of liberals and reformed communists in Poland, who succeeded in tempering the ethnic haters, who maybe were not so dangerous to begin with; a catastrophic fusion of ethnic haters and old communists in Serbia, supported by Russia; a communist continuity in Russia itself, with the ideology shrunken to nostalgia and a cult of the state; and so forth. The successes have been marvelous. As for the failures, we have not yet even learned the basic facts, given that the grisliest failures of all took place not even in the Balkans but along Russia's southern border, simmering even now, more than twenty years later, where very few reporters have ever been.
The Arab anti-authoritarian revolts are likely to produce a range of experiences something like this, except without the fairy tale aspects. The three parties are going to be the Facebook liberals and their friends, basking in glory; the old mukhabarat or secret police and military regimes, in the role of the de-ideologized East Bloc communists; and the Islamists, mainstream and ultras, in the role of the ethnic haters (though collective hatreds take other forms, as well). Only the whole weight of forces in the region appears to tilt more ominously than it did in Eastern Europe.
It is cheering to reflect that nowhere at all did Islamists lead the revolutions, which suggests that something in the Islamist movement may be out of step with the times. And it is doubly cheering to reflect that Islamism's most extreme wing played no role at all. Nowhere at all did Al Qaeda or its allies look like a revolutionary vanguard.
Even so, the Islamist advantages are painful to enumerate[.]
Nuanced over-simplification is surely preferable to the usual sloganeering by analogy, so I guess we can be grateful that the intellectual debate (the real subject of Berman's essay) is in better shape than it was six years ago. But even a to be sure-ridden comparison between East Bloc '89 and Arab World '11 brings forth a flurry of counter-objections: There is no lone superpower capable of overnight regional transformation through imperial withdrawl. There is considerably larger correlation in Europe between nation and state. There is next to no usable history or muscle memory of governing liberalism in the Muslim Middle East and North Africa. And, contra Berman's bizarre assertion at the end of his piece that "in the intellectual and cultural worlds of the West, Islamism itself, the doctrine, has won [intellectual] victories," fundamentalist Islam has nothing like the comparable heft that communism had in the liberal west and indeed that Marxism still has in western academia.
And as you'd expect, where there's a Cold War analogy in modern foreign policy discussion, there's a call (however strangled) for more robust American interventionism:
In the visible zones, the Arab Spring has aroused in the Western countries almost none of the enthusiasm that greeted its Eastern Bloc antecedent. We will lift a pinky. In Syria, perhaps not even that much. Is it true that, militarily, we and our allies are stretched to the limit, or beyond, or worse? It must be true. The news from different fronts aches the heart. Still, the longer the tyrants of Libya and Syria go on murdering their own people, the more disastrous for everyone, and not just their own people. I know that President Obama has other problems. But why he is so reluctant to try to influence the international mood?
Though it's hard to hack through the haze
of world-weary resignation here, there's an active obfuscation
behind the passive voice. Assuming that the "we" refers to U.S.
power, it just ain't true that there has been less
application of the stuff on the Arab Spring than on the collapse of
communism. There is no "Eastern Bloc antecedent" to our
six-months-and-counting war against the Qadaffi regime, and we
weren't exactly sending drones to
kill 30 people at a time in, say, Albania. The truth is that
no outside government–and very few inside governments,
either–could control the torrent of events from 1989-91 even if
they wanted to, and back then American appetite for meddling was
significantly lower than it is today. (As for being allagedly
"stretched to the limit," let us not soon forget that the only
imperial superpower with scores of thousands of boots on the ground
in the revolutionary region right now is us.)
Recommended Berman-related reading from the Reason archive: Tim Cavanaugh's classic November 2004 piece "Twilight of the Liberal Hawks," Michael Young's review of Berman's latest book in February 2007, and Michael C. Moynihan's March 2008 survey of liberal-hawk apologetics. I wrote about "the perils of using Cold War analogies in the twilight struggle against Islamic extremism" in December 2005.