DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Ever since the Arab awakening in late 2010, America has lurched from one policy response to another. We tried decapitation without invasion in Libya; it failed. We tried abdication in Syria; it failed. We tried democratization in Egypt, endorsing the election of the Muslim Brotherhood; it failed. We tried invasion, occupation, abdication and now re-intervention in Iraq and, although the jury is still out, only a fool would be optimistic.
Maybe the beginning of wisdom is admitting that we don’t know what we’re doing out here and, more important, we don’t have the will to invest overwhelming force for the time it would take to reshape any of these places — and, even if we did, it is not clear it would work.
So if the Middle East is a region we can neither fix nor ignore, what’s left? I’m for “containment” and “amplification.”
How so? Where there is disorder — Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya — collaborate with regional forces to contain it, which is basically what we’re doing today. I just hope we don’t get in more deeply. Where there is imposed order — Egypt, Algeria — work quietly with the government to try to make that order more decent, just, inclusive and legitimate. Where there is already order and decency — Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan and the United Arab Emirates — do everything to amplify it, so it becomes more consensual and sustainable. And where there is order, decency and democracy —- Tunisia — give it as much money as they ask for (which we haven’t done).
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But never forget: We can only amplify what they do. When change starts or depends on our staying power, it is not self-sustaining — the most important value in international relations. When it starts with them, it can be self-sustaining. The best example of that is the UAE and its crown jewel, Dubai. I had several conversations here on this question: Did Dubai cause the Arab awakening?
Wait. How could it have? The UAE and Dubai are absolute monarchies that tolerate no opposition or real freedom of the press. It’s because Dubai, beyond the glitz, glass and real estate booms and busts, has become the Manhattan of the Arab world — a place where young Arabs from across the region can come to realize their full potential in arts, business, media, education and technology startups — with world-class companies — and in their own culture, their own language, their own religious milieu, their own food preferences, music and clothing.
As more young Arabs came to Dubai, or viewed it on TV from afar, more and more asked: “Why don’t we have that in my Arab country?” The former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said to me: “People know what it means to be a citizen everywhere now.” It was one thing for young Egyptians to observe the success of Singapore or Brazil and compare it with their own flagging country, but when Dubai showed that Arabs could build a Singapore, where young Arabs could realize their potential, Dubai became politically subversive. Across the region, you heard the question: “Even if we can’t have democracy, why can’t we at least have Dubai?”
“Dubai is the capital of the Arab Spring — the real revolution started here,” argued Mazen Nahawi, 39, a Palestinian who founded News Group International, a media-monitoring company here in Dubai. The Arab awakening “did not start because they wanted freedom and democracy. It started in the mind of the average (Arab) who the saw the evidence in Dubai that we could do things that are hard, and we could do them world class (like Dubai Ports and Emirates Airlines), with a high level of performance in the corporate and governmental sectors … and with a lot of tolerance. … And they compared that with the reality and rhetoric of the Arab military regimes” they were living under.
The point: It has to start with them. The best we can do is amplify. David Kilcullen, the Australian counterinsurgency expert who served with the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me: “Just like there is a spark of life in a physical body, there has to be a spark of legitimacy and coherence in a body politic. And, if it is not there, trying to substitute for it is like putting a cadaver on a slab and harnessing a lightning bolt to it to bring it back to life. You end up with Dr. Frankenstein.”
Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.