Turmoil in Tunisia

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The second worry concerns nearby Europe, already deeply incompetent at dealing with its Islamist challenge. Were Ennahda to take power and then expand networks, provide funds, and perhaps smuggle arms to allies in nearby Europe, it could greatly exacerbate existing problems there.

The third and greatest worry concerns the possible domino effect on other Arabic-speaking countries. This fast, seemingly easy, and relatively bloodless coup d’état could inspire globally Islamists to sweep away their own tyrants. All four North African littoral states – Morocco, Algeria,Libya, and Egypt – fit this description, as do Syria, Jordan and Yemen to the east. That Mr. Ben Ali took refuge in Saudi Arabia implicates that country too. Pakistan could also fit the template. In contrast to the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, which required a charismatic leader, millions on the street, and a full year’s worth of effort, events in Tunisia unfolded quickly and in a more generic, reproducible way.

What Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly said of a Latin America dictator, “He’s a bastard but he’s our bastard,” applies to Mr. Ben Ali and many other Arab strongmen, leaving U.S. government policy in seeming disarray. Barack Obama‘s ambiguous after-the-fact declaration that he “applaud[s] the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people” can conveniently be read either as a warning to assorted other “bastards” or as a better-late-than-never recognition of awkward facts on the ground.

As Washington sorts out options, I urge the administration to adopt two policies. First, renew the push for democratization initiated by George W. Bush in 2003, but this time with due caution, intelligence, and modesty, recognizing that his flawed implementation inadvertently facilitated the Islamists to acquire more power. Second, focus on Islamism as the civilized world’s greatest enemy and stand with our allies, including those in Tunisia, to fight this blight.

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