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Washington Diarist

As the dictators fall, the clichés fall, too. Cairo and Tunis and Tripoli are littered with the shards of platitudes about what is possible and what is impossible in Arab societies, in closed societies. Civilizational analysis lies in ruins. Idealism, always cheaply mocked, turns out to be a powerful form of historical causation, as disruptive of the established order as any economic or technological change, and even more beneficent. Stability, the false god of hard hearts, has been revealed to be temporary, chimerical, provisional, hollow, where the social arrangements are not decent or fair: the stability of injustice, though it may last a long time, is essentially unstable. It is delicious to see realists convicted of illusions, to hear them utter the words on which they used to choke. (If there is one thing that realists know how to do, it is pivot.) The Arab uprisings have been heuristically useful: they have exposed a lack of intellectual preparation, a lack of historical imagination, a lack of moral aspiration, here at home. I count the president among the Americans who are sunk in stereotypes and dogmas, even if the good people at the White House want you to know that he is somehow a hero of this springtime. By now—after Tehran, Tunis, Cairo, and Tripoli—a presidential pattern has been established. Obama’s reluctance to lead, and to establish the United States ringingly and incontrovertibly as the ally of the freedom movements, is owed to many things, but most of all, I think, it is the result of certain conventional assumptions about the historical agency of the United States in the developing world. In almost his every pronouncement about the valiant accomplishments of the liberalizing crowds in “the Arab street” (now an honorific!), Obama keeps insisting that we had nothing to do with this, that they did all this on their own, that Arab democracy must not be the work of the United States or any foreign power. He dreads the imputation of our influence. All his assurances of a new world notwithstanding, he is haunted by the ghost of imperialism.

Obama’s anxiety is groundless: obviously they did it on their own. But it also represents, I think, a misunderstanding of these events. One of the most striking features of the democratic revolts has been the absence from them of any significant anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli expressions. The ideas and emotions that animated these uprisings have been inward-looking and inner-directed: the crowds are outraged by what Egyptians have done to Egypt, what Tunisians have done to Tunisia, what Libyans have done to Libya, what Iranians have done to Iran. They blame their own. They do not direct their critical energies, so as to divert them, at others. This reckoning is a self-reckoning—which is to say, it is the end of the post-imperial era in Arab history. The force of the ancient sense of colonial victimization seems to be spent. First imperialism hobbled them, and then the remembrance of imperialism hobbled them. The scar continued to do the work of the wound. It introduced into Arab life a prior anger and a prior despair, which were easily manipulated by autocrats and clerics. The aftermath of oppression is usually a period of hardening and contraction. A grievance is not a basis for progress. But the democratic eruption of recent months marks the advent of a post-post-imperial moment, in which the future is finally allowed a greater claim upon the present than the past. Post-post-imperialism is another term for self-reliance, for an internal renovation, for what an early Zionist writer called “auto-emancipation.” There is no deeper emancipation. The blessing of the post-post-imperial moment is not that the terrible history has been forgotten, but that the lachrymosity it left in its wake, the lowered expectations that derived from the belief that there is only one story and only one enemy, the pessimistic effects of unceasing commemoration, have been dispelled. (For Jews, the establishment of the state of Israel was the post-post-Amalek moment, though Israeli political culture is presently struggling, and not sufficiently, with a revival of post-Amalekism.) It is not ignorance, or treason, to escape the shadow of great pain; it is the condition of a normal life. If the men and women in the streets of Tehran and Cairo and Tripoli and Tunis continue to understand their fate with primary reference to imperialism, why do they implore the American president to help them? Clearly the peril of authoritarianism looms larger for them than the peril of imperialism. Democracy, for these protesting peoples, is no longer defined, or tarnished, by its largely Western provenance. This is a milestone. Indeed, the post-imperialist analysis of the Arab uprisings is now the desperate and hallucinatory work of Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who would suspend all Muslims in eternal grief and eternal rage. They are the losers in the Arab apotheosis. Reality is shattering their conspiracy theories, in a grand historical rebuttal.

The United States and its president should also grasp the post-post-imperialist moment in the Arab world. It ought to transform our own sense of how we may act. No, it is not a neo-colonialist license; and anyway we are not an empire, and those who think otherwise do not grasp the American innovation in internationalism. It means only that the awakening peoples prefer our assistance to our penance. Obama seems to prefer something like the opposite. He seems to believe that American support for Arab democracy—actual support, loud support, practical support—would constitute a repetition of an old and ugly pattern of American intrusion, and would therefore set the collective memory of the region against us.

But the democracy movement is a sign that the morbid grip of collective memory has been broken. Can we really draw no distinctions between interventions? Are words and wishes all we are permitted? These questions do not pertain only to recent events, which were the opening stages of a difficult process. Many of the obstacles to Arab democracy are still in place. In the days to come we will witness attempts at the political, economic, and theological exploitation of those obstacles. The epiphany is almost over; what remains is the struggle for its consequences. In that struggle the United States must choose sides. It is not yet done. They must do it on their own,
but we must have their backs.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the March 24, 2011, issue of the magazine.