Mohammed Bouazizi had had enough. The police had humiliated him. They had confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart. He had nothing left —all because he’d refused to give them a bribe.
On Dec. 17, 2010, the 26-year-old food vendor set himself on fire. Many other young Tunisians identified with his plight. They filled the streets with protests. In less than a month, the corrupt and authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country. “Arab Spring” had begun.
A year later, the uprisings continue throughout the region, and no one knows what kind of world they will bring. All we know is that — so far—the movement has not answered protesters’ cries for economic freedom.
Unless that changes, the Arab revolutions may never replace the hopelessness, corruption and economic repression that led Mohammed Bouazizi to his desperate act of protest.
Economic problems abound. The regional unemployment rate is among the highest in the world, averaging more than 10 percent. And unemployment is greatest among the young, leaving an entire generation without a future.
As Arab Spring wears on, the shadow of pessimism is growing. Having risen up to topple authoritarian regimes, the people in many countries find that those succeeding to the levers of power now show little zeal to foster the freedoms that improve the prospects for long-term peace, security and prosperity.
Instead, they see secular activists who champion political freedoms, but cling to socialist agendas that quash economic opportunity, like many of the intellectual expatriates waiting in Paris to take power in Damascus.
Or, they see Islamist activists promoting absolutist agendas that stifle the political freedoms that go hand-in-hand with economic opportunity as in Turkey.
This leaves the United States in the awkward position of cheerleading for the downfall of totalitarian regimes in Egypt, Libya and Syria, even as it suspects that the replacement governments will be no more likely to expand economic freedoms among the people.
America can’t afford to stand on the sidelines and just muddle through. Too many bad things can happen in that part of the world that would bring trouble and woe to our own doorstep.
We need a strategy for the “day after” bad regimes fall. Unfortunately, our last two presidents have done a mediocre job of that.
A good “day after” strategy has to start with the capacity to project power in the region. While we wait for the Middle East to turn into the land of milk and honey, we need an insurance policy against the terrible things that might happen in the interim. President Obama has picked exactly the wrong time to gut our conventional forces and strategic deterrent and slow-roll missile defenses.
Having a big stick, however, is far from enough for the U.S. to play a constructive roll in the region.We need diplomacy that stands by our allies and diminishes our enemies (rather than the other way round).
We also need a constructive agenda to promote economic freedom.
The president doesn’t get it. His latest budget proposal underfunds defense even as it proposes increases in traditional foreign aid programs that have failed over and over again to improve struggling economies and strengthen civil society abroad.
In promoting economic freedom, it is crucial that nations (1) establish and protect property rights and (2) combat cronyism and corruption. As with overthrowing old regimes, these are tasks that will largely have to be the responsibility of the people themselves. They have to win their own future.
The U.S. can help—not by throwing money at the problem, but by being a good friend to those who are doing right and a thorn in the side of those are not.
James JayCarafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner