In October 2010, best-selling New Yorker essayist Malcolm Gladwell published a piece titled "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," a derisive attack on the notion that social networking websites would ever play a major role in fomenting meaningful nonviolent resistance to authoritarian regimes. "If you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy," Gladwell argued. "Think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure."
Less than six months later, a series of mostly nonviolent and nonhierarchical protests drove longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak out of office, part of a transnational wave of pro-liberalization protest that is remaking North Africa and the Middle East. One of the most influential Egyptian activists was a young Google executive named Wael Ghonim. The tide arguably turned against Mubarak when he tried to shut down the Internet. "Our revolution," Ghonim told 60 Minutes, "is like Wikipedia, OK?"
Gladwell was not the only deep thinker rendered ridiculous by the remarkable events of early 2011. In mid-January, controversial commentator Stephen M. Walt wrote a confident prediction in a Foreign Policy article titled "Why the Tunisian Revolution Won't Spread." And in March, as the increasingly deranged Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi sent his warplanes to strafe unarmed protesters even while denying that there were any anti-regime demonstrations (let alone whole swaths of the country under rebel control), Mother Jones and other outlets began excavating a trove of embarrassing op-ed pieces published in 2007 by intellectuals who swore that Qaddafi had turned over a new leaf. (Many of the Qaddafi enthusiasts failed to disclose that they were on the payroll of the P.R. firm Monitor Group, which had taken a $3 million annual contract to burnish Libya's image.)
"Surprisingly flexible and pragmatic, [Qaddafi] was once an ardent socialist who now acknowledges private property and capital as sometimes appropriate elements in developing societies," wrote Jihad vs. McWorld author (and Monitor recipient) Benjamin Barber in a typical specimen of the genre, published in The Washington Post in August 2007. "Libya under [Qaddafi] has embarked on a journey that could make it the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government and, in time, to an indigenous mixed constitution favoring direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally."
It wasn't just intellectuals, bought off or not, who were caught off guard by the pro-democracy wave. On January 25, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the Egyptian government as "stable." On January 30, Clinton was talking about an "orderly transition" lasting months. On Feb. 11, Mubarak resigned, prompting Clinton's boss Barack Obama to say "Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day."
What lessons can we draw from Americans' seeming inability to predict or even process the thrilling and harrowing events of the Arab Spring? First and foremost: It's really not about us—in every sense of the phrase.
Islamist-fearing skeptics of the 2011 revolutions have often invoked the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Yet the Great Satan has been almost nowhere to be found on the streets of Cairo, Tripoli, or Sana. Whether in an Egypt awash in U.S. foreign aid or a Libya that for decades was under U.S. sanctions, protesters have focused instead on the local guy keeping them down. This is evident not just in the handmade street signs and lack of burning flags but in most of what we know about the intellectual underpinnings of the movement.
In March 2004, a group of civil society leaders from the Middle East and North Africa convened at the fancy new library in Alexandria to sketch out some architecture for the freedom they wanted. The resulting Alexandria Declaration, very reminiscent of Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 and copycat dissident documents across the unfree world, was short on complaints about Yankee imperialism and long on demands for enumerated freedoms that until recently sounded like science fiction in an Arab context.
"When we talk of democratic systems, we mean, without ambiguity, genuine democracy," the declaration states. "Democracy is based on respect of all rights for all the people, including freedom of thought and expression, and the right to organize under the umbrella of effective political institutions, with an elected legislature, an independent judiciary, a government that is subject to both constitutional and public accountability, and political parties of different intellectual and ideological orientations. This genuine democracy requires guaranteed freedom of expression in all its forms, topmost among which is freedom of the press, and audio-visual and electronic media."
You could even detect the balance of power shifting from Uncle Sam to the mythical "Arab street" in the way that embattled authoritarians addressed their own people. Handpicked Mubarak successor Omar Suleiman, a day before the dictator's resignation, pointed his finger not at the Obama administration (or even Twitter!) but at Al Jazeera: "Do not listen to the satellite stations that have no objective but to sew sedition among people and to weaken Egypt and to mar its image," Suleiman admonished protesters. He, too, was gone by the end of the week.
The anti-communist revolutions of 1989 taught us that local, ground-up ownership of revolutions, particularly of the nonviolent variety, correlate strongly with post-totalitarian success. Yet judging by the reaction of many American commentators, the noncentrality of Washington's role has come as a disappointment, even a disgrace. "The passivity of the Obama administration has damaged America's interests and standing around the world," Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol warned. "America should lead," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in the middle of a multi-country tour of the region in late February. McCain, whose proposed doctrine of "rogue state rollback" would have required maybe half a dozen military interventions thus far during Arab Spring, was chagrined that "The No. 1 hero in Tunisia" is not President Obama, but "a guy named Mark Zuckerberg." At a minimum, McCain maintained, we should be enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.
Washington's secondary-at-best role in this revolutionary moment is a harbinger of things to come. As historian Niall Ferguson aptly framed the issue last year in Foreign Policy, "There is a zero-sum game at the heart of the budgetary process: if interest payments consume a rising proportion of tax revenue, military expenditure is the item most likely to be cut because, unlike mandatory entitlements, it is discretionary.…U.S. fiscal policy today is preprogrammed to reduce the resources available for all overseas military operations in the years ahead."
An America that is already broke, with unfunded liabilities in the trillions and entitlement trajectories that the president himself has described as "unsustainable" (without doing a damned bit about it), is an America that will no longer be the protagonist in all the world's dramas. This, I believe, is a welcome and long-overdue development. But it won't be easy, or clean.
Freedom is messy. Attempted revolutions in regions that haven't experienced liberalism are guaranteed to have terrifying moments, even decades. The analogical revolutionary year might be less 1989, more 1848. And 1848 didn't end up well for most revolutionaries. Although it is horrible on a basic human level to watch impotently from afar as a delusional thug mows down his own people, that does not mean the U.S. or the international community can produce the best long- or even short-term outcome for the country. Intervention into a country's internal affairs, as last decade taught us the hard way, can have grave unintended consequences.
With America as a bystander, on the other hand, protesters and rebels are seizing the means of democratic production. They are taking ownership of their own future. It's time that we let them.