As the violence escalates in Libya, Western governments remain tongue-tied and befuddled as they struggle to react to the popular revolts that are sweeping the Middle East. At one moment, they eagerly compare the uprisings to the French revolution or the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the next, they cautiously backpedal, clearly mindful of the threats the revolts pose to the West's strategic and economic interests.
The confusion is understandable. The unrest marks a buoyant reaffirmation of the universal desire for voice and dignity and may well enable democracy to take root in the Middle East. At the same time, the uprisings are not only producing bloodshed, but also toppling regimes on which the West relies for energy and strategic cooperation.
Putting the upheaval in historical perspective buttresses the case for caution.
To be sure, the moment has enormous potential. After all, the arrival of participatory government in the Western world cleared the way for secular nationalism, social cohesion and peaceful relations among stable democracies. But there was plenty of conflict along the way. Democratization in the Middle East promises to be similarly turbulent — and is poised to have quite different effects.
On two key dimensions — the relationship between religion and politics and the link between nationalism and social cohesion — the Middle East is following a trajectory quite different from the West's. If democracy does take root in the Middle East — and the jury is still out — the regimes that emerge may well be much tougher customers than the autocracies they replace.