Shortly after the Bush Administration began to lay the publicity groundwork for the invasion of Iraq, I read a very prescient piece based on an interview with one Paul Wolfowitz, who at that time was the Deputy Defense Secretary. The piece wisely saw that a burgeoning youth population, high unemployment, corruption and disenfranchisement was certain to incite revolts-- and it went on to predict that most of the Arab world's dictators would fall in revolutions because of these factors. It was hoped by Wolfowitz that once the Arab world saw a functioning, stable, prosperous Arab democracy, they would begin to demand it in their own nations, sweeping away corrupt tyrants and ushering in an era of peace and democracy in the Arab world instead of worse alternatives. Iraq was to be the beacon, leading the way forward. It was certainly a grand throw of history's dice.. a bloody and expensive one at that.
Alas we have arrived, though Iraq certainly was not the beacon Wolfowitz has hoped for-- but neither do you see these revolutions taking place in Iraq. In my humble opinion, this is not about Islam. It's about unemployment and disenfranchisement. In all of the cases so far.. Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, Yemen and Bahrain-- there were dictators in place, high unemployment and frustration. They were disenfranchised. Now they are (or will soon be) gone. There was today the beginnings of serious demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, a day after King Abdullah threw a ton of money at some of the Kingdom's social and economic problems. For the youth of these nations, it was their first taste of enfranchisement and power-- and they liked it, as well they should.
Prediction Time !! I don't see any pan-Arab Caliphate coming. Each of these nations has a differing set of variables and so likely have different outcomes. In Egypt and Tunisia, the Army will hold power for a time. I do believe that elections will be held in Egypt. I'm not so convinced about Tunisia. In Libya, Colonel Qaddafi will lose and will flee the nation, followed by another Army government and shortly thereafter elections. Bahrain is more of a religious thing.. most of the people are poor and Shiite, and the ruling family is rich and Sunni. I think the royal family will be forced to leave, and a Shiite government will take over-- and this will quite likely mean the eviction of the US 5th Fleet. As for Saudi Arabia, I believe that in time the King will be given the choice of a constitutional monarchy (like Britain) or being kicked out completely-- but I'm not convinced it's going to be anytime soon. Algeria is also on the bubble, and I see Boutaflika also being forced into exile. Will these people be able to produce some form of democracy ? I say yes.. Egypt almost certainly, the others not so certain, but it will take hold in a number of these nations. Unknown to most westerners, the vast majority of people in these nations want what we want.. peace, prosperity and democracy. There are huge numbers of educated, young, urbane college grads in the Arab world.. these are the people you see in the streets demanding change, not radical jihadis. But in all of these there is also a radical element.. perhaps a fifth of the population.. who want to turn back the hands of time to the 14th Century. But I say that history moves forward for the most part, Ayatollah Khomeini being one of the few exceptions. I also expect that the mullahs in Tehran will one day be forced to yield power. Forcing democracy is one thing.. providing reasonable employment is quite another. Many of these nations have very high birth rates and (except for crude) no natural resources. What would they produce ? The world only needs so many t-shirt plants. But even a dirt poor democracy is better than dirt poor kleptocracy. This is a situation which will be revisited with increasing frequency on the African continent.
Now we come to the uglier part of this piece-- crude oil. Today Brent Crude (Europe's main source of crude) touched $120/bbl-- levels not seen since 2008. West Texas Intermediate Crude (the US oil) went north of $110/bbl. Most of this was on the news out of Libya, where today it was announced that the half the nation's crude exports had ceased. There were also rumors that Colonel Qaddafi, never one to espouse reason or sanity.. would blow up his nation's oil wells and turn the place into a gigantic Kuwaiti oil rig fire. Libya usually produces about 1.5 million barrels per day.. total world production is something like 83mm barrels per day. But the world is using much more oil than before; supplies were already tight before this. Algeria produces roughly the same amount as Libya does. Combined, this would be a tough loss, sending prices soaring. Depending on how bad things get-- and they might get very ugly-- we could see $4.00 gasoline again this summer, kneecapping any hopes Obama had of a recovery. If something serious were to happen in Saudi Arabia, look out-- $6.00/gal is quite possible-- and if this lasts for some time, it could be a "Game Over" event. But talk of such things is still premature. I fully believe that more kleptocrats will be swept away this spring and that $3.50 gas is a reality we're going to have to learn to live with for the short term. Oddly enough, I'm happy for the peoples of these nations who will finally have a say in how they are governed. Let's just hope that it does'nt bring catastrophe upon our own economy in the process.