Playing Arabian Dominos

February 3rd, 2011
Published in Family Security Matters February 3, 2011

Today in the Arab world, we witness a theory in action first articulated almost 57 years earlier by a US president who raised its applicability to a different part of the world. In an April 1954 news conference, with France on the verge of devastating defeat by communist Viet Minh forces in Vietnam, President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed concerns communism could spread throughout the region. He introduced the “Domino Theory” with the following comment: “You have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominos set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”

Twenty-one years later, the US war effort to preserve South Vietnam failed as communist North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon. The bad news was the US had lost that war. The good news–although not recognized until decades later–was by fighting it, the US had bought time for other countries in the region, empowering them with a means to deny communism a foothold. The Domino Theory had wings relevant to communism in 1954 but, by 1975, had lost them–the fall of Saigon marking communism’s last big hurrah.

It was the absence of a primary factor in Southeast Asia that, by 1975, made the Domino Theory outdated; it is that factor’s existence now in the Arab world giving the theory new life. We have watched a brush fire in Tunisia rage into a forest fire as President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali–who ruled for 23 years–was forced on January 14th to flee to Saudi Arabia. Within ten days, the fire had spread to Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak–whose rule is nearly 30 years–is desperately trying to put it out. Two days later, the fire reached Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh–32 years in power–seeks to contain it as well.

Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore was the world’s longest serving prime minister before voluntarily stepping down from power in 1990. His 25 year tenure started as the US buildup in Vietnam was underway and continued through the fall of Saigon, thus providing him with tremendous insights into regional geopolitics. In 1970, Yew made the observation that history would prove America’s entry into Vietnam bought time for countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to strengthen their economies, thus denying the seed of communism the fertile soil needed to take root.

As we watch the fires of discontent rage in the Middle East today, we see a soil that is fertile–not for the seed of communism to take root but for one of change to do so.

This soil is fertile for the same reasons that first gave wings to the Domino Theory. Wherever economies are stagnant or unproductive lies dormant a volcano of discontent capable of erupting from nowhere. In Tunisia, it came when a young vegetable vendor immolated himself to protest low wages and job shortages after police confiscated his cart. As news of this spread via social networks, so too did the riots.

The soil for change in the Arab world is fertilized by stagnant economies suffering from a lack of innovation to make them more robust; from rampant corruption; and from governmental authority abuse. But the soil is also fertilized by a factor in the Arab world today that historically contributes to violence.

The 2005 riots on the Arab street triggered by a Danish newspaper’s cartoon depiction of Mohammad prompted a journalist to observe, “Islam… embraces vast numbers of very angry men…Why?”

Such anger by young Muslims is attributed to what Population Action International calls a “youth bulge.” More than half the Arab world is under twenty. Whenever a country has a high percentage of young men, the tendency is to turn to violence. It is their discontent with unemployment, corruption and governmental abuse that is a powder keg only in need of a triggering spark to ignite.

The danger of violent revolution as a vehicle for change is in not knowing who, ultimately, will end up steering it. The popular 1979 revolution in Iran to topple the Shah and push for human rights was hijacked by Islamist extremists who have proven to be far more brutal on the people than was the Shah. In Tunisia, the leader of the main Islamist organization, Ennahda, absent for 22 years, is returning. In Egypt, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood is maneuvering to get into the driver’s seat. In wishing for revolution for change, one need be careful for what one wishes.

Unfortunately for the US, all three Arab countries in turmoil are allies in the war against Islamist extremists. Whether these revolutions open doors through which Islamists will now pass remains to be seen. But once again, the people of all three countries need to be careful for what they wish.

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