Two years on, we speak of the Arab rebellions in a manner we never did of the fall of communist dictatorships. A quarter century ago, it was only cranks who bemoaned the end of the communist tyrannies in Europe. There was chaos aplenty in those post-communist societies and vengeful nationalist feuds; those captive nations weren’t exactly models of liberalism. In Yugoslavia, a veritable prison of contending nationalisms, the fall of the state that Josip Broz Tito held together by guile and fear, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder, had put on display the pitfalls of “liberty” after decades of repression. And still, faith in the new history was to carry the day.
That moment in freedom’s advance was markedly different from the easy disenchantment with the Arab rebellions. Those had been dubbed an Arab Spring, and it was the laziest of things to announce scorching summers and an Islamist winter. The Arab dictatorships had been given decades of patience and indulgence, but patience was not to be extended to the new rebellions: these were to become orphans in the court of American opinion. American liberalism had turned surly toward the possibilities of freedom in distant, difficult lands. If George W. Bush’s “diplomacy of freedom,” tethered to the Iraq War, had maintained that freedom can stick on Arab and Muslim soil, liberalism ridiculed that hopefulness. This was a new twist in the evolution of American liberalism. In contrast to its European counterpart, American liberalism had tended to be hopeful about liberty’s prospects abroad. This was no longer the case. The Arab Awakening would find very few liberal promoters.