“In the south it all started after a group of school students started to write some sort of proclamations and complaints, protesting against growing food prices,” Middle East analyst Vladimir Ahmedov told The Voice of Russia March 24.

Arab-language Syrian press reports and blog posts indicate that the administration of President Basher al-Assad tried to prevent a rise in food prices, but provoked instead a wave of hoarding that has pushed the price of staples like oil and rice “above the purchasing power of consumers,” as the online daily al-Tashreen reported from Damascus March 27.

As I wrote in Food and failed Arab states (Asia Times Online February 2, 2011), the newly prosperous consumers of Asia have priced food grains out of the reach of the destitute Arab poor. This is a tsunami which no government in the region can resist. Of all the prospectively failed states in the region, Syria seemed the least vulnerable, with a determined and vicious regime prepared to inflict unspeakable brutality on its opponents, and its inability to contain unrest is a frightening gauge of the magnitude of the shock.

The Arab bazaar speculates in foodstuffs as aggressively as hedge funds, and the Syrian government’s attempt last month to keep food prices down prompted local merchants to hoard commodities with a long shelf life. Fruit and vegetable prices, by contrast, remain low, because the bazaar does not hoard perishables. The fact that prices rose after the government announced high-profile measures to prevent such a rise exposed the fecklessness of the Assad regime.

In response to the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, President Assad reduced taxes on oil and sugar, and cut import tariffs on basic foodstuffs. This action had unintended consequences. A blogger on the Syrian website sy-weather.com reports, “I spent fifteen days on formalities to reduce customs duties on some basic food items, but I have not seen a glimmer of hope on the horizon. This was supposed to reduce the prices of the targeted goods. On the contrary, a liter of oil that sold for 65 Syrian pounds [US$1.38] now sells for 85 pounds.” That’s an increase of 30% over the month. Other bloggers report that the prices of basic foodstuffs have risen by 25% to 30%.

What happened is seen frequently in Third World command economies: local importers bribe customs officials to control the flow of goods, and then hoard them. “The only beneficiaries of the price-reduction decrees,” the blogger concluded, “are the traders.”
What are essentially dictatorships like Syria rule through corruption. It is not an incidental fact of life, but the primary means of maintaining loyalty to the regime. Under normal circumstances such regimes can last indefinitely. Under severe external stress, the web of corrupt power relations decays into a scramble for individual advantage. The doubling of world food prices over the past year has overwhelmed the Assad family’s ability to manage through the usual mechanisms. The Syrians sense the weakness of the regime, which rests on the narrow base of the Alawi religious minority.

Virtually every sector of Syrian society has a grudge against the Assads, most of all the Muslim Brotherhood, which led an uprising in the city of Hama in 1982 that Hafez al-Assad crushed with casualties estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000. Ethnic fractures have not yet contributed to the unrest, but the country’s Kurds are “ready, watching and waiting to take to the streets, as their cause is the strongest,” as Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, told CNN on March 24.

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From the Straits of Gibraltar to the Hindu Kush, instability will afflict the Muslim world for a generation, and there is nothing that the West can do to stop it. Almost no-one in Washington appears to be asking the obvious question: what should the United States do in the event that there are no solutions at all?

No one, that is, but US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius March 22 that “the unrest has highlighted ‘ethnic, sectarian and tribal differences that have been suppressed for years’ in the region, and that as America encourages leaders to accept democratic change, there’s a question ‘whether more democratic governance can hold … countries together in light of these pressures’.” The implication [Ignatius writes]: ”There’s a risk that the political map of the modern Middle East may begin to unravel too, with, say, the breakup of Libya.”

The Defense Secretary’s Delphic utterance suggests that he has learned a great deal since the 1980s, when as the Central Intelligence Agency’s Russia desk chief he refused to believe that the Soviet Union was headed for a crackup. This time he foresees the chaos to come. But Gates, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, already has announced his eventual departure.

The kibitzer corps of Western policy analysts is competing to offer putative solutions to the region’s problems. What do you do when there isn’t a solution?

In the bad old days of imperialism, the rapacious Europeans looted their colonies, and sometimes, though no fault of their own, left them in better condition than they had found them. That is not true everywhere; in the Congo, the kings of Belgium left nothing but a trail of pain.

India, though, was first unified by the British, who gave it a civil service, the example of a parliamentary system, a railroad system, and a national language; although the British interest in the subcontinent was predatory not philanthropic, India benefited in some respects from the Raj. The British, rather like Goethe’s devil, were the spirit that always wanted to do evil but at least sometimes did good.

Former president George W. Bush wanted to build democracy, and the Barack Obama administration has embraced the “Arab spring” with the enthusiasm of a Sorbonne undergraduate in May 1968. “Helping to get them right” is “a challenge for American foreign policy as any we have faced since the end of the Cold War,” as William J. Burns, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee March 17:

The revolutions … are about the brave, proud, and determined people of Arab societies, intent upon better governance and more economic opportunities, intent upon erasing the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled that for so long has been so stifling for so many. And they’re about the universal values that the President spoke about two years ago in Cairo – the right of peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, and the right to determine one’s own destiny … ”It is a moment of great possibility for American policy and help; a moment when the peaceful, homegrown, non-ideological movement surging out of Tahrir Square offers a powerful repudiation of al-Qaeda’s false narrative that violence and extremism are the only ways to effect change.”

This flight of fancy was flagged by the Israel-based analyst Barry Rubin (at rubinreports.blogspot.com). The administration’s romantics, such as Samantha Powers, the Irish human-rights activist who once called for UN troops to take over the Israel-Palestine conflict, and United Nations ambassador Susan Rice, appear in charge of Middle East policy. Anyone who doubts that ideology trumps raison d’etat in the Obama White House should read Stanley Kurtz’ just-published book, Radical-in-Chief.

The Republicans for the most part are competing with Obama to show that they can do a better job of fixing the Middle East. “Barack Obama’s union base is looking like a national security issue,” complains Daniel Henninger in the March 24 Wall Street Journal, because the unions oppose free trade agreements that he thinks would fix Egypt’s economy.

Never mind that two-fifths of Egyptians are illiterate and that (according to Egypt’s new Finance Minister Samir Radwan) ”the products of the education system are unemployable.” Henninger’s advice recalls the anecdote about the operatic tenor who drops dead of heart attack onstage. “Give him an enema!,” calls an elderly Jewish lady from the balcony. The attending doctor replies gravely, “Madam, the man has suffered a massive coronary!,” to which the old woman replies, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt!”

Like most of his colleagues in the commentariat, Henninger feels obliged to offer a solution. He writes, “Many people in US public life don’t want to get involved with this Middle East tangle. Alas, the gods do not ordain a timeline for crises. These insurrections – now spread across 11 separate nations – are a big, historic moment, similar in some ways to what happened around Eastern Europe before the Berlin Wall fell. The US didn’t blow that one. What’s needed now is an equivalent level of leadership and strategic thinking to ensure we don’t fall on the wrong side of this one.”

It is worth recalling just what happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall. America won the Cold War not by enticing the Soviet Union into democratic reforms but by proving to Russia’s generals that they couldn’t win – by installing missiles in Germany that could hit Moscow in four minutes, by shredding Russian forces in Afghanistan, by demonstrating the weakness of Russian avionics, and by threatening (in part as a bluff) to build a missile defense system.

The result was to bring ruination to the Russian economy and ruin tens of millions of lives. Male life expectancy plunged into the mid-50-year range largely due to alcoholism, and millions of Russian women turned to prostitution.

After the Cold War, American free marketeers fanned out like missionaries to spread the capitalist gospel around the world. In some respects we succeeded. Asia listened, and flourished. During 1992-1993, I was one soldier in the small army of American economists and policy advisers who set out for parts East to bring the American economic gospel to our former enemies. My business partner at the time was the late supply-side pundit Jude Wanniski. Political friends arranged my appointment as an economic adviser to Yegor Gaidar, then Boris Yeltsin’s finance minister and later prime minister. I traveled to Moscow several times to promote a plan to stabilize Russia’s collapsing currency.

Yeltsin had not yet invited the oligarch Roman Abramovich to move into an apartment at the Kremlin, which he did in 1996. But it did not take long to see that the job description of an “economic adviser” was to find means for Russian officials to steal everything available and bank the proceeds abroad. This was not so much corruption as free-for-all looting.

The Yeltsin government, it was later explained to me, was “the family office” (the investment management arm) of Abramovich, a former small-time player now worth 11 figures. There were no restraints because communism had erased Russian civil society and made the people passive and despondent. Russian democracy under Yeltsin allowed the sheep the right to vote about whatever it liked while the wolves ate their fill. It took a restoration of the old security services in the person of Vladimir Putin to restore a degree of order.

Russia remains a crippled giant, a raw-materials monoculture dependent on more than ten million foreign workers to compensate for its demographic decline. And Russia was a superpower that nearly beat America in the Cold War, the first country to send a man into space, the home to many of the world’s best scientists and mathematicians.

The Muslim world has not produced an innovation of note in seven centuries; except in Turkey, it lacks a single university that can train students to world standards (and only 23% of Turkish students finish high school). To expect the Arab Middle East to compete with Asia in light manufactures or information-technology outsourcing is whimsical.

Iran might have had a chance before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but most of its human capital has long since fled. Pakistan is a half-illiterate failed state. Turkey has kept its head above water, but just barely, as I reported last week (The Heart of Turkness, March 22, 2011); Indonesia and Malaysia have more to do with emerging Asia than the Middle East. The only pocket of Arab population with an economic future might be the West Bank territories, where the gravitational pull of Israel’s high-tech economy draws in Arabs educated at universities founded after Israel conquered the region in 1967. At the University of Samaria on the other side of the Green Line, one sees scores of young Palestinian women in headscarves.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt understands the local situation much better than American policymakers of both parties. As Israeli officials observe, it has no ambition to rule Egypt for the moment, for the Brothers believe that Egypt’s position is hopeless for the time being. No matter who is in power for the immediate future, the country will descend into chaos. The Brotherhood will wait in the wings, hoping to emerge as a national savior at some future date.

What might emerge from the Arab world two or three generations from now is beyond anyone’s capacity to foresee. As individuals, Arabs are as talented and productive as anyone on earth. For the time being they are caught in the maelstrom of a failing culture. The social engineers of the neither the American left nor right will ”get them right,” in Undersecretary Burns’ grammatically challenged expression.

Gates is right: the existing political structures will not hold. As he told David Ignatius, ”I think we should be alert to the fact that outcomes are not predetermined, and that it’s not necessarily the case that everything has a happy ending … We are in dark territory and nobody knows what the outcome will be.” As I said of Egypt in my February 2 essay: we do not know what kind of state will follow Basher Assad. We only know that it will be a failed state.