The ongoing upheaval in the Arab world (and in Iran) has rendered a definitive judgment on U.S. policy over the last decade. Relying on their own resources and employing means of their own devising, the people of the Middle East intent on transforming that region have effectively consigned the entire "war on terror" to the category of strategic irrelevance.
When first conceived in the wake of 9/11, two convictions underpinned that war. According to the first, precluding further attacks on the United States meant that the Islamic world needed to change. According to the second, because Muslims were manifestly unable to change on their own, the United States needed to engineer the process, with American military might serving as catalyst. Freedom (or at least submission) would issue from the barrel of a GI's assault rifle.
In Afghanistan, then Iraq and now, of course, AfPak, U.S. efforts to promote change have achieved — at best — mixed results. Meanwhile, the costs incurred have proved painfully high. In terms of treasure expended, lives lost and moral authority squandered, Americans have paid a lot and gotten precious little in return.
It now turns out that those exertions were unnecessary or, at the very least, superfluous. For nine years, the U.S. has been pushing in on a door that opens outward. More amazing still, that door swings open of its own volition. Events of the last several weeks have made it abundantly clear not only that important parts of the Islamic world are ripe for change but that the impetus for change comes from within. Transformation is not something that outsiders can induce or impose or control. The process is organic, spontaneous and self-sustaining.
So poor Muslims tired of living in squalor, and the not-so-poor fed up with suffering under the boot of corrupt authoritarian regimes (not infrequently allied with the United States), don't need Washington's coaching. They don't need us to "liberate" them. They are perfectly capable of liberating themselves. And their doing so basically doesn't cost the American taxpayer a nickel.
Whether Muslim self-liberation will see the rise of prosperous, stable, liberal democracies, tolerant of Israel and friendly to the West, remains to be seen. Yet with the United States doing little more than bearing witness — no need for an Operation Egyptian Freedom consuming hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives — the prospects of democratic change in Egypt and elsewhere in the region are greater today than at any time in memory.
For the inhabitants of the Islamic world, the moment is rich with possibility. For Americans, that moment is equally rich in irony.
Intent on positioning themselves on "the right side of history," senior U. S. officials busily amend whatever pronouncements they issued a week ago, hoping no one will notice. Determined to sustain the pretense that the United States remains capable of exercising "global leadership," pundits and policy analysts discreetly tap into Al Jazeera English in hopes of figuring out what's actually going on.
Yet Americans might also consider this an educational opportunity, with humility and contrition the order of the day, seasoned perhaps with a glimmer of hope. Here's what we should learn.
First, when it comes to divining history's purposes and intentions, the world's only superpower is clueless. "The whole drama of history," the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed, "is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management." True when he wrote it more than half a century ago, the passage remains true today, notwithstanding the wonders of computers, iPhones and social networking.
Second, to disregard Niebuhr's counsel is to incur severe penalties. Arrogance invites punishment. The punishment that the United States has sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan merits not simply remembrance but sorrowful reflection: These were needless losses. For those who once advocated preventive war as the shortest path to peace, sackcloth and ashes might be appropriate.
At the same time, however, we might take some small consolation in this: The demonstrators filling the streets in Cairo, Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers, Manama, Sana and Tehran give every indication of dreaming dreams not entirely dissimilar from our own. Rather than rejecting modernity, as radical Islamists such as Osama bin Laden have urged, these protesters want a bigger slice of what modernity has to offer. Though not guaranteeing harmonious coexistence, this convergence of aspirations does suggest that a cosmic clash of civilizations is avoidable.
If the Muslim masses demanding political freedom and economic opportunity prevail, they will do so not thanks to but despite the United States. Yet by liberating themselves, they will also liberate us. Our misbegotten crusade to determine their destiny will finally end. In that case, we will owe them a great debt.
By Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War.