Outlook's Third Annual Spring Cleaning List

Let's get rid of stability

I recently spoke with a Western diplomat who has served in the Middle East for many years. The subject was the tumult of the "Arab spring." Far from welcoming the fact that Arabs were freeing themselves from decades of repression, he seemed almost to lament it. He didn't begrudge them their freedom, but it came at a cost, he said. What precisely? "The S word," he said. "The word we don't like to use anymore — 'stability.' "

Well, good riddance. No one likes chaos, but the West (particularly the United States) was trying to buy stability at too high a price. The United States' passion for it was so great that we were blind to events right before us. When Tunisia began to shake, we thought surely the upheaval couldn't spread, right? Hosni Mubarak's fortune couldn't possibly be shared by Syria's Bashar al-Assad. We knew these regimes were stagnant and sclerotic, but the pro-stability crowd said the desire for change would never produce actual change. Instead, the two regimes to topple first were two of America's closest, most reliable allies in the region. What was more stubborn and antiquated — the regimes or our worldview?

We cling to a Cold War virtue — the desire for the world to remain in balance, in some finely tuned stasis — even though we left that world behind more than two decades ago. In these interdependent, interconnected times, almost every aspect of life is more volatile. Why would the life of states be any different?

And lest we forget, there was a hefty price for others: Our stability was always someone else's repression. And in retrospect, it wasn't very stable, anyway.


William J. Dobson, a former managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a former senior editor for Asia at Newsweek International, is writing a book about dictators.

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