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America and the Fourth Realignment: A Policy for the New Middle East

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The fall of Tripoli to rebel forces is an important milestone for the Arab Spring, and one in which Western countries should take comfort. As one of only four pivotal examples of large-scale political realignment in the region, the year 2011 represents the first time since the birth of the modern Middle East that Western powers are collectively standing with the bulk of Arab public opinion. Whatever the cost in treasure, the benefits of military action to help the rebels will yield results far beyond what we can imagine today.

Between the post-World War I creation of the Middle Eastern states we know today and the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, there had been three examples of broad political realignment in the Middle East. Most states in the region are fairly young. Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon were born in the 1920s, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel only emerged in the 1930s and 40s. Yet before these borders had been drawn, Arab nationalists were looking to U.S. president Woodrow Wilson to follow through on his stated commitment to national self-determination, the idea that a people should be self-governing and treated fairly within a community of nations. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled and its colonies broke apart, however, Britain and France divided the spoils with the establishment of a Mandate system (read: neocolonial spheres of influence), all while America stood on the sidelines. For the West, divide-and-conquer politics would prove more alluring than any lofty goal of self-determination.

The next point of realignment came in the 1950s, when the secular movement of pan-Arabism swept through the region. Led by fiery Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, pan-Arabism sought to overcome the divide-and-conquer politics etched into the borders of the Middle East and bring about a unified Arab state. Because pan-Arabism was secular and pro-Soviet, and because it was founded on a fundamental opposition to the existence of Israel, America could not support it, and it actively worked to undermine it.

While pan-Arabism's heart may have stopped beating with Israel's sweeping victory in the Six-Day War (1967), it wasn't pronounced dead until the emergence of a new paradigm in the region: Islamism. If there was one important moment for Islamists, it was the year 1979, which ushered in the third realignment. It was on this year that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed, generating a deep sense of resentment against secular forces. It was also in 1979 that the USSR invaded Afghanistan and inspired a wave of jihadists (mujahidoon) to fight against the Soviet atheists. Finally, the Iranian Revolution came on this year, proving once and for all that Islam could serve as a vehicle to topple even the most powerful dictators.

The subsequent decade gave birth to what are now household names of anti-Western activism and violence -- Hezbollah, HAMAS, and finally al-Qaeda, which almost singlehandedly led to a recalibration of U.S. national security policy. Despite the reality that only a minute portion of Muslim activists could be categorized as violent, the potency of Islamic politics helped drive a wedge between the people of the region and the United States.

There is no doubt that the Arab Spring of 2011 represents a fourth realignment, and the first in nearly a century to coincide almost to a tee with stated American aims. The Arab Spring, as if dreamed up by a U.S. head of state, is a pragmatic social movement with economic justice, and yes, democracy, as its core aims. It is a movement that America can and should stand behind.

While the eventual outcome in Libya remains uncertain, what is clear is that acting to support the rebels was the only sensible, strategically-sound course to take. To have done otherwise would have been to suppress the bitter knowledge of how the last one hundred years turned out. We can only hope the fourth realignment, with Arab and American public opinion in relative sync, will change the course of history for the better.

This piece originally appeared on The Daily Grito.