Julian E. Zelizer: Middle East Changes May Defy History

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.]

Even the most hardened realist couldn't help but shed a tear when the news broke that pro-democracy protesters succeeded in ousting the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

For the moment, a peaceful revolution has shaken the status quo in the Middle East. A corrupt government has been brought down by citizens, united by social media, who refused to be intimidated by violence and who insisted on the right to participate in their own political future.

Some skeptics have warned that fundamentalism, not democracy, comes next. They fear that Islamic militants will control the new regime, producing something even worse for Egyptians, and the world. The example they point to is the Iranian revolution in 1979.

To be sure, we don't know what comes next. The dangers posed by certain organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are potentially serious, as is the possibility of permanent military rule.

But policymakers should not be blinded by pre-existing assumptions about international relations. For over a decade, American policymakers have been focused on the threat posed by terrorist organizations that are tied to Islamic fundamentalism.

Yet it is important to be careful in how we approach the changes in the Middle East. After all, another lesson of the 1970s is that sometimes U.S. officials are so driven by a certain set of foreign policy ideas that they miss fundamental changes that are occurring in a region....

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