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Fareed Zakaria assesses Arab upheavals in talk at U of M

Fareed Zakaria, TV star, columnist and author, gave a brainy, smooth and mostly quite optimistic lecture on the Arab upheavals Friday at the University of Minnesota.

Finally the Middle East is joining the modern world, Zakaria said. We should be celebrating.

Speaking days before President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, Zakaria also said that the changes sweeping the regions are bad for Al Qaida and a big win for us.

Zakaria, born in India, educated at Harvard and Yale, is now host of a CNN Sunday show and writes for Time and the Washington Post.

Speaking for 40 minutes without notes, he ignored the podium on the stage at the Ted Mann Theater and just wandered the stage summarizing 2,000 years of Arab history in his opening minutes.

Arab culture burst out of its original home in the Arab Peninsula (what’s now Saudi Arabia) in the era of Mohammed and Arabs spread their military control, their culture and especially their new religion over a huge area that includes the modern Mideast and big swaths of Africa, Central Asia and Europe.

But once the expansion stopped, Arab power shrank and shrank. Arabs have really been dominated by outsiders (Persians, Mongols, Turks and — since the 19th century — Westerners) for more than 1,000 years. The modern Middle East still consists mostly of borders drawn by the British and the French after World War I.

In the one-superpower world that took hold after the Soviet collapse, Arab states had to choose whether to accept a form of subservience to Washington, or go the dangerous road of outlaw regimes like Syria, Libya and Saddams Iraq.

Why its a blow to Al Qaida

The rise Al Qaida-style terrorism owed much to the impression. And Zakaria didn’t suggest that this impression was false that the despised Arab regimes of many states were able to exploit and repress their people only because they enjoyed U.S. friendship and support, with the hated kleptocracy of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt as a leading example.

Al Qaida has argued to the angry young men of the Arab world that that the only way to get rid of the quisling tyrants is to embrace a radical Islamicist agenda and attack the United States. That story had some persuasive power in the past.

The 9/11 attack was, to some extent, a message to America that there was a price to playing this game, and in recent years, the United States has lost much of its former will to keep playing it, Zakaria said.

The change in U.S. attitude the dawning awareness on the Arab street that Washington would not necessarily rush in to save the friendly dictators like Mubarak contributed to the willingness of Arab populations to put their bodies on the line demanding change.

Our support for these regimes became qualified, Zakaria said, and the change was sensed by the frustrated populations, symbolized by the calculation of the protesters in Carios Tahrir Square that there was a limit to what the United States would do to save Mubarak. They were right and other countries are following the lead.

Now that peaceful non-Islamicist demonstrators have toppled some of these regimes and the U.S. has been largely accommodating to the topplings, Zakaria said, Al Qaida doesnt have an answer and is losing its raison detre.

We are entering a new phase: and it will be a bumpy ride. But Zakaria rejected the idea that other powers will swoop in as the new sponsors of Mideast dictators. Those relationships are booby prizes, Zakaria said. Let them have it.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/02/2011 - 11:13 am.

    So Zakaria really thinks that no one else will swoop in to a power vacuum? Really? It would be nice, but it seems like a strong case of wishful thinking.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/02/2011 - 11:13 am.

    Having taught Western Civilization for a number of years, Zakaria’s summary of Arab history seems accurate to me. What I don’t know is whether his assessment of the current regimes in the Middle East (including those currently being challenged) is equally accurate. That’s not criticism – I literally don’t know all that much about the details of Middle Eastern regimes and politics.

    Neither Islam nor Christianity have, historically, been especially tolerant of one another, or of any other forms of belief and / or disbelief(e.g., Jews, atheists), and my distrust of theocracy leads me to be cautious about either agreeing or disagreeing with his summation. Religion, at least up to this point, plays a larger role in Middle Eastern societies than it does in the West. As a Westerner, I regard that separation of religion and government as a good thing, but there are plenty on the right who don’t seem to mind the idea of theocracy in the United States, and would like to see church / state separation go away. Should that happen, it’s not just the end of religious freedom. It’s also not inconceivable that a widening of the traditional hostility between Islam and Christianity could take place.

    I hope it doesn’t happen, and that Zakaria is right, but “hope” is not at all the same thing as “belief.”

    A similar cautious attitude might serve us well before we all decide that the killing of Osama bin Laden ends the threat of terrorism, or conversely, that it increases it. Bin Laden’s death does, it seems to me, eliminate the rationale for much of our military presence in the Middle East – unless, of course, we’re really there for so crass and obvious a reason as…um…oil, and “terrorism” simply provided a convenient rationale. There are lots of interesting ramifications here, and not all are pleasant, so I’m inclined to wait and see what happens, both in Washington and elsewhere.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/02/2011 - 05:48 pm.

    Right, Ray–

    Osama Bin Laden was one person, whose most important role may have been in financing terrorism. Al Qaeda is still there, and still just as effective.

  4. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/02/2011 - 08:29 pm.

    Ray, you say that OBL’s death doesn’t end the threat of terrorism, and I fully agree. Then you say that the death somehow *does* eliminate our rational for being in the Middle East. These seem to be contradictory. Try putting aside the accusations in your head and give it another think.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/03/2011 - 09:30 am.

    Assuming that Ray didn’t simply mistype ‘doesn’t’, I suspect that he was referring to 9/11 as the stated (by Bush/Cheney) reason for our invasion of Iraq.

  6. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/03/2011 - 12:46 pm.

    Paul, can you cite any spots where Bush/Cheney stated that we needed to invade Iraq so that we could find OBL? Thanks in advance.

    I don’t know just how much OBL’s death changes the actual math on the ground in Afghanistan. But if this is an event that we can use to declare victory and leave, I won’t complain. I’ve come around to the camp that thinks that we’ve really done all that we can there.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/04/2011 - 09:27 am.

    Reread my post.
    I said that the 9/11 attack was the stated reason for the invasion of Iraq; not a specific hunt for Bin Laden.
    What Cheney said was the SADDAM was responsible for 9/11 (something that as far as I know he never has retracted).

  8. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/04/2011 - 10:59 am.

    Paul, I was going to ask you for a cite again but I thought it would be easier to simply Google it myself. Here you go, first thing that came up:

    Cheney says that Hussein had no role in the planning or execution of 9/11. However:

    Cheney restated his claim that “there was a relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq that stretched back 10 years. It’s not something I made up. … We know for a fact that Saddam Hussein was a sponsor — a state sponsor — of terror. It’s not my judgment. That was the judgment of our [intelligence community] and State Department.”

    The terrorism angle on the Iraq invasion (only one of the reasons) was that 9/11 showed that we had to stop state supported terrorism. Iraq was the most prominent of the state supporters. I know that for many anti-Bush folks this became conflated with accusing Iraq of committing 9/11 but that wasn’t it.

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/04/2011 - 09:47 pm.


    “Cheney Lectures Russert on Iraq-9/11
    After telling a national radio audience last week that there was no connection between the World Trade Center attacks and Saddam Hussein, “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert got an earful on Sunday from Vice President Dick Cheney, who outlined a mountain of evidence tying Iraq to the 9/11 catastrophe.
    Recalling that he had told Russert two years ago that he knew of no Iraqi link to the attack, Cheney said Sunday, “Subsequent to that, we’ve learned a couple of things.”
    The Vice President contended that more recent evidence indicates “that there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the ’90s, that it involved training, for example.”

    Complete story at

    Cheney seems to have changed his story somewhat.

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