Once again, European and American policymakers are surprised by a sweeping popular uprising. The outcomes and implications of what is currently happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Syria, and other countries of the Middle East are far from clear, and the circumstances in all the affected countries are different. But the surprise factor is common to all of them.
In one sense, nothing should be more predictable to American and European leaders than people asserting their desire for political change where there is oppression. Within living memory, the civil rights movement in the United States and the 1989 fall of communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe register as examples right in our own backyards.
But when it happens "somewhere else," it seems to come as a bolt from the blue. The United States was surprised by Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. American and Western European leaders were taken by surprise at the sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of regimes behind the Iron Curtain. The fall of the Shah of Iran caught American policymakers unawares, as did the 2009-10 protests against the regime that had replaced him.
Surprises occur in the politics of every country, whether authoritarian or democratic. But something about authoritarian regimes-their brittleness, their dependence on strong personalities, their ability to project an impression at the official and diplomatic levels that is remote from the truth of what their populations are thinking and feeling-makes them very difficult for democratic leaders to read accurately. In the case of Egypt, if news reports are accurate, the uprising has wrong-footed Israel, whose peace with Egypt has been a central feature of Israeli and American regional policy for 30 years. No country has invested more talent into understanding Egyptian politics than Israel. Yet Israel was surprised by the turn of events in Cairo.
Part of the difficulty we have in seeing the next surprise is the "social science" mentality of the West and our policy processes. We want empirically validated conclusions with which to extrapolate trends into the future; such methods are useful, but they do not predict when a small fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid will cross the threshold of despair into self-immolation, and take a regime with him. And they do not predict how those in nearby countries will react to such upheavals. It is this unpredictability of the human reaction to oppression that makes these surprises inevitable.
Of course, ahead of the surprise, the arguments on whether and how to deal with such regimes are well-rehearsed-stability versus potential disruption, interests versus beliefs and ideals, the devil-you-know versus the unknown. These dilemmas are real-and ultimately unresolvable. Not all political "reformers" are in favor of political freedom, not all revolutions succeed. And when it comes to dealing with the surprises (or the prospect thereof), American presidents are often caught playing catch-up as the scenery changes, reversing course from their first instincts. The Bush administration backed off from supporting political change in Egypt due to fears that the alternative to President Mubarak would be both anti-democratic and hostile to the United States and Israel. The Obama administration has done its own volte face from its original policy, pressed by events into calling over the weekend for a transition to democratic rule in Egypt. And caution in such cases is in order - pushing ahead with support for elections among Palestinians, Bush got Hamas; elections in Venezuela brought Hugo Chavez - who now cooperates with Iran - to power, to name just two of many examples.
There is, and can be, no general rule for dealing with authoritarian governments, nor a perfect predictive tool for when such governments will fall or what will replace them. But a few generalizations are possible. First, the eventual strategic consequences of events like those we are seeing in the Middle East and North Africa today are more profound that any externally induced strategic program could hope to achieve. Such moments of political crisis-like 1989 in Europe-can usher in the largest possible strategic changes, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Second, the precise results of such changes cannot be foreseen, and while they can perhaps be influenced, they cannot be controlled-and there will be a wide array of forces seeking to capitalize on the crisis for good and ill. But, third, to the extent that Europe and the United States hold democratic aspirations and norms to be universal, we should expect that oppressive regimes will eventually reap the consequences of contradicting such aspirations. That should come as an opportunity rather than a surprise, one that our leaders should constantly discuss and plan for.