Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.
- Act 4, Scene 5 of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 2
Do you think that the Arab regimes not yet facing large street demonstrations have time to read Shakespeare?
If the anxious advisors of some sheikh or emir should glance at the above scene (where a old king counsels his successor on how to use foreign adventures to keep his subjects distracted and divided), they may see a path out of their current predicament.
But with whom could they pick “foreign quarrels” to “waste the memory of the former days?”
Israel, perhaps? No – too likely to end in military humiliation. Turkey? Same problem.
The US/UK/Europe? The only real weapon the Arabs have against the West would be an oil embargo. Right now, the oil sheikhdoms need every dollar possible, should they have to buy their way out of any domestic trouble. (Money can be as useful as foreign wars when it comes to helping quiet “giddy minds.”)
So an oil embargo is out.
How about rushing into a foreign quarrel with Iran?
Historically, there is not much love between Sunni Arabs and Shi’ite Persians. Plus, there are still some sore feelings over what many Arabs consider to be the Iranians' illegal seizure in 1971 of some tiny islands in the Persian Gulf.
A united Arab front against Iran might have benefits beyond giving the crowds in the streets a chance to vent their anger against an easy target. It may also give those Western governments bucking for a confrontation with Iran good reason to stop calling on the rulers of Libya, Yemen, etc. to accede to protestors’ demands.
“Well, yes, Egypt’s new rulers are no saints…but at least they are with us on Iran,” could be one way for the West to rationalize standing down on pressing for more democracy in the Arab states.
A fight with Iran might be politically useful in the short-term for the Arab countries. It wouldn’t do much for their long-term problems.
I would much rather see the Arab governments united, not around a foreign adventure against Iran, but in the equivalent of a war against their own economic backwardness, against the poor job prospects of their young, against the high food prices bedeviling average people, and so on.
If ever there was a moment for the Arab equivalent of an Alexander Hamilton or Robert Morris, a Nicholas Biddle or Jay Cooke to emerge, and lead the Arabs towards the economic renaissance they should be seeking, it is now.
An economic renaissance is what the Arab rulers need to peacefully calm the giddy minds of their people. But I fear what the Arab masses are more likely to get from their hard-pressed rulers are more foreign quarrels.