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Letter from the Editor: July/August 2011

There’s something for everyone in this issue of World Affairs—something new, something old, and something déjà vu all over again.

Three close observers of dictatorship, revolution, and democracy offer contributions that clarify both the promise and the sobering challenges of the Arab Spring. Michael Zantovsky presents an exemplary exercise in compare and contrast as he considers the ways in which the revolutionary turbulence driving the Arab Spring does—and does not—resemble the profound global sea change brought about by the 1989 revolutions in Europe. It’s more complicated, but it seems that the similarities of the respective revolutions suggest hope, whereas the differences do not.

Jim Sciutto, a seasoned ABC foreign correspondent who has watched recent events in North Africa and the Middle East on the ground and in real time, looks at repression and revolution from the vantage point of modern-day dictators and finds their motivations and behavior as boringly predictable as they are vile and chilling. Yet it appears to him that the tables are turning and the once feared and fearless are clearly afraid.

And Joshua Muravchik looks at the role the United States—the indispensable nation—is playing in Libya, and specifically how the much-touted doctrine du jour, “Responsibility to Protect,” has guided America’s response to developing events. Joshua finds little new or improved about this UN-friendly “use of force” doctrine, and unfortunately the flaws and obstacles that will hinder its application look familiar as well.

Commentary and analysis aside, there is something very new and extraordinary about the young and old Arabs who have mobilized by the thousands throughout the Middle East to protest openly, fight bravely, and too often die heroically to liberate themselves from generations of despotic rule in the name of an unmistakably democratic—if still a little blurry—vision. And it is not without irony that just as this democratic pulse tentatively began to beat, the heart of the Arab world’s most famous warrior—a man who waged holy war on the world’s democracies and on democracy itself—ceased altogether. We asked Jacob Heilbrunn to comment on the demise of Osama bin Laden—a man, a legend, and, time will tell, perhaps something of a relic, a decrepit reminder of a spent movement that has grown as tired and weary as had the villain himself. Indeed, it is noteworthy—and cause for hope—that the so-called Arab Street’s reaction to the US Navy SEAL team’s takedown of OBL was marked by what seemed to be subdued, token, and scattered defiance—scenes that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the consuming power and moral authority of the calls for democracy that thunder down those same streets, leaving us to wonder if the call for global jihad has been eclipsed, virtually overnight, by the call for democracy.

These pieces, and others, collaborate to tell us where we’ve been and where we are today—and perhaps offer a glimpse of where we’re going as a part of our world previously inhospitable to democracy dares to hope, as powerful new forces of change struggle courageously against the heavy gravity of history.

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