One thing that history tells us about repressive regimes is that they are what a code slinger would call brittle. I.e., very strong until the first crack appears, at which point the whole thing is likely to come apart rapidly and completely. The key question in cracking repressive regimes, then, is how much pressure is enough to shatter it? Where does the increment of pressure necessary to start the break down come from?
It with this in mind that I wonder about the relationship between President Bush and the fitful waves of liberalization in the Middle East. Clearly it is the case that almost all of the pressure is from the inhabitants of that benighted region. Yet it’s difficult to see how the situation was really much worse in the last couple of years than in the decades before it. It seems to me that Bush should get credit for that last increment that stressed many of the regime past their breaking point. He served not as a cause but as a catalyst. A catalyst doesn’t cause or power a reaction, it simply helps things that already want to react to get over the last little bit of resistance at which point the reactants proceed without further need of the catalyst. I think that we’re still in the middle of the catalyzation and so we need to keep the pressure on, but it seems very likely that by the time the next USA Presidential election rolls around the reaction will have either fizzled out or become self-sustaining.
I also think that this case is different from that of the USSR. Based on history, it seems that the Middle East cultures have a far greater ability to resist the tides of history than even the Russians. Before Bush, you didn’t see the many signs of internal rot in the Middle East that were evident in the USSR (e.g. birth dearth, decreased longevity, falling productivity). It might be that the USSR by its nature required a technologically advanced society the decay of which would have brought down the system. In contrast, the Middle East was filled with far more primitive regimes that would have worked about as well in the 9th century as they do today. While the end of history might eventually have caught with them, I suspect it would have been many generations before then.