My worries about where America is leading us were increased by a recent visit to Tunisia, which I found fascinating. I also found it extremely sad, because tourism has suffered tremendously, since the Arab Spring, which it will be remembered began in Tunisia just 2 ½ years back.

What happened in Tunisia seemed to me welcome, because the regime there had undoubtedly been a dictatorship. Ben Ali, the President who was finally got rid of after over 20 years, had in fact abolished the Presidency for Life when he took over from Bourguiba, the hero of independence. Bourguiba had become President for Life, and then got increasingly incapable so he had to be deposed.

But though Ben Ali restored elections, he ensured that he was always re-elected, and himself grew increasingly out of touch with reality. And, unlike Bourguiba, who had affirmed valuable ideals at the time of independence – including a determination to release women from the restrictions traditions imposed on them, a litmus test I feel as to whether a society is progressing – Ben Ali seems to have been interested largely in benefits for himself and his family.

This did not mean that Tunisia did not develop. It has an excellent road system, and agricultural productivity is high, in the areas that can be cultivated. It also developed a thriving tourist industry, given the excellent amenities on its extensive coastline, and the fact that it is a relatively small country with easy access to the main tourist areas. Sadly, as is generally the case with the type of package tourists such countries attract, there was not so much concern with the fantastic range of historical buildings the country possesses, but these too were readily accessible to keen visitors.

There are hardly any visitors at those sites now. We had the superbly atmospheric ruins at Thuburbo Majus to ourselves while we were there, and even in the more renowned Dougga there was just one group, of Japanese. Only one other room was occupied, by Tunisians, at the extraordinary underground hotel in Matmata, and the driver who took us across the desert where boards advised care as to crossing camels said that tourism had crashed after the revolution.

This surprised me, because I thought the revolution had had the blessings of the West, and the regime that has emerged is in no way extreme. But there is continuing political unrest, as I was told by our ambassador in Lebanon, perhaps the most intellectually active member of our Foreign Service today, whom I happened to meet at the airport on the way out. The President had had to resign, I believe because of fundamentalist pressures – and though these may not amount to much, the way they are reported, as my interlocutors in Tunisia noted, leads to diffidence about visiting on the part of many Westerners.

It may be unfair to blame the Americans for the wholesale destruction of democracy in these countries, and I should note here that what countries like ours do in response to American pressures is equally destructive. We cannot pass on the responsibility for such reactions, and must strive to ensure balance in what we do. But at the same time I am astonished that the Americans have still not realized that the consequences of their polarized and polarizing view of international relations, Cleon rather than Diodotus in the dichotomy Thucydided expounded over 2000 years ago when talking about the Athenian destruction of Mytilene, is ultimately fatal to their own interests too.

Fifty years ago, when they first allowed the British to dragoon them into destroying democracy in Iran, they helped the Shah to stifle all outlets for dissent. So, when dissent broke out irrepressibly, as dissent must when pressures are unbearable, the only institutions able to provide backing were the religious ones. And, sadly, because the Americans were unable to distinguish between religion and fundamentalism, continuing opposition strengthened fundamentalism in Iran – as the Americans have now realized, in regretting their failure to accept the olive branches held out by President Khatami, Ahmadenijad’s predecessor.

Incidentally, that I think answers the point made by the German ambassador, who noted the immense gratitude of his country and others to the Americans, for their support in building up democracy in the countries they had overcome in the Second World War. The point is, in the forties, through the Marshall Plan and a commitment to democracy, the Americans helped rebuild democratic institutions in Germany and Japan. But somewhere in the fifties, democracy became less important than capitalism (or rather adherence to the West against the Soviets), so even the basic redistribution post-colonial societies required was considered dangerous socialism, and opposed vehemently – as happened with regard to India too.

Americans must realize that the dislike much of the Third World feels for them (including those they pushed into power, such as the Taleban many elements in the current Libyan government), as opposed to the affection of the Germans and Japanese, suggests that something went wrong when what they saw as practical politics trumped principles, somewhere in the fifties. But the sausage machine has now taken over, and despite all Obama’s intellectual capacity, I suspect he will not be able to change things.

This is a pity, for what is happening in Tunisia suggests that, unless confidence is restored and the economy begins to thrive, there will be further unrest soon. Two young men, in the course of otherwise open conversation, affirmed the supremacy of their religion, which will inevitably be seen as the only solution in a world in which other theories have no traction. And in such cases it is the extremist and intolerant version of the religion that is propagated, not the pluralistic approach that had flourished in Tunisia. Its own religious traditions, as I found, are inclusive as befits its history – but those are not what will hold sway if resentments develop.

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