Thoughts on Revolutions and the Arab Spring

by Nathan on August 30, 2011

A year before his assassination, Julius Caesar prophetically said, as we are told by Suetonius, “Should anything happen to me, Rome will enjoy no peace. A new civil war will break out under far worse conditions than the last one.” Indeed, after Caesar’s death, Rome was embroiled in another civil war lasting 13 years and that concluded with the complete destruction of the Roman Republic. In place of the Republic Rome saw, for the rest of its existence, a series of emperors that wielded complete and total power over the citizenry and state. While each of the emperors varied in the degree in which they exercised their powers, they nonetheless had much more power than Caesar could have ever realistically hoped to have attained. The conspirators and their pro-Republic allies never imagined that by assassinating a man they thought was a dictator in name they were replacing him with 500 years of dictators in fact.

The convulsions that are rippling across the Middle East stemming from the Arab Spring are causing the overthrow of longstanding monarchs and dictators, each with varying degrees of power (and each with varying degrees of friendliness toward the United States). There has been much commentary on the Arab Spring arguing every side of the equation on who the United States should support and what our role should be in the playing out of events.

In response to the criticism that President Obama received for his hesitant approach to the civil discord that broke out in Iran two years ago, Yale historian Paul Kennedy praised his caution. He asked, then quickly answered, “What, specifically, could America do that would help rather than disturb the situation in Iran? The answer is: nothing.” He explained that “after 1945, its [America’s] grand strategy changed in an interesting and fundamental way. Instead of being the last Great Power to join a fight (and thus coming in fresh and strong), it assumed the opposite role: It would place its forces in the front line… [and] that, over time, Americans and non-Americans alike came to expect that if an international crisis arose Washington was the place where the chief decisions would be made, where the buck stopped.”

It really does seem that, when listening to not just political analysts and commentators, every global cataclysmic event needs immediate and decisive action from Washington. You get the impression that American influence is omnipotent and that our ability to make all situations better in the world – in terms of more democracy and stability and less violence – is boundless.

While I believe that the United States is the best country in the history of mankind, and that we have improved the world order for good more than any other, I do think an honest and humble appraisal of our ability to influence the outcome of events like the Arab Spring is a necessary precondition before any intervention in the Middle East. Along with that, a look at some major revolutions throughout history will inform us to their nature and what we can expect.

(The Storming of the Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël c. 1789. Source: Wikipedia)

The French Revolution was the first great question in foreign policy for American statesmen. After serving many years as absolute monarchy under the country’s centuries old Ancien Régime in France, King Louis XVI was overthrown and eventually executed, along with 14,000 other aristocrats or their friends. Many Americans believed that not only were the American and French Revolutions the same in principle and objective, but that the fledgling nation should reciprocate the support that France gave to the colonists in their revolution. Indeed, the Francophile Thomas Jefferson, who returned to the United States after spending many years in France as the Ambassador, commented that “the liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest… Rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.” Jefferson had great expectations of the French Revolution; the way he saw it, the two revolutions were one and the same. John Adams, on the other hand, believed that in revolutions “the most fiery spirits and flighty geniuses frequently obtained more influence than men of sense and judgment; and the weakest man may carry foolish measures in opposition to wise ones proposed by the ablest.” He later wrote to his famous cousin, Samuel Adams, “Everything will be pulled down. So much seems certain.” He then asked “But what will be built up? Are there any principles of political architecture?…Will the struggle in Europe be anything other than a change in imposters?” As events unfolded, Adams’s premonitions, and those of others who cautiously looked upon events in France, were vindicated. Maximilien Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety, which instituted the infamous and bloody Reign of Terror, filled the chaotic void left by the capitulation of Louis XVI. Then in the disarray after the death of Robespierre, Napoleon Bonaparte rose to the occasion and engulfed Europe in two decades of war, causing the loss of millions of lives.

The three big revolutions of the 20th Century – the Bolshevik, Chinese and Islamic (also known as the Iranian) – all followed a bloody trajectory similar to that of the French Revolution. In each of these cases, the sitting ruler and his regime were violently overthrown, with the cheering support of the people who had the expectations of a better government, only to see an infinitely worse government and leader take their place. The bloodshed that the French Revolution inspired – or as Diplomat Charles Hill says “ideologically legitimized” – is astounding. Writing in his Modern Times, Paul Johnson concludes that “The real tragedy of the Leninist Revolution, or rather one of its many tragedies, is that it revived a savage national method of government which was actually dying out quite fast. In the eighty years up to 1917, the number of people executed in the Russian empire averaged only seventeen a year (for all crimes)… the Cheka [Lenin’s security force] was averaging 1,000 executions a month for political offences alone.” Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, two horrific measures enacted during the 33 years of his reign, led to a staggering death toll. Estimates are upward to 40 million people.

And lastly, after popular protests for his removal, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi left Iran in exile in early 1979. In the vacuum left by the Shah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stepped into his place and established a theocratic government based on Islam and under the guise of a ‘republic’ that placed supreme authority in his and his cronies’ hands. And because the new regime was in name a ‘republic’, that is the Islamic Republic of Iran, there was tremendous reluctance in Washington to recognize the danger inherent in supporting it. Bernard Lewis, a Middle Eastern scholar, recalled in a speech to the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa that during the Revolution he was at Princeton University, where he was teaching and still teaches, and saw much support on campus for the Revolution. Skeptical of the unquestioning support of the academic community, he checked out from the library a book by Khomeini called Islamic Government – which he said some commentators referred to as Khomeini’s Mein Kampf – and became very alarmed. Khomeini’s ultimate purpose of the Islamic Revolution, as laid out in the book, was for “a billion Muslims [to] unite and defeat America”, also referred to as “the Great Satan.” Lewis’s struggle to bring the true intentions of Khomeini’s revolution into the light of the American public was very long and hard fought – after all it was many years before Khomeini’s book was translated into English. But finally, he concludes, “People were persuaded to accept the reality of the Iranian Revolution.” Indeed, as Iran is slowly achieving fait accompli nuclear-power status, the illusion of the Iranian Revolution is completely shattered.

What then are we to expect from the Arab Spring? If we have learned anything from the history of revolutions, it is that the only thing you can really expect is that they are chaotic and their outcomes are uncertain. There are many dynamic forces at play – religious, economic, social, political, cultural – in a society that is facing such upheaval. And in the ensuing disorder, the fiery spirits and flighty geniuses that Adams warned against are especially organized, influential, and opportunistic. The Muslim Brotherhood and other such mischievous organizations fit that mold, which is disconcerting for the future of the Middle East. It would be an act of wisdom for the American people and their leaders to cast a cold wary eye on these developments and not be tempted into thinking that we can manage or even harness the tempestuous currents of revolution. At a time when America’s economy is struggling and its population is war weary, an impetuous leap into the morass of Middle Eastern politics, at least without a serious appraisal of our interests, should be avoided.

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