The Arab Spring and the Limits of Western Power
15 June 2011
Popular Struggles in the Arabian Peninsula
and the Persian Proof of Concept
The leaders of many powerful Western nation-states (and here I mean not only the US, but also the great powers, or former great powers, of Europe) have a long history of making idealistic foreign policy proclamations that are subsequently deeply compromised both by political realism and the facts on the ground. Sometimes these compromises are swallowed like a bitter pill and buried in the past as quickly as possible, while under other circumstances compromises take on a life of their own and become an ongoing imperative shaping foreign policy from the highest levels of strategy down to the tactical rules of engagement for boots on the ground.
In recent political thought, President Wilson is frequently held up as an example of pious over-reach whose unrealistic ideals, as summarized in the Fourteen Points, gained neither the ear of the Europeans negotiating peace in Paris in 1919 nor the support of the US Congress for US membership in the League of Nations, the latter being one of the few practical outcomes of Wilson’s grand strategy. In regard to more recent US presidents, every president since Wilson has proclaimed Western ideals of freedom, democracy, constitutionalism, self-determination, and rule of law only to abrogate these edifying statements in the name of diplomatic expediency.
This expediency has come at a high cost in the long term, despite perceived short term benefits. Time and again “pragmatic” and “realistic” policies have come full circle with chickens that have come home to roost, and yet time and again these failures of real politik are ignored, brushed aside or dismissed as inconsequential, as though they would go away if only we do not speak of them. The disconnect between idealistic theory and realistic practice has been particularly glaring in relation to US foreign policy in the Arabian Peninsula and the culturally related areas immediately contiguous. Furthermore, insult has been added to the injury of this glaring disconnect by the old canard of “Arabists” in the US Department of State — “old hands” from the region who play favorites and who have an Arabist bias.
If anyone in the US has a long enough memory to stretch back to the last election season, he or she will remember that one of the big foreign policy issues was dissatisfaction with the Bush Doctrine (particularly in its “democratization” permutation) and the perceived “imperial overstretch” that supposedly resulted from attempts to put the Bush Doctrine into practice.
Truth be told, President Bush did give an inspiring speech in which he remarkably called a spade a spade. This was his speech at the National Endowment for Democracy on 06 November 2003, which includes the following passage:
“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.”
“Therefore the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before, and it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace.”
This argument is so startlingly honest that it is hard to believe that a sitting US president said it, except I guess it doesn’t really matter that he said it because Bush didn’t follow his own policy. And if the Bush administration’s tepid enthusiasm for democratization seemed like imperial overstretch, what are we to make of subsequent retrenchments?
Since the rise of the Arabian Peninsula to central strategic importance as a producer of oil for the industrialized economy, those western powers that were among the first to industrialize, and therefore with the greatest thirst for oil, were forced to engage with the region, and this engagement was almost always in terms of a bias toward stability in order to keep the oil flowing. As is usually the case in human affairs, the more the great powers attempted to impose “stability” on the region, the more unstable, fractious, and combative the region became.
Eventually the region became, in Bush’s words, “a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.” The intelligent thing to do would have been to recognize that the attempt to impose stability was a colossal failure, and to execute exactly the kind of policy change that Bush made explicit in his speech but did not practice. The Obama administration’s renewed commitment to “realism” in foreign policy only assured that no such change would be forthcoming, and therefore the region could be expected to be the beneficiary of further efforts at “stabilization.”
Paradoxically, political “realism” in the name of stability and pragmatism often leads to policies that are highly unrealistic and utterly disconnected with the facts on the ground, and for that reason counter-productive. Many of the Western powers have more-or-less surrendered both influence and intelligence in the nation-states now destabilized by the Arab Spring by having followed “realistic” polities of dealing with authoritarian figures, which latter figures struck deals in which they conceded some central Western strategic demands in exchange for non-interference in their personal rule.
The 1979 revolution in Iran is a good example of this. Western intelligence agencies were virtually blind and powerless, utterly overcome by events, because their “political realism” in engaging with the Shah of Iran prevented them from being in touch with a true political groundswell. The CIA preferred AstroTurf to grassroots. It is probably important to point here that this has nothing to do with increasing US reliance of signals intelligence. Whether SIGINT or HUMINT, if you confine yourself to the hermetically sealed reality of isolated dictators, you’re not going to know what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the people.
The Western powers, despite catastrophic intelligence failure in Iran in 1979, continue to get Iran wrong time and again. This is extremely important at the present moment, even though the Persians are not Arabs, and Iran is not a member of the Arab League, though the Persians are (obviously) among the peoples of the region, and as such are fully integrated into events in the region. In a larger context, Iran, along with the nation-states of the Arab League, belong to what Samuel Huntington called Islamic civilization. As with any unit of analysis as large as a civilization, this category has some truth to it, but also can distort important details. The short version is that Iran has a place in the Arab world, but it is not Arab strictly speaking. Nevertheless, after the 1979 revolution the government of Iran often positioned itself as representing the vanguard of revolutionary political Islam, and in this sweepstakes it was in competition with the likes of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other radical and militant movements emergent from Islamic civilization.
What is important about the 1979 Iranian Revolution is that it demonstrated that an authoritarian leader backed by the Western powers could be thrown out of power by popular revolution — in other words, regime change through popular revolt was possible. (Does this sound vaguely familiar?) Iran provided the proof of concept of a certain species of regime change. This was an object lesson that resonated in the region, and continues to resonate to this day.
Because Iran often finds itself at loggerheads with the Western powers, the Western press usually presents the policies and initiatives of Iran as either inscrutable or malevolent. Iran is called a “rogue state” or a charter member of the “Axis of Evil.” This is not only a mistake, it is also misleading, and potentially catastrophically misleading. The more Iran is misunderstood as a land of “Mad Mullahs” (as, if memory serves, Le Monde Diplomatique once put it), the less it is correctly understood as the rational and calculating power that it is. The brash style of Ahmadi-nejad has encouraged these misinterpretations, and the Western press has played this up, as it has played up the recent split between Ahmadi-nejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
What happens to a nation-state when it experiences a popular revolution that overthrows an entrenched authoritarian and replaces it with a regime more in keeping with the traditions of the people and the region? Iran is one case study that answers this question. Though the Western press portrays the Iranian Revolution as the transfer of power from one despotic regime to another (much like Soviet “liberation” of Nazi-occupied eastern and central Europe), the Iranians themselves see the 1979 revolution as born of a popular mandate and as instituting a popular government. And, more than thirty years later, Iran remains an Islamic Republic and has not been transformed into a dictatorship or a personal authoritarian regime. This is remarkable, but has gone largely unremarked.
The lesson here is that a popular regime with a republican constitution need not look like a Western nation-state, and we should not expect it to look like a Western nation-state. Moreover, the more that the Western powers try to shape events differently than the form they would take in the absence of this diplomatic pressure, the more things will go sideways, and unintended consequences will multiply exponentially. This is the lesson we should have learned after sixty years of failed efforts to stabilize the region. These lessons moreover demonstrate the true limits of Western power.
The definitive ambiguity in Yemen of which I recently wrote is a direct consequence of western dithering in the face of authentic popular movements in the region. If, after Bush had made his democratization speech, the US had consistently pursued this policy, the US would have been able to seamlessly engage all the popular movements of the Arab Spring. As it is, the US (and, more broadly, Western powers) have been largely dealt out of effective engagement in the region. The Western powers continue to be perceived as backing authoritarian stability over popular sovereignty. As a result, the Western powers have few if any levers to exert pressure over these new regimes, which, one way or another, short term or long term, represent the future of the region. The future, as Shevardnadze observed, belongs to freedom.
The Western powers must make peace with the fact that the popular regimes that will emerge in the Arabian Peninsula — whether these emerge in the short term as a result of the Arab Spring, or whether they emerge in the long term as the result of other events (for even in the long term Saudi Arabia must become a constitutional monarchy that ultimately recognizes popular sovereignty and relinquishes arbitrary royal power) — will result in governments, constitutions, regimes, and policies that are not to liking of the Western powers. Many of these policies will precisely resemble the policies of the more retrograde strongmen once supported in the Western powers. In fact, the reason that authoritarian regimes in the region have pursued the policies they have in fact put in place has been to shore up their credentials of popular legitimacy.
We can expect that some popular governments in Arabia will be virulently anti-Western, and almost none of them will agree to the particular set of compromises that have shaped the previous century. On the other hand, these regions will experience true stability, democratic stability that is stable only because it subordinates change to the rule of law. These popular government will also eventually preside over economic growth that will lead its peoples to resume their traditional roles as traders, middle men, merchants, and tradesmen.
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