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Arab Spring to Arab Winter: a predictable debacle in the Middle East
James Y. Simms Jr. Aug 8, 20150
Any fair-minded observer of the current situation in the Middle East would conclude that the high-expectations of the Arab Spring have devolved into the debacle of an Arab Winter, sadly from the outset a readily predictable outcome.
The ebullience of the Arab Spring began in mid-winter of 2010-2011, after a protester against the government of Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi, practiced self-immolation. This incident quickly inspired revolts against the dictatorial/authoritarian governments in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.
There was a great deal of excitement in social as well as news media, and among many American and European officials, about the possible success of democratic/social revolutions in these countries. Unfortunately for all concerned, this expectation of Western-style democracies evolving out of the Arab Spring clearly was in conflict with the course and lessons of history — and subsequent events in these countries have validated this observation.
The lesson of history is very straightforward. In the history of mankind, save the American Revolution, there has never been a successful democratic/social/ political revolution over the short-term. Indeed, all social-political-economic upheavals that have followed the American Revolution have quickly devolved into chaos, bloodshed, terror and dictatorship.
A brief survey of the history of revolution since the American Revolution will demonstrate the point. The first revolution to follow the American Revolution occurred in 1789 in France, and it quickly deteriorated into bloodshed and terror. Including the French royal family, more than 60,000 citizens perished from just 1793 to 1795. Dictatorship under Napoleon I soon followed. It was not until 1875 and the Third republic, nearly a century after the start of the French Revolution, that France established a stable and sound democracy.
And subsequent revolutions of historical note, i.e., in Russia, China, Cuba and Iran, supply additional evidence that catastrophic social-political upheaval is typically the result immediately following the overthrow of established orders.
The advent of the Soviet Union brought extensive death and suffering to the Russian people. From June 1917 to 1939, 2 million died in the civil war. From 1918 to 1920, 3 million in a typhus epidemic. Another 5 million perished in the famine of 1921, as did 10 million in the collectivization of farmland from 1928 to 1933. Another 8 million were arrested in the great purge of Russian society from 1934-1939.
The Communist Revolution in China that began in 1949 resulted in 50 million deaths — and horrendous social discombobulation in the “Great Leap Forward.” While operating on a smaller scale, social upheaval in Iran and Cuba brought about the execution, imprisonment and flight of thousands.
History has thus clearly demonstrated that there has been no successful social-political-economic revolution since the American revolt against George III, at least not one that has resulted in a stable democratic order in the short-term. South Korea is an exception, but likely avoided the chaos of revolution by having the guiding hand of American troops, money, and government pressure, which facilitated the transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Given this graphic lesson of history, what could one expect from American policy in the Middle East since 2001 and especially since 2009, when President Obama encouraged people in the Middle East to overthrow their repressive governments? This advocacy of human rights and democracy certainly encouraged the uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria — the Arab Spring. When demonstrations began, U.S. policy quickly took the side of the rebels against the authoritarian regimes which were in power.
The government intervened directly in Libya and Syria with air power, and put great pressure on President Mubarak in Egypt not to crush the rebellion in Cairo. Some — such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham — argued that we had a humanitarian mission in Libya because that country’s dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, might kill thousands while putting down the rebellion. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton joked after Gadhafi’s capture that in Libya, “We came, we saw, he died.”
The results?
For Libya, Syria and Egypt, four years into the Arab Spring, it has evolved into an Arab Winter. We either ignored or were ignorant of the lesson of history that no political, economic, social and democratic revolution has resulted, in the short-term, in a Western-style, human-rights oriented democratic society.
France, England and the United States, ignoring the lesson of history, supported those who rose in revolt against stable dictatorships in Syria, Libya and Egypt, the latter being on very friendly terms with the United States. The results of our policy of intervening in Libya and Syria has been an absolute disaster, and save the generals’ counter-coup against President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, there would have been a disaster there as well.
Recently, columnist George Will called Libya “a humanitarian calamity, a failed state convulsed by civil war and exporting jihadists.” At least 30,000 lives have been lost in Libya. Our policy of support and intervention in the Arab Spring has been in part responsible for the emergence of ISIS out of the tragedy in Syria. The estimates on the number of dead in Syria range from 220,000 to 320,000, and more than 4 million people have been displaced.
ISIS, a vocal enemy of the United States, has committed heinous crime after heinous crime — and now controls parts of Libya, Syria and Iraq. Would the West rather have Moammar Gadhafi or ISIS in Libya, Bashar Assad or ISIS in Syria, Hosni Mubarak or Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Which would Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq choose? And one might also consider what our intervention in Iraq has produced.
When the Arab Spring began, the study of history should have warned the president of the United States, our secretary of state, the British prime minister and the president of France to be more circumspect and to think about the past before leading recklessly with guns and cruise missiles blazing — and with inordinate diplomatic pressure in support of the Arab Spring’s “democratic” movement in the Middle East.
Dictatorships, however distasteful, have been replaced by chaos and greater endangerment for the West. The outcome was predicted by the past. Someone once stated that if we do not study the past we are bound to relive it. The lesson of history is very clear in this case.
Since the American Revolution, there has never been a political, social, economic and democratic revolution that has not produced societal chaos and political dictatorship in the short term, i.e., the next 100 years. Government officials in the United States, England and France should have anticipated the current results of the Arab Spring. Knowledge of the past, of history, is critical in forming decisions that will affect the future.
James Y. Simms Jr. is emeritus professor of Russian and modern European history and director of the National Security Studies Program at the Wilson Center at Hampden-Sydney College. Contact him at JSimms@hsc.edu.
In the history of mankind, save the American Revolution, there has never been a successful democratic/social/ political revolution over the short-term. Indeed, all social-political-economic upheavals that have followed the American Revolution have quickly devolved into chaos, bloodshed, terror and dictatorship.
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