Voice

A Revolution, with Qualifications

What the naysayers got right about the Arab Spring.

Over the last several months, there has been very little good news from the Arab world, and a lot of very bad news: bloody stalemate in Libya, Yemen, and Syria; ruthless repression in Bahrain; ongoing military rule in Egypt; growing restlessness and frustration in Tunisia. The waning of the Arab Spring has been deeply disheartening to both democratic activists in the Middle East and their enthusiasts abroad -- i.e., folks like me. It has, however, offered a gratifying sense of vindication to the stern realists who always viewed the whole thing as a mass delusion. I'm thinking of you, George Friedman.

Friedman is the armchair Metternich of Stratfor, a "global intelligence" firm whose highly informed analyses of world events -- often by former intelligence officials -- have been arriving, uninvited but very welcome, in my e-mail inbox for the last few years. Friedman -- sorry, "Dr. George Friedman" -- is Stratfor's founder and CEO, an international affairs theorist of the old school who views geopolitics as the clash of state interests. The good doctor is thoroughly immune to the American habit of falling in love with democratic movements abroad. In the most recent installment of his "Geopolitical Weekly," Friedman dismisses the idea that the Arab world is now experiencing a "revolution." Elsewhere he has written, "There is no Arab spring, just some demonstrations accompanied by slaughter and extraordinarily vacuous observers."

Hear him out. A minimal requirement for a revolution is the upending of an existing regime -- and, as Friedman points out, even in countries like Egypt where the ruler has been forced from office, the military regime remains firmly in power. (His case is weaker in Tunisia.) Compare the situation to the genuine revolution that toppled one regime after another in the former Communist bloc in 1989. There, entire populations overwhelmed despised governments. Much the same happened in Iran in 1979. The Arab world, by contrast, has seen street demonstrations, lead by the young and the well-educated. "The most interesting thing in Egypt," Friedman has written, "is not who demonstrated, but the vast majority who did not." These limited demonstrations succeeded only in persuading the military to get rid of President Hosni Mubarak. Elsewhere, the mass movements have produced stand-offs rather than victories.

Friedman is right that Arab regimes have had far more staying power than democracy advocates in the West naively imagined. Libya is the example par excellence: The Western narrative was that once NATO openly sided with the rebels, the worm-eaten Qaddafi regime would collapse, even if Qaddafi and a few loyalists would fight on to the bitter end. As the bombing continued week after week, some people -- me, for example -- sagely noted that the aerial assault on Kosovo took 76 days to bring Serbia to its knees. About double that time has passed, and only now does Qaddafi's grip on Tripoli appear to have seriously weakened. The Arab Spring has stalled because key sectors -- tribes in Libya and Yemen, business elites and ethnic minorities in Syria, the upper ranks of the military in Egypt -- have either stuck with the regime or stayed on the sidelines.

So 2011 is not 1989. What is it then? A flash in the pan? "The key principle that appears to be driving the risings," Friedman wrote in February shortly after Mubarak's fall, "is a feeling" that regimes "enriched themselves beyond what good taste permitted." This is like saying that Marie Antoinette's shepherdess parties provoked the French Revolution. But Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, did not set himself on fire because President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali ran a kleptocracy, but because that kleptocracy had destroyed his dignity and reduced his prospects to nothing -- which is more or less why the French stormed the Bastille. Unarmed citizens are braving bullets in Syria not because they feel that President Bashar al-Assad is unseemly, but because they view him as cruel and illegitimate. And while Arab citizens hate their corrupt and contemptuous leaders, they have also stopped accepting the autocratic rules which for so long they took for granted. This force will not be put back in a bottle.

The Arab Spring is, in fact, some kind of revolution; it seems niggling to withhold the term. But what kind? As Friedman notes, some revolutions, like the 1848 uprisings in Europe, do ultimately lead to a liberal transformation, even if regimes weather the first storm of protest. That would be the hopeful precedent. Others, like 1979 in Iran, produce a reactionary transformation. So if you accept the premise that, despite all the frustration and the reversals, something very large is happening in the Middle East which will ultimately lead to a different political order, the second-order question is: What will that order look like? Friedman gloomily concludes that "the places where the risings have the most support are the places that will be least democratic" -- presumably Yemen or Libya -- "while the places where there is the most democratic focus," such as Egypt, "have the weakest risings."

Of course, one of the most fundamental differences between Europe in 1989 and the Middle East today is that the former had deep experience of liberal rule and liberal political principles, and the latter has known little beyond autocracy. The tribalism, ethnic fragmentation, and low levels of development that kept the Arab world a democracy-free zone until now also make it unlikely that the old order will soon be supplanted by liberal democracy. Tunisia is not Poland.

But 1989 is an unfair standard. The threshold question should be: Will the new regimes be more liberal, more democratic, more accountable, and less grossly self-aggrandizing than the ones they replace? And the answer is: they could hardly fail to be. To be sure, they could fail either if states descend into chaos or if Islamist extremists gain the upper hand. Both scenarios have been hyped by Arab rulers, who depict themselves as the only bulwark against anarchy or fundamentalism. One could imagine the former happening in Yemen or Libya, and the latter perhaps in Syria. But they are hardly the likeliest outcome. Even Friedman, when he's not lashing out at vacuous observers, acknowledges that the Arab Spring is likely to "plant seeds that will germinate in the coming decades"; he expects those seeds to be democratic, but illiberal.

Liberalism does take far longer to evolve than democracy, as Fareed Zakaria points out in his book The Future of Freedom. But democracy of any kind sounds a lot better than the status quo. The Arab Spring is likely to produce better outcomes for Arab peoples. But this brings us to the third-order question: Will these changes, on balance, be positive or negative for the United States and the West?

You don't have to be a cold-blooded realist to believe, as Friedman does, that whatever new regimes come to power will not be sympathetic to the United States. Successive American administrations relied on rulers like Mubarak or King Hussein of Jordan precisely because they could afford to ignore the views of their own people -- which were, and are, deeply anti-American and anti-Israel. To see what democracy is likely to produce one need look no further than Turkey, whose generals were far more pro-American and pro-Western than the current democratic and mildly Islamic regime has proved to be. Already the state press in Egypt has begun to churn out diatribes against America diplomats there. This is almost certain to get worse before it gets better.

There are, I suppose, two reasons to dump cold water on the Arab Spring. The first is that you think the enthusiasm is overblown, and you enjoying taunting the romantic spirit that sees reflections of America and its democratic values in every popular uprising across the globe. Go ahead and jeer; I would only note that even the grumpy and skeptical John Quincy Adams, who famously abjured crusades to destroy foreign "monsters," added that the American people are "well-wishers" to those everywhere who seek freedom.

The second reason is that you believe that while it may be good for them, it's bad for us. But in the long term, that cannot be so. Illegitimate government in the Arab world has been a disaster for the neighborhood, and for the world. Legitimate government provides the only narrative powerful enough to prevail over the appeal of extremism. We have every reason to be well-wishers.

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Terms of Engagement

Can Obama Be Just Like Ike?

If you want to cut the defense budget, ask a Republican (just not these Republicans).

Cracks are beginning to surface in the longtime Republican consensus on defense spending. Although, as I wrote last week, most congressional Republicans are prepared to eviscerate the national government while preserving intact a colossal defense establishment, a growing number are not. This May the GOP-controlled House of Representatives cut $9 billion from a defense appropriations bill. And three of the most right-wing Republicans in the Senate signed on this year to the report of the bipartisan "Gang of Six," which recommended defense cuts of close to a $1 trillion over the next decade. One of those three, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, has made a detailed case for those cuts that includes significant reductions in weapons procurement and personnel.

The conjunction of this change in the political weather, the overwhelming imperative to reduce government spending, and the diminishing, if still potent, threat of global terrorism presents Barack Obama with a historic opportunity to reduce the defense budget to match America's real national security needs. But so far, Obama, whose presidency feels less "transformational" by the day, shows no sign that he will seize that opportunity.

Ever since the Vietnam War, Democrats have lived in fear of being labeled soft on defense. In 2004, to take only one particularly egregious example, Republican Saxby Chambliss defeated the incumbent Democratic senator from Georgia, Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, by insisting that Cleland would leave the country vulnerable to terrorist attack. Now Chambliss, like Coburn, has signed on to the Gang of Six report. But the fear reflex still runs very deep; Cold War Democrats like Hillary Clinton have been extremely reluctant to break with the generals on Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite their dovish reputation, or rather because of it, Democratic presidents in the modern era don't stand up to the Pentagon and don't threaten to take away the generals' toys. It seems ironic -- but actually it's perfectly logical -- that it was President Dwight Eisenhower, a former five-star general, who cautioned Americans about the "military-industrial complex" and mandated the deepest military cuts in postwar history, lopping 31 percent off the defense budget in his first two years in office.

Indeed, a series of charts in "A Return to Responsibility," a report by the Center for American Progress, shows that it is Republican presidents, not Democrats, who have mandated significant cuts in defense spending. Eisenhower cut 27 percent overall, Nixon 29 percent, and President Bush H.W. Bush, who served only one term, 17 percent. Even Ronald Reagan, who lavished money on the Pentagon with the express purpose of bankrupting the Soviets, cut the budget by 10 percent during his second term. The great exception to the rule is George W. Bush, who increased spending by an astonishing 70 percent during his tenure. If we include the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States now spends $700 billion a year on defense, a figure that, translated into constant dollars, was last reached in World War II.

Of course, the 9/11 attacks constituted a new threat to which the United States had to respond with new military capacities; but so did World War II, the Korea War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, generally. And it has been nearly 10 years since 9/11. Americans shun a Prussian culture of permanent militarism, and as each threat has waned, each president -- each Republican president -- has reduced both military forces and spending. None of them operated under the desperate fiscal situation we find ourselves in today. They pared back the Pentagon because, unlike the current generation of Republican leaders, they believed deeply in the state's capacity and obligation to provide citizens the foundation of a good life. Eisenhower wanted to build a national highway system; Nixon wanted to provide national health care. Every dollar spent on defense was a dollar lost to national well-being. 

Defense spending now absorbs roughly a quarter of the national budget, and over half of discretionary spending. The current debt-ceiling deal reached by Congress and the White House would essentially eliminate increases over the next two years in a broad category that includes defense as well as homeland security, diplomacy, and foreign aid, and would then limit growth thereafter to 2 percent. If Congress chooses to apportion future cuts equally between security and non-security accounts, reductions in the former would amount to $420 billion -- the figure the Obama administration uses to demonstrate the depth of its commitment to reducing defense spending. But the deal permits Congress to find cuts anywhere it chooses beyond the next two years, passing over the Pentagon and going after anything from the State Department to student loans. The $420 billion may be a chimera.

If, however, the bipartisan congressional "supercommittee" tasked with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in cuts fails to reach agreement -- as seems extremely likely -- then the automatic cuts this would trigger would lop another $600 billion or so from the Pentagon. The White House has discussed this plan as if it were the sort of doomsday machine dreamed up by a James Bond villain. Jack Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has explained that the cuts are meant to be so self-evidently "unpalatable" that the bipartisan commission will feel compelled to reach agreement. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has stated that such "hasty, ill-conceived" cuts would undermine U.S. national security.

Blunderbuss reductions do seem like a bad idea. But what about non-hasty, well-conceived cuts? In a series of recent reports, Pentagon experts and budget-cutters like Sen. Coburn have proposed cuts of $1 trillion -- almost exactly the sum of the $420 billion from the first round of cuts and the $600 billion that would be triggered by the failure of the bipartisan commission. The striking similarity of the details of these reports, despite their authors' radically differing political views, implies that it's not so very hard to find deep reductions in so massive an enterprise as the Defense Department. All propose a reduction in both civilian and military personnel; a redeployment of forces now stationed in Europe and Asia; the cancellation or shrinkage of planned procurements for fighter aircraft, helicopters, aircraft carriers, and missile defense; reforms in military health care; and a downsizing of the nuclear weapons stockpile. Even after such cuts, the United States would still be spending as much as it ever did during the Cold War, when it was in perpetual conflict with the Soviet Union, which it deemed an existential threat to the West.

But you won't hear this from the Obama administration, whose officials have been unwilling to propose anything deeper than the (notional) $420 billion cuts of round one. A White House official told me that Obama thinks that he has already made pretty much all the cuts in discretionary spending he's prepared to accept. So does this mean that the Obama administration is to the right of Coburn and Chambliss on defense spending? When I posed the question in this form, the official went silent, and finally said, "Let me get back to you on that. This is incredibly sensitive." When he got back to me later that day, he disputed my use of "left" and "right" and pointed out that "as commander in chief, the president has very unique responsibilities and a very unique perspective." The answer, in short, was yes.

The president does, indeed, have grave responsibilities; and the world is certainly a very dangerous place, and his military commanders probably make a very convincing case that they need all those soldiers and all those weapons. But all the other wars have ended on a Republican's watch. And whatever success he -- and George W. Bush -- have had against al Qaeda, Obama might still believe that he can't afford to reverse the course of defense spending as his predecessors have.

But he might be wrong. "He really does have political leeway," says Gordon Adams, a former national security expert in the Office of Management and Budget during Bill Clinton's administration and now a leading member of the trillion-dollar-cut club. "But he may not believe that he does."

If the bipartisan commission collapses in disarray and the 2012 presidential campaign becomes a referendum on America's fiscal future -- it can scarcely be otherwise -- I hope Obama will find the courage to stand up to the Pentagon and its numberless minions and defenders. He may, as Adams suggests, find more profit in doing so than he expects.

 

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