A Short-Lived Arab Spring?

When the revolt in Tunisia occurred back in January, I wrote:

Although most Arab governments are authoritarian, they are also all independent and depend on a slightly different mix of political institutions and measures to keep the rulers in power. The fact that Ben Ali ultimately mismanaged a challenge and was driven from power does not mean that other Arab leaders won't be able to deflect, deter, or suppress challenges to their rule."


Tunisia is an obvious warning sign to other Arab dictatorships, and they are bound to be especially vigilant in the months ahead, lest some sort of similar revolutionary wave begin to emerge."

While conceding that a revolutionary cascade was possible and that pressure for greater openness might succeed in the long term, I concluded that a rapid transformation was unlikely.

As I've noted previously, I underestimated the degree to which events in Tunisia would inspire like-minded movements in other countries, and it's clear that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak didn't respond as swiftly or effectively as I expected. But Arab governments are under no illusions now, and we seem to be witnessing precisely the sort of counterrevolutionary responses that often serve to contain a revolutionary outbreak.

In Libya, the Qaddafi regime has responded in brutal but increasingly effective fashion and now seems likely to retain power in at least part of the country for some time to come. With few genuine foreign friends, a big pile of cash, and no place to run or hide, Qaddafi and his family had little choice but to fight it out and hope for the best, even if their brutal suppression of the rebel forces lands them back on the list of international pariahs.

For its part, the Saudi government has sought to pre-empt significant protests by doling out $37 billion worth of new social benefits, while making it clear that protests will be dealt with harshly. In neighboring Bahrain, the Khalifa dynasty has responded to rising protests from its Shiite majority population with heightened repression. It has also invited the Saudis -- which share the Khalifa regime's fear of Iranian influence -- to send several thousand troops there to back up the government.

So if you believed that the events in Tunisia and Egypt -- which were both relatively bloodless and remarkably swift -- were likely to be duplicated elsewhere, you were wrong. The revolutionary impulse has been remarkably contagious, but revolutionary outcomes much less so, at least thus far. Nor do we yet know how far-reaching the reforms in Tunisia and Egypt will ultimately be (though I remain cautiously optimistic).

All that said, I still find it hard to believe that these events do not herald more far-reaching political change throughout much of the Arab world. Even if some governments are able to keep the lid on for now, the social, political, and economic conditions that have given rise to these upheavals won't vanish anytime soon. Whether they consent to real reform or not, ruling elites are likely to be more mindful of popular opinion going forward, for fear of facing new protests in the future or driving frustrated reformers in more radical and dangerous directions.

If this view is correct, then the days when the United States could base key elements of its Middle East grand strategy on alliances with a set of Arab regimes whose policies tended to ignore popular sentiment -- including widespread popular anger at the U.S. role in the region -- are coming to an end. A new grand strategy is going to be needed -- and soon.

Stephen M. Walt

Will the nuclear power industry melt down?

The scope of devastation from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is heart-rending, and readers who are in a position to help should donate generously to the charity of their choice. (See here for a list of worthy options).

The immediate consequences of the disaster are real enough, but today's New York Times also identifies what could be an even more significant long-term effect of this event: the curtailing of plans to address global warming through sharply increased reliance on nuclear power.

The basic equation here is pretty simple. The only way to deal with climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which in turns means reducing reliance on the burning of fossil fuels. Conservation, improved efficiency, and "green" energy sources like wind farms can help, but not enough to fill the gap without a significant curtailing of living standards. Accordingly, many recent proposals to address future energy needs have assumed that many countries -- including the United States -- would rely more heavily on nuclear power for electricity generation. It's not a complete answer to the climate change problem by any means, but addressing it in a timely fashion would be more difficult if nuclear expansion is eliminated.

The destruction of the Fukushima nuclear plant is bound to set back these efforts, and it may derail them completely. At a minimum, it will make it much harder to get approval for new power plants -- which already face classic NIMBY objections -- which will drive up the cost and make a significant expansion of the nuclear industry politically infeasible in many countries, especially the United States.

This reaction doesn't make a lot of sense because the costs and risks of nuclear energy need to be rigorously compared against the costs and risks of other energy sources and the long-term costs and risks of global warming itself. But that's not the way that the human mind and the democratic process often work. We tend to worry more about rare but vivid events -- like an accident at a nuclear plant -- and we downplay even greater risks that seem like they are part of the normal course of daily life. Thus, people worry more about terrorist attacks than they do about highway accidents or falling in a bathtub, even though they are far more likely to be hurt by the latter than the former.

So, in addition to the thousands of lives lost, the billions of dollars of property damage, and the knock-on economic consequences of the Japanese disaster, we need to add the likely prospect of more damage from climate change down the road. It's possible that clearer heads will prevail and guide either more stringent conservation measures or the sensible expansion of nuclear power (along with other energy alternatives), but I wouldn't bet on it.