Requiem for the "Arab Spring?"

I've detected a growing tendency to issue obituaries for the "Arab spring." This impulse is understandable given the relentless turmoil in Yemen, the brutal repression that continues in Syria, the simmering tensions in Libya and Bahrain, and the recent resurgence of sometimes violent protest against the military regime in Egypt. Not surprisingly, early hopes that the Arab world was at the dawn of a new era have been dashed-or at least diminished. And that's why pundits like Tom Friedman are now crossing their fingers and hoping for the reincarnation of Nelson Mandela in each of these states.

But if the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process, and having a few Mandelas around is no guarantee of success. Why? Because once the existing political order has collapsed, the stakes for key groups in society rise dramatically. The creation of new institutions -- in effect, the development of new rules for ordering political life -- inevitably creates new winners and losers. And everyone knows this. Not only does this situation encourage more and more groups to join the process of political struggle, but awareness that high stakes are involved also gives them incentives to use more extreme means, including violence. 

Under these conditions, it is a pipedream to think that key actors in a complex and troubled society like Egypt or Libya (or in the future, Syria) could quickly agree on new political institutions and infuse them with legitimacy. Even if interim rulers write a quick constitution, hold a referendum, or elect new representatives, those whose interests are undermined by the outcomes are bound to question the new rules and the process and to do what they can to undermine or amend them. What one should expect, therefore, are half-measures, false starts, prolonged uncertainty, and highly contingent events, where seemingly random events (a riot, an accident, an episode of overt foreign interference, an unexpected flurry of violence, etc.) can alter the course of events in far-reaching ways. Tunisia notwithstanding, what you are unlikely to get is a quick and easy consensus on new institutions.

Remember the French Revolution? The storming of the Bastille took place in July 1789, the nobility was abolished by the National Assembly the following year, and Louis XVI tried unsuccessfully to flee in 1791 before being forced to accept a new constitution. Internal turmoil and foreign interference eventually lead to war in 1792, Louis and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793, and Paris was soon engulfed by the Jacobin terror, which eventually burns itself out. A new constitution is adopted in 1795, establishing a government known as the "Directory," which is eventually overthrown by Napoleon's coup d'etat on 18 Brumaire, 1799. By the time Napoleon seized power, it had been more than ten years since the initial revolutionary upheaval.

To judge by that timetable, the "Arab spring" has a long way to go. And other cases offer a similar lesson. The Russian revolution starts with the fall of the Tsarist regime in March 1917 and the formation of Kerensky's provisional government, which is subsequently overthrown by the Bolshevik coup a few months later. But the Bolsheviks' hold on power isn't fully established until their victory in the Russian Civil War, which isn't fully won until 1923. The Soviet political order endured recurrent power struggles over the next decade, until Joseph Stalin vanquished his various opponents and established a personal dictatorship.

Or take a more recent case, Iran. The revolution begins in 1978, with a steadily escalating series of street demonstrations. The shah flees into exile in January 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returns in February and appoints Mehdan Bazegar as Prime Minister of an interim government. A new constitution is drafted by October, but there is a continuing struggle for power between liberal, Islamist, and other groups.

The first president of the new "Islamic Republic," Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, is impeached in 1981, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war strengthens hardliners and provides an opportunity for a crackdown against some prominent members of the original revolutionary movement. The Islamic republic remains a work-in-progress to this day, with the role of the "Supreme Jurisprudent," the Revolutionary Guards, the clergy, the presidency, and the Majlis remaining in flux.

Even the comparatively benign American Revolution was hardly a done-deal when the peace treaty with England was signed in 1783. Independence from England had required the colonists to fight a lengthy war of independence, and the fledgling republic then faced several armed rebellions, most notably Shays' Rebellion in 1786. These challenges revealed the inadequacies of the original Articles of Confederation (1777-1786) leading to the drafting and adoption of what is now the U.S. Constitution. 

In short, anybody who thought that the events that swept through the Arab world in 2011 were going to produce stable and orderly outcomes quickly was living in a dream world. To say this is not to oppose what has happened, or to believe that the old orders could or should have continued. Rather, it is to recognize that radical reform -- even revolution -- is a long, difficult, and uncertain process, and that the ride is likely to be a bumpy one for years to come. 

History also warns that outside powers have at best limited influence over the outcomes of a genuine revolutionary process. Even well-intentioned efforts to aid progressive forces can backfire, as can overt efforts to thwart them. Overall, a policy of "benevolent neglect" may be the more prudent course, making it clear that outsiders are prepared to let each country's citizens choose their own order, provided that important foreign policy redlines are not crossed. But for a country like the United States, which still sees itself as a model for others and tends to think that it has the right and the wisdom to tell them what to do, patience and restraint can be hard to sustain. And patience is what is needed most these days.


Stephen M. Walt

Giving thanks, but for how long?

It's Thanksgiving once again, and it's become something of a ritual for me to record what I'm feeling grateful for each year. For starters, I want to thank the various people who responded to my request for advice on "policy analysis" yesterday, both via the "comments" section and to me directly. I got some very good suggestions, and I appreciate the help. Whether my students will be similarly appreciative remains to be seen.

This year, I'm thankful that the euro hasn't collapsed - yet -- and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it won't. It's true that the unraveling of the eurozone would be a striking vindication of a broadly realist view of international relations, but it would also produce tremendous human suffering and that's way too big a price to pay to vindicate a theory. So I hope Europe's leaders manage to defy my usual pessimism and navigate through the crisis. If they do, I'll be even more thankful next year.

I'm also grateful that there's been no war with Iran. Whatever the Obama administration's other shortcomings might have been, those at the top seem to have understood the folly and futility of unleashing major military action against Iran. I won't give them high marks for imaginative diplomacy, but at least they haven't done great harm.

I'm also giving thanks that the United States is getting out of Iraq, and I wish I could believe that we will draw the right long-term lessons from the debacle. On that score, it is not a good sign that many of the architects of that war are still taken seriously as foreign policy "experts," and some are even advising GOP candidates. Doesn't say much for our national learning curve, does it? But even if historical amnesia sets in quickly, I'm pleased that we are finally leaving Iraq to its own leaders. Now if we can just draw a similar conclusion about that other exercise in imperial futility ... Afghanistan.

Like nearly everyone, I'm troubled by the continued turmoil in Egypt and by the Assad regime's brutal behavior in Syria. But I'm thankful that the situation in Libya has thus far defied my worst fears and made at least some modest progress toward the establishment of a more legitimate political order. The capture of former heir-apparent (and accused war criminal) Saif al-Islam Qaddafi and former security head Abudullah al-Senussi pretty much eliminates any possibility of a "loyalist" insurgency, which is a good sign too. The country still has a long way to go, but I will be keeping my fingers crossed.

On a purely personal note, I'm thankful for the courageous policy analysts, writers and bloggers who make it easier for me to do this blog. I'm talking about people who seek puncture conventional wisdom, challenge orthodoxies, and rock the boat on occasion. I value them because they are an antidote to the flood of cautious semi-official narratives that dominate most of the writing on foreign policy, and so they help me think outside the box. So heartfelt thanks to Carl Conetta, Phil Weiss, Juan Cole, Gordon Adams, Martin Wolf, Jerry Haber, Uri Avnery, Jim Lobe, Helena Cobban, Glenn Greenwald, M. J. Rosenberg, John Mueller, Andrew Sullivan, Spencer Ackerman, Jerry Slater, Gideon Rachman, and many others too numerous to list or even remember. I don't know a lot of the people just mentioned, and I don't always agree with any of them. Heck, I don't always agree with this guy either. But I'm glad they are doing what they do.

Of course, I cannot omit my annual word of thanks to the whole gang at FP, including the reporters, writers, and bloggers with whom I've occasionally tussled. The editors remain a delight with whom to work, and it's been a pleasure to be part of their team. And because all bloggers ultimately depend on readers, I'm especially grateful for those of you who take the time to read this stuff.

With each passing year, I've become more aware and more appreciative of my own good fortune. It's been a pretty soft gig to be born a white American male in the mid-1950s, in a country enjoying enormous geopolitical advantages and considerable prosperity. I like to think I've done ok with the advantages I was handed, and there's no doubt that the deck was stacked in my favor from the start. And that goes for a lot of my colleagues and contemporaries too.

More broadly, if you compare the era in which most of us have lived to the previous fifty years (1900-1950), there's little question that we've enjoyed a period of comparative benevolence. The first half of the 20th century witnessed two enormously destructive world wars, the worst economic depression in history, and several brutal genocides. The past sixty years has its own share of tragedies, to be sure, but the overall level of violence was much lower, economic growth was fairly steady (until recently), and many of us never had to endure the insecurities, travesties, and sacrifices that earlier generations experienced or that were still common in other parts of the world.

Most Americans ought to be especially grateful for their extraordinary good fortune, and Thanksgiving is an appropriate time for us to reflect upon it. And as I watch Europe teeter on the brink of financial collapse, observe the violent political contestation that is sweeping the Middle East, note the rapidly shifting balance of power in Asia, and contemplate the tragicomic follies of our so-called leaders in Washington, I do wonder how long it will last, and whether I will look back with regret at the tranquility we have lost.

But tomorrow, I will give thanks for the good that remains, and think about what can still be done to preserve and extend it.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images