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The Long Short Term: the Middle East’s 1848?

February 18, 2011

Historical analogy is dangerous – it might be where good thoughts begin, but it cannot be where they end. As Libya and Egypt’s ruling regimes have toppled, new protests have erupted in Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Bahrain, and Iran with many doubtless praying more are on their way. Not surprisingly, optimistic commentators have leaped to label 2011 as this generation’s 1989, when another authoritarian ideology crumbled and left a whole region on the path to Western democracy.

Parisian Barricades, 1848

Paris in 1848

However, the rapid pace and scope of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa recall another great year of revolution – 1848, the “Springtime of Nations.” Leon Hadar, at the American Conservative, elaborates on this theme:

The lessons of the democratic revolutions of 1848 may be instructive. The uprisings in Paris, Milan, Venice, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Munich, and Berlin, led by members of the middle classes and the intelligentsia, failed to transform the existing order and replace it with democratic and liberal institutions. In fact, the political upheaval helped expose the conflicting interests and values of the intellectuals and professionals who led the revolts and the workers and the peasants whose support they had failed to win. The result was a successful counter-revolution launched by the ruling elites in France, the Austrian Empire, and Prussia. Conservative forces were able to consolidate their power for many years to come and at the same time initiated limited and gradual reforms to placate the restive population….

Once the current revolutionary fervor in the Middle East has subsided, it is quite likely that contrary to hopes (of liberal democracy) and fears (of rise of the Islamists), the final outcome will instead resemble the post-1848 scene in Europe. One should probably refrain from “shorting” the Arab autocrats who have proven to be the ultimate political survivors of our time: the Saudi royal family has been reigning for close to a century, while the military has ruled Egypt since 1954. Expect the Assads and Gaddafis and the rest of these characters to employ a blend of limited military force, co-option of resentful elites, and modest political and economic reforms to try to weaken the insurgencies. This form of Middle Eastern counter-revolution could prove to be quite effective for a time, providing the U.S. with breathing space to reassess its policies—as opposed to being humiliated at the sight of its clients being driven out of power.

Of course, there are obvious and vital differences between the Middle East now and Europe then. Hadar’s essay takes the analogy too far. Unlike Europe, there is far less danger of multi-ethnic empires collapsing as Europe’s would in the long wake of 1848. We have seen no movements seeking to change borders. Germans and Italians rose up to unite their nations, while subjects of the Habsburgs and Tsar sought independence from foreign rule. Another is the comparative restraint of foreign military powers. The armed intervention of Russian troops in Hungary and Radetsky’s Austrians in Italy were important to the failures of those revolutionary efforts. The Saudi government, though a bastion of Arab conservatism, is not marching into its neighbors capitals – though with the expansion of protests to Bahrain, this may change. Were this to occur, the Saudi Arabian National Guard would presumably intervene – which would only further complicate US policy.

One thing is similar: the United States is not intervening against, or for, these revolutionary events. Like Palmerston’s Britain, the United States has strong popular sympathies for democratic uprisings abroad, but a government showing considerably more restraint. Should it? Superficially, a liberal nation should do well to support liberal regime change in a region of strategic interest, but the logic is less sound. In theory, the United States’s hegemonic position in the Middle East, much stronger than Britain’s in Europe, should give the US far more leverage to bring about democracy – so why should it not exercise its power so?

The core of Britain’s strategy was maintaining a balance of power in Europe, the Congress of Vienna system which provided its normative and institutional support, and the geopolitical security of its empire. Thus, Britain opposed the elimination of Austria as a key component of the Congress system, anything that might return France to its role as a revolutionary, revisionist power, and unification of Italy, which might threaten British interests in the Mediterranean.

America also has strong interests in favor of the status quo. A viable partner in Egypt is the lynchpin of US efforts to advance Israeli security and the Palestinian peace process and a bulwark against Islamic groups it fears. It sees Yemen as an important component of its counter-terrorism strategy, while the Gulf Arab states are critical components of US dominance in the Persian Gulf and its desire to ensure the free flow of oil. Finally, most of the authoritarian Arab regimes provide a bulwark against the encroachment of a presumably revisionist Iran.

However, America’s interests, unlike those of Britain’s are far more flexible. Even if, in the feverish fantasies of Glenn Beck, the Arab world united into a bloodthirsty Caliphate, such a state would not threaten America’s security the way a collapse of the balance of power system could have threatened Britain’s. So, what interests, outside moral interests in further democracy, does the United States have? I cannot speak for the entirety of the US, but I would posit these as basic tenets of America’s geopolitical interest in the region:

  • Stable flow and open access to petroleum
  • Secure sea lines of communication
  • Prevention of rival hegemonic control
  • Maintain viable US partners
  • Disrupting, where possible, non-state threats to the US

That’s a rather limited list of interests, because it excludes both moral interests and assumptions about how the US would accomplish these goals. Depending on the US strategy involved, threats and secondary interests may arise. For example, there’s a decent case to be made that US strategy at least partially determines its risk exposure to terrorism. What causes terrorism is too deep of an empirical question to dive into here, but I believe it’s fair to say that the heavier the US presence in the region, the more exposed the US is to attacks.

You can add to this a whole host of moral concerns:

  • Increasing the number of democratic governments
  • Strengthening human rights
  • Affirming the principle of self-determination
  • Stabilizing ethnic conflicts and preventing humanitarian crises

Not only do we often face dilemmas between moral and material interests, it should also be clear we face dilemmas within each category of interests. US operations to secure access to petroleum and prevent rival powers from gaining power in the region have contributed to the rise of hostile regimes and terrorism, and similarly, US desires to crack down on terrorism alienate potential partners for other goals. As for moral goals, the 1848 is instructive in a certain sense: promoting democracy can result in violence, instability, and the rise of regimes which do not respect human rights, and likewise, US searches for stability can compromise democracy. 1989 saw the consolidation of democracy, the advance of liberal values, and regional stability through NATO. This came at a relatively minor strategic cost, since the only real opponent to this process, Russia, was weak at the time.

1848 reminds us that unpredictability does not always reward the expectations of optimists, and that the path to Western liberal democracy was, for the most part, long, bloody, and ugly. 1989 makes this process look easy only to those unwilling to look far back into history. The process of liberalization did not begin in 1989, or even during the Cold War – it was in motion in 1848. Democracy does not arrive overnight. Liberals, democrats, and reformers inhabited the Central and Eastern European intellectual scenes in the 19th century. Revolutionaries fought in uprisings and died in counterrevolutionary interventions.  Empires fell, and early popular governments arose, only to suffer brutal occupations, genocide, and totalitarianism – for which the age of mass politics shares responsibility – and then, after its final exhaustion, democracy arrived.

Many US advocates of democracy, human rights, and liberalization do not see it simply as an end, but a means as well. Not only should we desire it, we should make it part of our strategy to secure our other interests. In the long run, democracy will make securing sea lanes, oil, preventing terrorism and managing geopolitical rivalries easier. When all is said and done, the Middle East will be free, and America will be secure. For this reason, democratization supposedly counts as a strategy, rather than simply an objective.

Napoleon III

Revolution's unexpected consequences

In this case, revolutions sweep governments off their feet in weeks, but the pundits can hardly wait hours before explaining how this or that development vindicates this perspective. In the case of Egypt, we’ve seen a transition not to democracy, but a military regime, which has played a vital, if not the vital, role in supporting every Egyptian government since the 1950s. We hail the protests on the Iranian street, but have yet to see if they will do any better. Meanwhile, Iran is taking the opportunity to scare up oil prices and seemingly test Egyptian leaders, and Bahrain, a majority-Shia country (and critical base for the US fleet in the Persian Gulf), which Iran previously attempted to overthrow, descends into political tumult and government repression.

Essentially, though the right may exult at the vindication of the “Freedom Agenda” and the left and centrists may be proud of Obama’s (so far relatively smooth) handling of a major foreign policy crisis, the difficult things may be just ahead. We do not know yet how much the revolutionary contagion will spread, and how severely it will afflict each of its victims. We’ve yet to see which factions will ultimately emerge triumphant, by what means they will rule, and what policies they will pursue. Nor do we know what regional balances of power will emerge – both between states, and between governments, armies, civil society and violent non-state actors. What we do know is what our longstanding interests are, and what we should know are which ones we’re going to put first. Where material interests prevail, America must adapt to circumstances. If Egypt’s new regime is praetorian, we will have to manage that. If it elects populist, anti-American democrats, we will have to manage that, too. So it goes for other Middle Eastern states. However, supporting revolt for revolt’s sake, or opposing it for the sake of being nice to “old friends,” is too sentimental for sound policy at this point. US material interests apply regardless of the government in power, and thus need stability or expectations of continuity and reliability above all. This means being willing to work with autocracies whose oppositions cannot win the backing of the population, or governments capable of overthrowing US-friendly dictators we cannot plausibly expect to cling on. This is the “near term” we will be dealing with, and it will prevail long enough that we might not want to consider democratization a substitute for strategic thought.

Even if, eventually, things all work out for the best, clearly the US will have to choose, however unhappily, between its varied interests in the Middle East. But who’s to say they will, and when? A few far-sighted individuals, liberals and reactionaries both, caught a glimpse of what was to come in 1848. Many were completely wrong. We should expect no different from today, because what is happening now is not a culmination, but a beginning. History is not ending in the Middle East, indeed, the truly exciting times, for better or worse, are yet to come. Strategy cannot rely on a projected end-state where liberal democratic peace theory prevails in the Middle East, and we stop worrying about serious strategic choices, because nobody is fighting each other and everybody, except for moribund rogue states, is a “responsible stakeholder” in a new regional democratic system.

There is a difference between thinking in the long run and projecting our preferences out to the long run, and thinking backwards from there. Perhaps Middle Eastern democracies will, eventually yield regimes able and willing to fight each other, or oppose the US through internal or external balancing. Perhaps the winner that ultimately emerges from geopolitical shifts will be Iran, or China, or forces hollowing away at the state. We don’t know. As Patrick Porter points out, democratic peace theories are ahistorical, and applying their narrative to policy suggestions now basically implies that democracy causes peace (rather than the other way around, or some third factor causing both) is wishful thinking. I would go further, and say that as a policy option which we can “promote,” it relies on a sanitized version of history where confronting the bourgeois-social republican divide, figuring out how to integrate Catholicism and democracy, dealing with nationalism, self-determination, and totalitarianism never really counted because these things happened before the mid-late 20th century.

Once again, historical analogy is a starting point, not the last word. We will not see history repeat itself, but we will probably see the unearthing of all the questions and causes, noble and ugly, that democratizing peoples and their rulers before anyone can talk seriously about what a democratic Middle East is going to look like, let alone what it will mean for US grand strategy. President Obama will not be the last to confront this issue, and it is far too early to say his mostly successful short term strategy has failed because it impedes some hypothetical democratic, reliable ally from emerging. Now would be as good a time as any to reassess US interests in the Middle East, and think about what’s worth holding on to, holding out for, or walking out on in what will probably be a very, very long “short term.”

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2011 2:09 pm

    However, supporting revolt for revolt’s sake, or opposing it for the sake of being nice to “old friends,” is too sentimental for sound policy at this point. US material interests apply regardless of the government in power, and thus need stability or expectations of continuity and reliability above all.

    Very nicely put. It’s sad how our material interests trumps what we hold dear in this country – freedom and democracy. It is what it is, though.

  2. February 19, 2011 7:27 pm

    Agreed that the wisest US policy here may consist more of behind-the-scenes communication than constant public pronouncements. And support of democratization in itself does not suffice for sound policy. That said, I also think that a democratic Middle East, should it eventually emerge (and who knows at this point), would probably serve the US’s ‘material’ interests at least no worse than the present arrangements, and perhaps better; hence US moral and material interests are not as sharply in conflict, perhaps, as you suggest. But it will be a long road — I’m pretty sure you’re right about that.

    Note: democratic peace theory in its scholarly, nuanced form is not really ahistorical; Porter in his post is taking on a journalistic, exaggerated version of it, rather than DPT in its most defensible version.

    • February 20, 2011 5:27 pm

      I agree that a more democratic Middle East would probably work about as well as the present arrangement in terms of ensuring US vital interests (which is to say, not that great, but tolerably). As I tried to communicate in this post, the US really ought to be prepared for whatever governments emerge. We’ll probably have some new friends, and maybe a few new enemies. Ultimately the region is politically heterogeneous enough that we’ll probably get a mixed bag of friendly and hostile states, like now.

      So in that sense, I agree that our moral and material interests aren’t necessarily in conflict. But I do think there will be significant conflicts within each category that will make balancing them difficult (rather than say the choice between an ally or a democracy, we’ll see choices like prioritizing oil or counter-terror, liberal reform or popular democracy).

      You’re right that the more defensible versions of DPT aren’t ahistorical, although I personally have yet to see an explanation of DPT as more than just an empirical observation which I think lends itself to a timeless recipe for historical stability, the way policymakers and the commentariat apply it.

      • February 22, 2011 2:58 pm

        I understand your point about potential conflicts within each category of interests.

        It occurs to me that what is not mentioned explicitly in the post, unless I missed it, is the way the U.S. role as chief ally and supporter etc. of Israel is another factor provoking opposition to other U.S. goals in the region — another case of conflict between interests. (Just making an empirical observation.)

      • February 22, 2011 3:11 pm

        Agreed, and it’s probably one of the more serious problems. Particularly since in some conflicts, the US directs its efforts towards keeping its nominal ally out of the conflict to begin with.

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