Politics & Policy

Arab World Aflame

It is almost impossible to see how we get to a democratic end state without tremendous levels of violence along the way.

Kandahar — Trying to predict the end result of the turmoil in the Arab world is akin to trying to predict the final result of the French Revolution during its early days. When William Pitt, the British prime minister, peered across the channel at the chaos enveloping France, he could not have foreseen the rise of Napoleon, two decades of war, a million combat deaths, and all of it ending on a bloody field near Waterloo.

Similarly, it is impossible to predict the final outcome of the upheavals currently sweeping the Arab world. What is certain, though, is that what has happened so far is only the beginning. What lies ahead promises to be more revolutionary and more violent than anything the region has already experienced. When the dust finally settles, a new political paradigm will dominate the Arab world.  

One may believe that this new paradigm is going to be democratic, and that its foundations will rest on a new and open societal structure. The road to this nirvana is, however, fraught with pitfalls. Moreover, it is almost impossible to see how we get to a democratic end state without tremendous levels of violence along the way.

Dealing with what may easily become a multi-generational collapse and rebirth of Arab society and its corresponding political order is going to take a well-thought-out and highly adaptive U.S. strategy, underpinned by accurate and timely intelligence. Of late we have been failing on both counts. Our strategy for Libya, for instance, might be adaptive in some ways, but we took so many options off the table at the start of our involvement that the regime’s survival remains possible. And when we are threatening to bomb both sides of a conflict, our strategy clearly is not well thought out.

Moreover, even if our stated policy aim of removing Qaddafi does come to pass, what follows? No one knows. Our intelligence agencies do not have a clue as to how all of this will end. This is rather remarkable, as, since 9/11, our national intelligence organizations have spent literally tens of billions of dollars watching and analyzing the Arab world. One can only stand in dazzled wonderment as to how a little thing like an impending multi-nation revolution got past them.

Now they are trying to play catch-up. In Egypt, for instance, we were first told that there is no reason to worry about the Muslim Brotherhood, as the military would not let it come to power. Then, when it became clear that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood had formed an alliance, we were told that bringing the Brotherhood into the government is the best way to control the organization. Unfortunately, that is precisely what Paul von Hindenburg told his supporters about Hitler and the Nazis when he brought them into the German government. It just might be that the military is luring the Brotherhood’s cadres into the open so as to deal with them at an opportune moment. It is just as likely that these disciplined cadres will, as the Nazis did, take over the state.

Truthfully, it probably does not much matter. The Egyptians who massed in Tahrir Square were not looking to replace Mubarak with a military dictatorship or an Islamic republic. They wanted a government capable of restoring economic growth and returning hope to the nation’s youth. Neither the military nor the Brotherhood is capable of meeting those aspirations. Despite a few years of above-average growth, Egypt’s economic problems remain profound and will not be solved overnight. Still, as the first flush of success fades, Egyptians are already wondering why their lives are not improving. It may not happen this year or even next, but, sooner or later, Egyptians will again take to the streets, in a process likely to repeat itself in increasingly violent spasms until either the nation is exhausted or a government truly representative of the people’s desires comes to the fore.  

This pattern will be repeated throughout the Arab world for decades to come. For the Arabs are in the midst of a civilizational collapse the likes of which has not been seen since the fall of the Roman Empire. In 2005, I published an article titled “The Impending Collapse of Arab Civilization,” in which I called attention to the fact that after centuries of relative stagnation, the Arab world was reaching a point of collapse. Daily, it is becoming clearer that the point has now been reached.

The United States cannot fix the Arab world’s problems. That can be done only from within. But if the United States and the West want to help enable a rapid Arab renewal and the region’s eventual integration into a globalized world, they are going have to stay involved and stay nimble. There is much the United States and its allies can do to contain spillover effects, to help reduce the suffering caused by further upheavals, and to help guide Arab nations toward becoming more pluralistic and economically vibrant societies. Doing so, however, requires coming to grips with the extent of the problem and accepting that our children may still be dealing with it a generation from now.

That U.S. policymakers were surprised by the extent of the Arab uprisings does not make one optimistic about our government’s ability to understand the problem. Without such an understanding, it is impossible to create a strategy capable of dealing with the most dangerous global-security threat our country will face in upcoming decades. They can’t say they were not warned. In 2008, Williamson Murray and I prepared for the U.S. military a report titled “The Joint Operating Environment,” which attempted to predict the outcome of significant global trends through 2035. In it we called attention to the deep troubles in the Arab world, stating that the region

confronts the choice of either adapting to or escaping from a globe of interdependence created by the West. Often led by despotic rulers, addicted to the exports of commodities which offer little incentive for more extensive industrialization or modernization, and burdened by cultural and ideological obstacles to education and therefore modernization, many Islamic states have fallen far behind the West.

Murray and I were not alone. At the time, many others were already commenting on the pathologies undermining Arab institutions and states. Apparently, no one in our government was listening.  

In The Joint Operating Environment we also called attention to the much-neglected phenomenon of “rapid collapse.” In short, while we couldn’t tell the Pentagon exactly when the Arab world would set itself aflame, we could tell it that when the crisis began, it would come on fast, spread swiftly, and probably topple governments more rapidly than most thought possible.

All that was required to set events in motion was a catalyst, which, this time around, was supplied by rising food prices. If our intelligence agencies had not been asleep at the switch, they would have been obsessively looking for such a catalyst. But as the reactions of the White House and the State Department demonstrated, they were caught flatfooted, despite claims by spokesmen that they saw it coming. Predicting the upheavals would not have stopped them, but it would have given policymakers precious time to prepare an effective response.

The question now is, What happens next? In the midst of a fast-moving crisis it is sometimes easier to see the more distant future than to predict what will take place tomorrow. What one sees is troubling. Some countries’ rulers will weather the current storm. Other countries will have a change in government. In too many cases, however, this change will be more apparent than real. Still, there is a small chance that some of the more modernized states will make a full transition to democracy. It is much more likely, however, that the new bosses will be the same as the old ones.

If that is the case, or if a substantial number of governments survive this first wave of popular upheaval, then we are seeing only a dress rehearsal for a future cataclysmic uprising. The problems that brought the Egyptian masses into Tahrir Square still exist in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Two-thirds of the population in the Arab world is  under 30 years old,and most see limited prospects before them. Unless their societies are modernized and integrated into the global economy, these young Arabs are correct to perceive dim prospects for advancement. It is doubtful that the region’s undemocratic governments will be able to deliver progress in time to avoid calamity. In fact, it is far from clear that even if democracies are established, these new governments would be able to meet rising expectations, although a more transparent process might tamp down public agitation for a longer period.

My medium-term prediction, therefore, is that the current upheavals will spread and persist for months to come, subsiding for a bit as reforms are promised and then flaring up again when the promises are seen as a sham or progress is not fast enough. Eventually, the region will settle into a period of stasis, but unless true democratic reform takes place, our intelligence analysts will need to stay alert for the next catalyst.

When Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was asked what he thought of the French Revolution, he replied, “It is too soon to tell.” Likewise, it is too soon to predict the final outcome of the current Arab revolts. It is clear, though, that what is raging through the Arab world today is only a harbinger of something truly monumental not far down the road.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College and the author of The First Clash. The opinions presented here are his alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members. 

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