‘I was terribly wrong’
January 23, 2016 11:30 PM   Subscribe

 
Hardly any revolutions produce a good outcome in the short term. The USA is a remarkable exception to the general rule.
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posted by Joe in Australia at 3:48 AM on January 24, 2016 [6 favorites]


The Middle East right now is at a different level of catastrophe than that produced by most revolutions.
posted by zipadee at 4:32 AM on January 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


The "success story" of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, just imposed an indefinite curfew after rioting noting the 5 years since the Arab Spring. The government has changed, but the conditions -- unemployment, poverty, repression, despair -- have not. In a phrase: “We have the freedom, but you cannot eat freedom
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 4:53 AM on January 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


I wonder how much our governments — through arms sales, diplomatic pressure, or covert operations — were responsible for the failure of the Arab Spring? After all, the last time we let a popular revolution run its course, Iran happened. It's just so much easier to do business with the old dictators we already publicly loathe but privately prop up.
posted by scruss at 5:01 AM on January 24, 2016 [5 favorites]


The USA is a remarkable exception to the general rule

The Revolutionary War was over in 1783, and pretty quiescent some time beforehand.
And there were economic-driven riots all over, from 1783 to 1789.

That said, when you knock down the powers on top and try to build something from the bottom up, you have to have norms and ideas at the bottom level that are conducive to the construction of something good. And in the Arab World, such things are ... somewhat lacking.
posted by ocschwar at 5:32 AM on January 24, 2016 [9 favorites]


the last time we let a popular revolution run its course, Iran happened

Well, that's one way to look at Iran.

Another is to remember that the Mosaddegh administration was also popular and revolutionary, and that the coup the CIA orchestrated to unseat that administration is what sowed the seeds of popular unrest that culminated in Khomeini overthrowing the corrupt US puppet Pahlavi.
posted by flabdablet at 5:33 AM on January 24, 2016 [23 favorites]


The Arab Spring and its aftermath were a distressing reminder that incompetence at understanding the Middle East was not a specific vice of Bush-Cheney-Powell or Blair-Straw because Obama-(Hillary) Clinton and Cameron-Hague bolixed it nearly quite as well.

Separately, one of the reasons the US revolution worked well is that, New York Tories aside, it wasn't a revolt against domestic elites or a campaign to transform the basis of governance. It's extremely hard for such revolutions to be anything other than extremely messy, and very easy for them to fail altogether.

It was a revolt of domestic elites with the main goal to recapture for Americans the property and political rights of Englishmen which the colonial system had lately begun to abrogate. To the extent that the Constitution ultimately departed from the English legal system it was to discard the elements of it (hereditary monarch and peers, established church) that the Framers regarded as hostile to Englishmen's property and political rights, and to provide for a federal system which the United States' heritage as 13 distinct colonies tended to require in lieu of the unitary British state, and which the Framers regarded as an additional bulwark against impingement upon individual property and political rights.

When we speak about Iran, it's interesting to note how the 1979 rebellion had important analogies to the US revolution as restorative and not revolutionary and not surprisingly had more sticking power. The Shah with his authoritarian means and modernizing and pro-western ends was in an important sense an abrogation of the traditional Iranian / Persian order. The key drivers of the revolution were Iran's traditional class of commercial leadership (the bazaris) and moral leadership (Shi'a clerics).
posted by MattD at 6:04 AM on January 24, 2016 [12 favorites]


That said, when you knock down the powers on top and try to build something from the bottom up, you have to have norms and ideas at the bottom level that are conducive to the construction of something good. And in the Arab World, such things are ... somewhat lacking.

This is the just-so story of America and it's pretty much BS (and of course racist).

America really didn't "build something from the bottom". The local governments and institutions already existed and operated pretty independently even before independence. The war of independence really only removed a distant, disconnected and distracted imperial government. Probably the closest modern analogy would be the Iranian revolution which got rid of "imperial america" which consistently meddled in the government.

The biggest difference there in terms of outcome is that British gave up while America funded a massive proxy war that essentially created the context for the current instantiation of middle eastern shitshow. Oh and the British mostly understand what they did and what went wrong. America on the other hand....
posted by srboisvert at 6:07 AM on January 24, 2016 [13 favorites]


British gave up while America funded a massive proxy war that essentially created the context for the current instantiation of middle eastern shitshow. Oh and the British mostly understand what they did and what went wrong. America on the other hand....

Growing up indoctrinated into believing that your local culture has it right and every other culture has it to some extent wrong is a human universal, as is failing to grasp the implications of the fact that such universals necessarily apply to you as much as to anybody else. Americans, in my experience, are often particularly prone to forgetting that, and also particularly resistant to the idea that people from other places will quite naturally perceive them as foreigners.

Many Americans I've talked to seem to have real trouble understanding that while the world might arguably be improved if more of it were organized along American lines, most of the world has no desire to be organized that way - and certainly not by foreigners.
posted by flabdablet at 6:27 AM on January 24, 2016 [16 favorites]


The American Revolution was not a revolution, not in the way that term is being used here. There was no desire nor attempt to overthrow the monarchy. It was a war of secession.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 6:51 AM on January 24, 2016 [13 favorites]


The biggest difference there in terms of outcome is that British gave up while America funded a massive proxy war that essentially created the context for the current instantiation of middle eastern shitshow. Oh and the British mostly understand what they did and what went wrong. America on the other hand....

When I think of excellent Middle East diplomacy, I sure as hell don't think of the British.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:24 AM on January 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


>while the world might arguably be improved if more of it were organized along American lines, most of the world has no desire to be organized that way - and certainly not by foreigners.

Rationally I can see how this could be, but it still doesn't feel right to me-- which I guess is part of your point. Certainly our government employs enough sociologists/anthropologists to gain some traction in this regard...

My understanding of the current narrative is that the economic conditions across much of the Middle East and Africa create conditions in which armed extremist minorities are able to recruit the disenfranchised, who suffer under conditions of poverty. Wouldn't healthy economies in those regions do much of the work of pacification/stabilization?
posted by sammann at 7:24 AM on January 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


sammann: "Wouldn't healthy economies in those regions do much of the work of pacification/stabilization?"

To a degree; but the Arab world also has its own "Baby Boom" right now and large quantities of young men (in particular) ages 15 to 34 are always and without exception a recipe for social upheaval, because it's simply very difficult for even a healthy economy to absorb that many new workers at once and to provide them for the tools necessary for the transition to adulthood (i.e., enough money to get married and assume the trappings of adulthood, whether that's a non-parental home, or a car, or an education, or children, or whatever). Women, for cultural reasons, have more culturally-acceptable options to remain in the parental home for far longer without suffering loss of face/honor/marriage prospects. (Although this is an interesting point of study in the West as women are now expected to launch to adulthood in more or less the same fashion as men -- will large groups of unemployed women also become a point of destabilization as their transition-to-adulthood becomes more identical to men's? Or will cultural forces protect them for a while longer?)

Anyway, the traditional way for societies to on-purpose handle large groups of unemployed young men is by starting wars (some of Putin's Chechen adventures probably have less to do with a desire to be at war in Chechnya and more to do with keeping the army busy so they're not being unemployed and bothering him in Moscow). Another frequent, but undesirable, outcome (from the point of view of governments, at least) is terrorism and/or revolution. A healthy, booming economy + a baby boom reaching adulthood seems to lead to things like the 1960s -- a cultural revolution since an economic one wasn't particularly necessary (which also seems like it'd be fairly unacceptable to the leadership in many Arabic countries). But the interesting thing, IMO, is to look at societies that have affirmatively attempted to absorb these groups of men into various forms of work WITHOUT sending them to war. National service programs are very popular -- the CCC in the US in the 1930s probably did a lot to prevent violence from breaking out. In the US and Canada, the frontier served as an important outlet for "excess men" for 150 years.

So the question isn't JUST about a healthy economy, but how to shape economic renewal so that it serves these groups of disenfranchised, left-behind young people and makes possible their transition to honorable adulthood (whatever that culturally entails -- from what I've read, marriage and independent housing are big in the Middle East, and economically hard to achieve). And if that can't be done by improving the economy alone, what tools are necessary to provide these honorable adulthoods? Generous educational funding? Meaningful work, even if it's helping build national parks essentially for food and cigarette money? Overseas service in a "peace corps" type organization? Those are all very western ideas, I'm sure there are honorable adult roles I'm not even aware exist that governments could focus on that would improve communities while giving young people a pathway to honorable adulthood.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:46 AM on January 24, 2016 [21 favorites]


The Revolutionary War was over in 1783, and pretty quiescent some time beforehand.
And there were economic-driven riots all over, from 1783 to 1789.


There's also the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, and Shay's Rebellion earlier. Not to mention that the Articles of Confederation were a mess and had to be replaced by the Constitution. And, of course, things didn't improve for the slaves, if they weren't made even worse, given that the British ended slavery well before America did. So, yeah.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:26 AM on January 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


...will large groups of unemployed women also become a point of destabilization as their transition-to-adulthood becomes more identical to men's? Or will cultural forces protect them for a while longer?

When immature men get frustrated and enraged, there's a good chance that they will respond with attempts to destroy their surroundings physically. When immature women get frustrated and enraged, there's a good chance that they will respond with attempts to destroy each other socially.

Some of that is undoubtedly cultural, but there's a certain amount of biology in operation there as well. Testosterone is a hell of a drug, especially for new users.
posted by flabdablet at 10:07 AM on January 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


That Guardian piece is very powerful. Thank you for posting it, man of twists and turns.

For example:
"one thing I do remember, one thing I know: the sense of possibility was real. It may have been naive to believe our dream could come true, but it was not foolish to believe that another world was possible. It really was. Or at least that’s how I remember it."
posted by doctornemo at 10:36 AM on January 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


the lack of empathy in America about nationhood is amazing

"so if someone from another country decides you would be better off with their culture and their form of government, should they use military force to try to impose it for your own good?"

hell no!

"isn't this what American policy is doing?"

wait, that's not the same because we are objectively right and everyone else is objectively wrong!
posted by idiopath at 1:13 PM on January 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


the Arab world also has its own "Baby Boom" right now

youth bulges!*

the traditional way for societies to on-purpose handle large groups of unemployed young men is by starting wars

or marry them :P

also btw...
The Grand Strategy of Rising Superpower Management
The big geostrategic danger, I think, is of a Wilhelmine China. Wilhelmine Germany was a rising economic superpower ruled by a class that had lost its social role. Faced with internal dissent, it contemplated busying giddy minds with foreign quarrels as a way to distract popular attention from internal problems and debates. Needless to say, this ended in total disaster for generations of Germans. But is China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone and its adventurism in the South China Sea an attempt to cheaply accomplish the primacy-of-internal-politics foreign-affairs strategy that Shakespeare’s Henry IV Lancaster recommended on his deathbed to his son the future Henry V? And, if so, how to lead China’s elite to the realization that, in the words of the computer in the movie “War Games”: “The way to win this game is not to play”?
or to bring it back home...
What Donald Rumsfeld Knew We Didn't Know About Iraq
Rumsfeld’s urgent tone said a great deal about how seriously the head of the Defense Department viewed the report’s potential to undermine the Bush administration’s case for war. But he never shared the eight-page report with key members of the administration such as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell or top officials at the CIA, according to multiple sources at the State Department, White House and CIA who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. Instead, the report disappeared, and with it a potentially powerful counter-narrative to the administration’s argument that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons posed a grave threat to the U.S. and its allies, which was beginning to gain traction in major news outlets, led by The New York Times...

The rationale for the invasion has long since been discredited, but the JCS report, now declassified, which a former Bush administration official forwarded in December, nevertheless has implications for both sides in the 2016 presidential race, in particular the GOP candidates who are relying for foreign policy advice on some of the architects of the war, and the Democratic front-runner, who once again is coming under fire from her primary opponent for supporting the invasion.

Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, whose military assistant was on the short list of people copied on the JCS report, is one of Jeb Bush’s foreign policy experts. Other supporters of the war, though they do not appear to have been aware of the JCS report, are involved in the various advisory roles in the 2016 campaign. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is advising Ted Cruz; and Elliott Abrams and William Kristol are supporting Marco Rubio, whom Reuters reported is also briefed regularly by former Cheney adviser Eric Edelman.

The rise of ISIL and recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have given Democrat Bernie Sanders the ability to draw a straight line from the current Middle East chaos straight back to Clinton’s vote in favor of what he calls “one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the modern history of the United States,” a conflict that has claimed the lives of 4,500 Americans and some 165,000 Iraqis.
and not to range too far afield, the frontline documentary on netanyahu touches on his incredulousness with obama's apparent naïveté in backing arab spring movements in toppling nominal allies and 'enemies', which debate all you want our commitment/capacity for nation building/colonialism, neo-liberal/conservative ambitions and who's being naive? not going to war with iran -- speaking of growing up and getting out of the game -- maybe gives some hope for a 'persian spring'* (perhaps with wider implications)? i'm projecting here, but i just started reading _the swerve_* and while the narrative of "how modern western secular culture liberated itself from the deadening hand of centuries of medieval religious dogmatism" is probably too pat, the idea of renaissance humanism can come and go over the centuries, but i guess it doesn't hurt to have revolutionary poets (demagogues?) to help speak them into existence.
posted by kliuless at 2:22 PM on January 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


When I think of excellent Middle East diplomacy, I sure as hell don't think of the British.

Fair enough. Except that was the link to the Sykes-Picot agreement. Which is a good way to say "hey, this discussion's at risk of getting outside my reference frame. What if I reframe it to something safe, like 'British colonialism sucked.'?". British colonialism did suck, but we're here discussing the here and now, and this is history we can influence and make sure it doesn't suck. I'd rather do that.
posted by ambrosen at 5:41 PM on January 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


we're here discussing the here and now, and this is history we can influence and make sure it doesn't suck.

Seems to me that the least morally indefensible course for the US is to GTFO of the Middle East, watch in horror as the local power-brokers batter each other and the peoples of their region back into something like the customary web of power balances, and accept all the consequent refugees.

Bernie Sanders is completely correct to sheet home the blame for the current particularly disgusting and dangerous state of the Middle East to PNAC's little adventure in Iraq and all those who supported it.

All members of the "Coalition of the Willing", and the US in particular, now bear a moral responsibility to do everything in their power to (a) avoid inflaming the region even further and (b) make good the losses incurred by the victims of their recent recklessness.

No attempt to analyze the Middle East in any way that assumes that any conflict there is about Good Guys vs Bad Guys, in order to figure out which Good Guys deserve some degree of military support this particular minute, can possibly do any good. The single most helpful thing the US could do is negotiate with Russia to create and enforce a total arms sales embargo on the entire region. But I don't expect to see that happen within my lifetime; there's just too much money to be made by a completely unscrupulous minority out of maintaining the Middle East as a permanently unstable shithole, regardless of how much damage that does to everybody else.
posted by flabdablet at 8:40 PM on January 24, 2016


There were, after all, literally millions of voices warning them how stupid they were being before they did it.
posted by flabdablet at 9:12 PM on January 24, 2016



srboisvert wrote:
". . . the British mostly understand what they did and what went wrong. America on the other hand . . ."

Cool Papa Bell
:
When I think of excellent Middle East diplomacy, I sure as hell don't think of the British.

The linked article includes:

" . . . in a 2002 interview with The New Statesman, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw observed 'A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now, I have to deal with now, are a consequence of our colonial past. ... The Balfour Declaration and the contradictory assurances which were being given to Palestinians in private at the same time as they were being given to the Israelis — again, an interesting history for us but not an entirely honourable one.'"

Understanding, of course, does not necessarily offer resolution.
posted by 0rison at 9:55 PM on January 24, 2016


Jack Straw doesn't know history. At the time the Balfour declaration was made there were no Israelis, of course, and there were no Palestinians except in the sense that everybody in then-Palestine might be called a Palestinian.

Contrary to Cool Papa Bell I would say this was a brilliant piece of diplomacy: the British made a secret promise to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, that he would become "king of all the Arabs". In exchange for this, he agreed to rebel against the Ottomans. At that point Britain had no way of fulfilling their promise and (as later events showed) they wouldn't have fulfilled it anyway. A few years later they made a contrary (and public) statement that Britain favoured "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people".

After WW1, and primarily because they had made all these promises, Britain secured League of Nations Mandates over then-Palestine and then-Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq). However, instead of satisfying any of their promises they gave Mesopotamia to one of Hussein's sons; chopped Palestine in half and gave that half (Transjordan, now Jordan) to another of his sons; and very begrudgingly allowed themselves to be run out of the rest of Palestine when it got too expensive, just after supplying and training the Jordanian army.

Consequently, instead of there being one country there were at least four (Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Hussein having been kicked out by Abdulaziz ibn Saud). The new countries were weak and easily controlled or influenced by Britain, which had substantial influence across the region for many decades - still has influence today. If that's bad diplomacy I'd like to see some better.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:29 PM on January 24, 2016 [3 favorites]




Of men and mayhem: A large population of young, idle males is a recipe for war - "Work and wedlock can tame them."
posted by kliuless at 9:48 PM on January 31, 2016


The blog Point of No Return often has good material on Mizrahi Jews. I thought today's post on the history of Tunisian Jewry was interesting:
Edging the Jews out of Tunisia
Less than one per cent of the Jewish community remains in Tunisia. Their marginalisation and exodus is almost complete. Here is a useful timeline [...]
The post also links to timelines for Jews in other Arab countries:
Yemen
Libya
Iraq
Syria/Lebanon
Morocco
Egypt
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:50 PM on February 1, 2016




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