The two classic revolutions of the modern era, in France and Russia, each developed, much to the surprise of virtually all participants, over a period of months or years in an agonizing, haphazard, drunken lurching. Both Tsar Nicolas and Louis XVI were relatively moderate and well meaning but pathetically incompetent leaders whose decency translated into tragic irresolution to the point that they hamstrung reforms and thereby provoked the emergent extremism of Robespierre and Lenin. Is the Muslim world–victim of death squads funded by petrosheikhs, neo-colonialist invasions, sectarian conflict, and of course the traditional elite revanchist efforts to stab all reform efforts in the back—now in the midst of a similar revolutionary process?
If the decade of internecine conflict in Mideast/Central Asian Muslim societies constitutes a new example of the pattern that bedeviled the French and Russian societies, it would behoove us to recall that the results of undermining genuine reform in both those cases was to prolong the agony for at least a century. The French experienced not just the Napoleonic disaster but the reemergence of elite repression and really did not escape from the evil aftereffects of revolutionary excess until the de Gaulle era. Russians suffered from the horrors of Bolshevism for three generations, and good, democratic governance remains little more than mist on the political horizon to this day. Betrayal of the egalitarian aspirations of a repressed population, once moved to defend its interests, provokes a rapid explosion of extremism followed by generations of struggling to clean up the mess.
Already, the parallels between Muslim societies since, say, 9/11, and the two great historical revolutions are thought-provoking.U.S. military involvement and the setting up of Western client regimes that effectively export the oil for which Westerners so thirst while leaving their people impoverished, repressed, and as hungry as Russian peasants in WWI or French peasants still, in 1789, trying to recover from the military excesses of Louis XIV are likely to provoke the rise of Muslim Terror much as Prussian invasion of France provoked the rise of Robespierre or German invasion in WWI provoked the rise of Bolshevism.
The House of Saud sits on a political and social house of cards fully the equal of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles. The main pillar of their support–the descendants of the extreme, fundamentalist Wahhabi sect that partnered with the Saud family to conquer the desert in the first place—is likely to end up being the worst enemy of the House of Saud, as, indeed, some Saudi officials are beginning to perceive. In Iraq, Maliki’s self-serving political machinations seemed fully as divorced from his people’s interests as those of any Russian tsar or French king.
The explosion of anti-foreign violence following the U.S. invasion of Iraq brings to mind the rise of revolutionary military vigor following the Prussian invasion to quell the emerging French revolution. The string of Islamic State successes has been almost too easy to be believed; clearly, many states are providing secret support for short-term goals quite likely to backfire. Perhaps the ISIS balloon will indeed pop, but the risk of an Islamic crusade with the energy of Napoleon or international Bolshevism in return for a few short-term payoffs is not worth taking.
Betrayal of reformers the minute their creativity becomes remotely embarrassing or uncomfortable for outside powers characterizes revolutions, which typically are begun by the downtrodden (i.e., the weak) and thus require external support from elites reluctant to share their privileges. Such betrayal provokes further resentment. England, Austria, and Prussia undermined the French Revolution; even though the West had nearly won victory in WWI, it gave little thought to what the new moderate, bourgeois regime in St. Petersburg needed to maintain power. The moderate, democratic “dream” movement (for the West) represented by Tahrir Square was simply sold out in favor of a new military dictatorship. Viewed from a regional perspective, the Islamic State is the Muslim world’s response to the Western betrayal of Tahrir Square; viewed from an Egyptian perspective, an extremist response far more bloody than Tahrir Square may be assumed to lie just over the horizon. The decision to do business as usual with the illegal military dictatorship that overthrew legally elected Morsi (with Algeria 1982 as dress rehearsal) will prove to have been a very short-sighted and self-defeating move for the West.
The pillaging of Iraq and Syria by ISIS; the Bolshevik overthrow of the first, bourgeois, semi-revolution; and the emergence of Robespierre (years) after the fall of the Bastille all exemplify what happens when a moderate reform wave is undermined so that it fails to provide either physical or economic security (much less human rights) to a desperate populace. Sunni support for ISIS barbarism roared down a highway paved by Maliki’s discriminatory anti-Sunni policies and his general incompetence. The same argument could be made for Syria…and Lebanon, which may be the next victim of Islamic revolutionary fervor. Governance both discriminatory and incompetent invites a level of rage that burns down the houses in which everyone lives.
Real revolutions are complex, uncontrolled, unpredictable, long-term processes with a multitude of built-in tipping points. Nothing about that process is inevitable. Typically, undesired outcomes are provoked by unnecessary short-term expediencies. Tsarist Russia had a good minister of agriculture; both the tsar and the moderate post-February revolution regime could have paid more attention to his critical advice. But, even after the February Revolution, “instead of land, the peasants received stones.” France, ruined by Louis XIV, may have been beyond help, but Turgot’s reforms under Louis XVI suggest otherwise. An effort to bring genuine reform to occupied Iraq, not to mention rejection of Reagan’s earlier policy of cooperating with Saddam, would likely have led to a profoundly different outcome from this summer’s collapse of national governance.
Real revolutions take time; they are energized by hostility. Now six years into his rule, Obama is right to be cautious about committing military force to Iraq. The U.S. bears far too much guilt for the mess in the Mideast to chase yet another quick fix mirage. The revolutionary beast is best caged by addressing the causes of its anger.