Grand Strategy in the Age of Mass Destruction

9/11 and the Arab Spring


By J.R. Nyquist


After the tenth anniversary of 9/11 we find a democratic spirit sweeping the Middle East. This is a surprising result. President George W. Bush talked about the birth of democracy in the Arab world, and many regarded his statements as empty rhetoric. Since when did Arab have democratic inclinations? In 2003 the United States toppled Saddam Hussein and clumsily strove to give the Iraqi people a democratic state. In 2011 citizens of three Arab countries have either overthrown their respective dictators, or the process of overthrow is well underway. This has special implications for Russia and China, since two of the dictators were clients of the Moscow-Beijing axis.

We do not know whether the Arab Spring will result in genuinely democratic or liberal regimes in the end, or whether new dictators will rise out of these mass movements. At the moment, the situation looks hopeful. Positive signs are being emphasized in the Western press. It is heartening to see the courage and public spirit of people in Egypt, Libya and Syria. We identify with millions of brave Arab protestors who openly express the values on which our society was founded. The potential of a new opening is tantalizing. At the same time, with dictators pressed to the wall, there is a new instability. Some believe the Middle East is on the brink of a cataclysmic war.  

It is a fact that Arab regimes of the national socialist type, such as Khaddafy’s regime and Mubarak’s and Assad’s, have been predicated on oppression, long-term war preparations, and hatred of Israel. It is difficult to make peace with dictators who wish to divert their citizens from domestic conditions. Economic development has also been retarded. In Egypt, peace was secured by Sadat after he broke with the Soviet Union, though prosperity was not advanced under an Arab socialist regime. In the case of Khaddafy’s Libya and Assad’s Syria, no break with Moscow ever occurred. Support for terrorism continued. But now things are changing as dictators face widespread revolt.

The history of revolution is not always a happy history. The great optimism and excitement of the French Revolution had Thomas Jefferson convinced that something positive was underway. Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, correctly anticipated that the democratic revolution in France would turn to injustice, and injustice would lead to the rise of a military dictator. Will the revolutions in Egypt and Libya follow a similar course? Does the fall of the old dictators merely signify the arrival of new dictators? And is the West, therefore, passing through a phase of naïve optimism in this regard?

The general of Israel’s Homefront Command, Major-General Eyal Eisenberg, recently told the Institute for National Security Studies that the Egyptian-Israeli border is being transformed from a peaceful frontier to a terrorist frontier. The changes in Egypt are not all to the good. Eisenberg also noted that Israel’s ties with Turkey have deteriorated. During a press conference last week, Eisenberg said, “After the Arab Spring, we predict that a winter of radical Islam will arrive.” It is worth noting, of course, that Eisenberg’s pessimistic assessment was not shared by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Other generals also disagreed with Eisenberg. “The pronouncement came from a very young general,” said Major-General Uzi Dayan in an interview with the Daily Telegraph (UK).

Perhaps optimism is warranted, since the courage of a rising generation of Arabs might open the way to new opportunities for regional peace, freedom and prosperity. If dictators cannot violently suppress popular resistance in the Arab world, then what future does dictatorship have in the region? What future could terrorism enjoy?

The scientific student of revolution, Gustave Le Bon, wrote that revolutions “cannot modify the minds of the peoples; revolutions have never effected more than ironical changes of words and superficial transformations.” In the case of the Arab Spring, that people are sick of present-day dictators. But will the foreign policy of the new Egypt, or the new Libya, be more enlightened? “The political system which a nation adopts is not a matter of great importance,” wrote Le Bon. “This vain exterior costume, like all costumes, is without real influence on the mind of those it covers.”

Watching interviews with Arab men and women on the streets of Tripoli one is struck by a thunderbolt of optimism. It is impossible to take seriously the pessimistic assessments of Le Bon when we are in the presence of revolutionary idealism. Listen to the new Arab democrats talk. How much sense they make! The old dictator is a liar, they say. “He always lies.” Nobody will believe in dictators again, it seems. And therefore, democracy is unstoppable. There is something exhilarating in such thinking. The point is made, again and again, that dictatorship is not going to be tolerated in the future. Here is a spirit of freedom and defiance, combined with common sense. The lie has suffered defeat.

We have been witnessing the fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Khaddafy in recent days. With a rebel victory almost assured, five international oil companies have arrived on the scene to get the country’s oil production back on track.  It is not difficult to predict, therefore, that the price of oil is going to fall once again, and the global economy will have occasion for optimism. At the same time, however, the Assad regime in Syria may not hold out much longer, and has sent tanks against peaceful protestors. But this strategy is not apparently working. Some tank units have joined the protestors. And as the protests continue to spread, the Assad regime is weakening. The situation is so bad that Russia is advising Assad to negotiate. After four months, with nearly 2,500 protestors killed and 26,000 arrested, with food prices skyrocketing and the economy in tatters, the Assad regime is losing. The Syrian people appear to be exasperated, and nothing will satisfy them short of the dictator’s fall.

The leaders of Russia and China watch these developments with apprehension. Already there are signs that the Russian public is unhappy with Putin’s regime, and the Chinese are increasingly unhappy with their Communist bosses. How fragile these dictatorships are, in fact. Once the masses realize their power, there is nothing the dictator can do. His troops may defect, his generals may flee the country, and his orders may not be followed. Every totalitarian state can unravel, especially when it has lost popularity. Elections are slated for Russia next year, and many Russians are coming to see that Putin is a liar. The Kremlin has warned NATO against supporting the protestors in Syria. The spread of democracy must now be stopped.

Possibly related to all this, the managers of Moscow’s three airports say they are running out of aviation fuel. But how can this be? Russia has a plentiful supply of oil from which aviation fuel is made. Publicly, the Russian government pretends bafflement. “We don’t know why there is a shortage of aviation fuel,” says the Kremlin. A few brave observers in the Russian media began to suggest that the Defense Ministry has sucked up the missing aviation fuel. In response to this, the Kremlin argued that the shortages were due to a failure of rail shipments. (Suddenly they know the cause of the shortage.) And yet the shortage in Moscow seems to be occurring further to the East as well, in Ekaterinburg, where the Koltsovo airport received only half its usual shipment of aviation fuel. The question occurs as to whether Russia is preparing an airlift to stabilize Syria.

The Arab Spring has turned the Middle East upside down. Nobody knows, as yet, how it will come out. The Arab people occupy a vast territory with many oil-rich countries. The West’s positive help to the democrats in Egypt, and to the rebels in Libya, may prove effective in terms of securing future economic cooperation. To what extent have Arabs consciously or unconsciously absorbed Western political ideas? The next two years will see whether the Arab Spring evolves toward peace and prosperity, or another round of despotism.