One of the saddest, most devastating ideas of recent history was the “Arab Spring.” It was a false notion, pumped up by the Western media, both corporate and social, and abetted by our lofty-headed government, and the lofty-headed governments of several other rich Western nations.
The “Arab Spring” was based on a faulty premise: That liberalism is inevitable for all human societies. Westerners, blind to their own freakishness, got arrogant, and projected themselves onto other nation ill-prepared for it. The meltdowns from these projections are still reverberating, and indeed threaten the existence of Europe itself. To say that it boomeranged is to understate it immensely. What has consequently been unleashed is a massive and complicated nightmare. The Arab Spring may yet turn into the Western Fall.
I’m a realist. I only take realists seriously. I only want to hang out with realists. I only want realists for presidents. I only want realists for generals and military advisers.
In foreign policy circles, amazingly, “realist” is actually considered one of five or six schools of thought. There are actually four or five schools of thought outside of realism. Let that sink in a moment: In foreign policy circles, there are four or five schools of thought, outside of realism.
If you subscribe to a foreign policy philosophy other than realism, I have something very important and sobering to say to you: You’re unrealistic.
In what other profession, besides perhaps art or fiction writing, is anyone, who is not considered realistic, taken seriously?
When unrealistic people make geopolitical decisions, they tend to get hundreds of thousands of people killed.
I don’t believe unrealistic people should be making geopolitical decisions. In fact, they should be kept as far away from geopolitical policy-making as possible.
Because of Bush 43’s unrealism, Iraq got smashed. Because of Obama’s unrealism, Libya and Syria got smashed.
Because of Obama’s unrealistic prodding, Egypt, with its strong, sensible military tradition, indulged in a temporary flirtation with liberalism. Then, when that started going very badly, mercifully the generals came to their senses, and pulled Egypt back from the abyss and returned to authoritarianism and stability.
Whereas when Obama came into office, there was one writhing, convulsing nation (Iraq) handed to him on a platter by his predecessor, now there are two more: Libya and Syria. Three shattered nations. Now that Obama is nearly finished, courtesy of America, there are three festering disasters on a platter to hand to his successor. And a radical caliphate that has very predictably insinuated itself into the several vacuums. And a grave refugee crisis that threatens the very existence of Europe. Things have not gone well on Obama’s watch.
I believed the “Arab Spring” was a sham from the beginning. As a realist without my head stuck in the clouds, I strongly believed from the outset that it was a bad idea, and would whip up unrealistic passions, and end badly. My hope was that the existing dictators would keep a lid on their respective rebellious uprisings. And I hoped that America had learned the central lesson from our terrible Iraq misadventure: that toppling dictators leads to chaos, and chaos is very, very bad. I hoped we’d stay the fuck out, and let these people sort out their own problems.
Why should liberalism be obvious to Arabs? It is a crazy notion, with no historical precedent whatsoever, but one that many people carried, and indeed still carry, without question. Because liberalism is considered normal to many in the West, and inevitable.
But liberalism is not normal. It is an extreme outlier in world history. We in the liberal West are the freaks, not the norm, of the human experience.
And, on top of that shaky, fantastic footing, aggressive, bomb-filled military policy was implemented. And now, look at the horrible mess.
Arabs have only known tribal affiliation and monarchy for their entire existence. Indeed, most of humanity has known only these things. So Arabs, in their various tribal and monarchial configurations, are actually more normal, in the broad sweep of human history, than we Westerners are.
There is nothing remotely comparable in the Arab experience to the fitful, painful, centuries-in-the-making foundations upon which liberal Western civilization is built. And yet many in the West believed that our traditions could just simply be absorbed wholesale by Arab societies.
In our lofty, insulated American idealism, we fanned the flames of the “Arab Spring.” We meddled. We drew lines in the sand. We armed rebels. We bombed. We should not have. The flames were fanned, and fueled, by unrealistic people who don’t know their history. It has led to great misery, and profound crises.
Even today, when Obama talks about his regrets as president, he mentions, at the top of his list, the failure to plan for post-destabilization Libya. His attitude is: “Darn, we blew it.” He talks about it like it’s a game he lost, or a test he failed in school. As if it was an isolated incident from his past. Meanwhile, Libya continues to burn. Here, Mr. President, convulsing in front of you, is one of the results of your aggressive, idealistic policy. And you stand detached from it, as if it is a brain teaser that you couldn’t quite crack. The mess that the U.S. made continues to ravage Libya. But Obama refers to it in abstract terms, as if it was a vexing problem he once had.
It is not nearly lofty and idealistic enough for many pampered Westerners, but the cold hard reality of the Arab world is this: Secular dictatorships are the sole option. They are the best, indeed the only, bulwark against radical Islam. Secular dictators can be cruel, but radical Islam is far, far crueler.
It is why Reagan supported Saddam to contain revolutionary Iran. Reagan was a realist, a practical man, a strategic thinker. He knew that a metastasizing radical Islam was a much more serious threat to the world than secular dictators.
Toppling dictators leads to political chaos. In Islamic countries, political chaos leads to radical Islam. That’s the simple, irrefutable, realistic math of it. So, if you really want to fight radical Islam, then don’t go toppling Arab dictators. Use them, partner with them, to help fight the shared existential enemy.
We should have left Saddam, Ghadafi, and Assad alone. And we should have prevented our partners and clients from getting involved in any of these countries.
This is so obvious it’s embarrassing. Yet most people look at me blankly when I argue these points. I assume they don’t know their history and they’re out of their depth, or they’re just shocked that I’m so unfeeling, in my lack of faith in the inevitability of lovely liberalism. But the lofty, aggressive liberals are the unfeeling ones, in their failure to account for the mountain of bodies, and continued chaos and terror, left in the wake of their aggressive idealism.
I regard the return of foreign policy realism, as so clearly described by Dick Cheney in a 1994 interview about the First Gulf War, eight years before 9/11 altered his brain chemistry, as one of the most important moral issues of our time.
No other school but realism will do.
But while I regard realism in foreign policy as the most important issue of our time, in my experience most people regard it as an abstraction, as an interesting topic of parlor conversation, about something far away that will not affect them. These people are safely ensconced in their theoretical world, removed from and incognizant of the real, terrible consequences of their cherished theories applied aggressively.
People who deal in theory often have good intentions, but they don’t always understand how things actually work. So you can wish for freedom and liberalism for the Arabs, but if you don’t understand their societies, or the exceptionality of your own, your good wishes, backed by guns and money, can lead to disaster.
This is what has happened in the Middle East and Central Asia in the past 15 years. And three nations have been shattered, trillions of dollars have been wasted, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, radical Islam is festering and ascendant, and an existentially grave refugee crisis is spilling all over Europe. These are the fruits of the un-realists.
We should never put idealistic people in charge of foreign policy. Foreign policy should exclusively be the province of realists, of practical problem solvers.