Arab uprisings: is it best to do nothing?
I've been thinking some more about the Arab uprisings which surely will come to be seen as the defining events of 2011, just as the end of Communism in Europe came to define 1989. Soon we'll be marking the first anniversary of the death by self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street-seller who sparked the uprisings, so perhaps it's a good time to try to take stock.
(Incidentally, you may remember that when the Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai was asked his opinion of the French revolution, he replied: "It's too soon to tell." This was in the early 1970s, but unfortunately, it now turns out that he was referring to the events of 1968, not 1789, which rather ruins the story.)
The trouble with revolutions is that they tend to be processes, rather than events. In the words of Professor Stephen Walt, of Harvard university, writing in Foreign Policy this week: "If the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process."
He offers three examples. First, the French revolution: the Bastille was stormed in 1789; Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed four years later; Napoleon didn't come to power until 1799. In other words, a full decade of turmoil and terror followed the initial uprising.
Or how about the Russian revolution? The Tsarist regime was overthrown in March 1917; the Bolsheviks came to power several months later, but then there was a grim civil war which didn't end until 1923. And there was, of course, continued turmoil - pogroms, massacres, and purges -- for many years after that.
His third example is the Iranian revolution of 1978-9. The Shah was desposed in January 1979; Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France a month later, but then there was a prolonged period of political unrest and uncertainty. The country's first post-revolution president, Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, was impeached in 1981 over his resistance to rule by the clerics - and you could argue that the debate over the role of the clerical establishment in Iran remains unresolved to this day.
All of which, I suppose, tends to lead to the conclusion that no, this is not yet a good time for a definitive assessment of the Arab uprisings. For one thing, in some countries the uncertainty is far from over: in Syria, most obviously, but also in Yemen, despite the transition of power agreement signed last week, and in Bahrain, where strains between the Sunni ruling family and the Shia majority continue to fester.
A sense of history may also be useful when outside governments consider how best they can shape events that are still in a state of flux. Professor Walt argues: "History ... warns that outside powers have at best limited influence over the outcomes of a genuine revolutionary process. Even well-intentioned efforts to aid progressive forces can backfire, as can overt efforts to thwart them. Overall, a policy of "benevolent neglect" may be the more prudent course ..."
I spoke a few days ago to the Syria analyst Peter Harling, of the conflict resolution think tank the International Crisis Group, who takes a very similar view. He warned in his most recent report: "At a time when the international community is feeling a compulsion to do something, the overriding principle should remain to do no harm."
Don't rush to impose tighter economic sanctions, he argued, because they risk turning Syria into a pariah state and would enable the Assad regime to galvanise support against an "international conspiracy" - and don't rush to legitimise the Syrian political "opposition", who may have little, if any, support among the actual protesters on the streets of Syria's towns and cities.
Politicians hate doing nothing. They are genetically programmed to act, to intervene, to initiate, because they are convinced that if they get it right, they can help to make the world a better place. After all, who'd vote for politicians who just sat on their hands all day, gazing out of the window at the mayhem all around them?
But sometimes, the wisest of them could be the ones who do least. So in my dreams, one day, when I ask a minister what s/he intends to do about the latest outbreak of violence somewhere, I'll get the reply: "You know what? I think for now the best thing to do is nothing."