Walter Russell Mead has recently described the events collectively known as the “Arab Spring” as the simultaneous occurrence in the Middle Events of events akin to Europe’s Thirty Years War and the French Revolution. On the one hand, the “Arab Spring” is akin to the Thirty Years War for its regional character and the intensity with which it pits religiously inspired groups against one another. On the other hand, the “Arab Spring” is akin to The French Revolution for its anti-authoritarian character and the promises it would seem to hold for freedom and democracy.
Described in this way — and this is in part the tenor of Mead’s analogies — one may forgive Obama for stumbling about somewhat in the Middle East. The Thirty Years War and the French Revolution rolled up in a single process: one doesn’t have to deal with that every day!
But it may be worth thinking for a moment about the possibility of a deeper common cause behind Mead’s interesting dual analogy for recent events in the Middle East. Because there is a link between the democratic aspirations embodied by the early “Arab Spring”, and the sectarian massacre it has since become.
As an illustration, recall that many of the territories in which the Arab Spring was supposed to blossom are lands of the former Ottoman Empire, centrally Syria.
Life in the areas ruled by the Ottomans was historically thoroughly local. Sure there was a Sultan far away somewhere; and if one had a real grievance about a neighbor, perhaps one could get a scribe to petition him (or, first, one’s local governor). But the Ottoman Empire constituted something closer to the de-centralized Roman Empire of the pre-Diocletian era than a repressive, centralized monarchy like France. As such, denizens of the Ottoman Empire knew who held ultimate sovereignty over the territories they inhabited, but life was defined by their proximate environment: the market in the village slightly larger than their own, the cattle-stealing thugs from the town on the next hill, the corrupt local patrician family imposing extortionary tax rates. Indeed in such contexts, more often than not the Sultan was an ally rather than a foe: a party that, if they were sufficiently responsive, could establish law and order and chastise any local potentates egregiously overstepping the norms of good governance. (Indeed, in a broader sense this element should inform our judgment on the grounds for monarchy as a form of political organisation).
But how does this reflection on the Ottoman empire shed light on the ‘Thirty Years War/French Revolution’ bifurcation present in the Arab Spring?
A first thing to note, simply historically speaking, is that imperial powers like the Ottomans always favored creating multi-ethnic territories, both in order to avoid any ethnic separatism, and to provide the regime with a way to politically pivot various parties against each other in a specific territory. As such, it is no coincidence that both the Middle East and the Balkans are so ethnically diverse, and have consequently had significant problems accommodating the democratic nation state.
My central point here, however, is that we should note that in an imperial or authoritarian political condition ethnicity is of very limited political relevance. After all, in such a condition there simply exists no politically feasible notion of national sovereignty for a majority population (much less sovereignty on a democratic basis). As such, in Ottoman times it didn’t really matter if in Syria you inhabited a Shi’ite area in a predominantly Sunni territory. You were not going to have political sovereignty anyway, and neither were your Sunni neighbors.
It is in this way that today’s ethno-religious strife in the Middle East should have been foreseen from the very introduction of democratic reform.
Since 2010 (or even since Iraq), suddenly populations around the Middle East have faced the paramount relevance of the ethnic composition of their ancestral territories: how many Sunnis are there, how many Shi’ites? Who will be enfranchised should elections be held, and who will face political subjugation? In this regard it is also no coincidence that many post-Ottoman states have historically had an avowedly secular authoritarian bent (or were even led by a small minority which depends on a unified state for survival, such as in Syria). After all, only by staunchly denying ethnic majoritarianism in favor of the trans-ethnic national character could these post-Ottoman states keep at bay the highly flammable cauldron of sectarian strife. (Indeed, in this regard we should not be surprised that since the Ottomans Middle East political culture has drifted from pan-Arabism to Arab social-nationalism to religious sectarianism today).
In this way, I think that far from seeing the sectarian character of today’s Middle Eastern developments as exculpating Obama’s policies, they constitute a indictment of his swift embrace of the Arab Spring. I have argued before that it is unclear to me to what extent the Tahrir protests really reflected a consensus Egyptian demand for democracy, or were rather inspired by the same global Occupy-style rallies that have occurred eve in democratic states.
But in any case, Obama should have realized that (as was the case in Iraq) the multi-ethnic character of the Middle East provides a certain grounds for secular authoritarianism. After all, to suggest a majoritarian democratic future for such territories inevitably and predictably leads to ethnic consolidation, efforts at ethnic cleansing, and dissolution of the apparatus of state.