Bryan Caplan  

ISIS and Reproach

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When historians write the history of ISIS, they will probably treat it as part of the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.  But they should also closely connect it to the Arab Spring.  Without the Arab Spring, an internecine civil war would not have broken out in Syria; and without such a civil war in Syria, ISIS wouldn't have had half a country in which to incubate. 

But will historians connect the dots?  For the Iraq War connection, historians' leftist sympathies are probably strong enough to overpower the natural human reluctance to cry over spilled blood.  For the Arab Spring, however, historians' dominant ideology actually reinforces their aversion to reproach.  Googling "Arab Spring disaster" continues to return very few pertinent high-status hits.  There is one op-ed in the New York Times, but its "disaster" isn't the Arab Spring, but ISIS itself. 

Google's top hit (sans quotes) remains Daniel Greenfield's decidedly non-mainstream 2013 piece in Frontpage Mag.  While I reject Greenfield's hawkish worldview, he is right to reproach Arab Spring boosters like Thomas Friedman for their failure to reproach themselves.  These two Greenfield passages have been lodged in my head since I first read them about a year ago:

"The term 'Arab Spring' has to be retired. There is nothing springlike going on," Friedman says. "It's best we now speak of the 'Arab Decade' or the 'Arab Quarter Century.'"

Why not the Arab millennium or the Arab trillion years. Like the guy who keeps predicting the world will end, it's safest to set your dates as far as possible. And 10-25 years later, no one will remember what Friedman predicted let alone that he even existed.

When your predictions don't succeed, just postpone them as far as possible. The people who promised us a positive transformation are now promising us a Thirty Years War.

Friedman's argument is that of the man who sets a house on fire because it's in bad shape. Well you can't blame him. It was a bad house. Now it's a pile of burning rubble.
It is tempting to say that mainstream historians would be open to Greenfield's points if he made his points with civility.  But I doubt it.  The fruitfulness of "dredging up the past" is hard enough to swallow without a side dish of crow.

P.S. Please point out any solid counter-examples in the comments.

COMMENTS (11 to date)
E. Harding writes:

Exactly, Bryan. When I got Google Earth in June/July 2010 (mainly to do research for my blog's most-viewed page), I saw a vast contrast between the chaos and damage that had wrecked Arab Iraq with the stability and peace of nearby Syria. I thought this stability would continue for at least thirty more years due to my hope for the future of the non-Iraqi Middle East after the end of U.S. intervention in Iraq. For Aleppo to have become a battle zone in less than two years would have been considered by me to be extraordinary, much more in tune with speculative fiction than any even remotely plausible course of events. By early 2013, I looked at the ironic stability of Iraq compared to the horrific civil war going on in Syria. In late January 2013, I saw that both countries were screwed, with ISIS taking Fallujah. Thus, from my perspective, the broader Middle East (outside Iraq) began going to hell in December 2010. There was certainly no ISIS in the Sinai nor in Libya in mid-2010, and even Yemen was more stable.

Hazel Meade writes:

I couldn't agree more. The Arab Spring has turned out to be ineffectual to disasterous in it's outcomes, and nobody seems willing to recognize this.

I won't list the entire litany of failures, but with respect to Syria it has resulting in nothing if not an unmitigated catastrophe. Years of civil war, which we thoroughly instigated with our half-hearted support of the rebels. Not that full on support was likely to change anything, but there was at least a remote chance if they had managed to pull of a quick revolution that ISIS would not have found a fertile environment.
However, once the situation really deteriorated, we ought to have cut a deal with Assad, instead of waffling for YEARs.
We STILL ought to cut a deal with Assad.
He generously offered to rid himself of his chemical weapons and got little in return for that.

Furthermore, before Syria was destabilized Iraq was under control. It's still possible that Maliki's incompetence would have alienated the Sunni. But you have to note that there were YEARS of civil war in Syria before ISIS took over Western Iraq. Which is something of a testament to how well the "surge" really worked.

And lets not forget that numerous observers warned that Syria's chaos was destabilizing Iraq well before it actually happened.

Anyone who has been paying attention ought to be able to draw a straight line between the Arab spring the ISIS. If they havn't poked their own eyes out.

Hazel Meade writes:

On a side note here is this article in the Washington Post, recalling Putin's famous open letter to the American opeple in a Times Op-Ed in Sept 2012:

And here is the Times op-ed:

Yaakov writes:

In 2005-2006 Israel launched a small scale experimental Arab spring, when it abandoned the Gaza strip. The results of that experiment, which were well available in 2009, after the Gaza strip was taken over by Hamas, and a multitude of missiles shot all over the south of Israel at civilians, should have been taken more seriously by those dreaming of an Arab spring. The Israeli voters have learned the lesson and that is why the government of Israel is probably not going to try a similar experiment in the West Bank.

So at least in Israel there are many people who understand the grave mistake made in trying to democratize the Arab countries.

I did a search in Hebrew for Arab Spring (האביב הערבי) and disaster (אסון) and found:
1) an article on a report of HSBC bank that the Arab spring was an economic disaster.

2) A quote attributed to Ari Shavit, a prominent writer in the left leaning newspaper Haaretz, that the Arab spring was a disaster.

3) A quote of former minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer saying (regarding Egypt) Obama does not understand the disaster he brought on the Middle East. ( This source further states that in polls, 70% of the Jewish respondents in Israel said the Arab Spring would not lead to democracy.

While I could not find much more, I believe that is because we are still very close to the events. I strongly believe that in Israel, there will be a consensus that the Arab Spring was a failure.
From my limited perspective, I believe that is the case already.

Final note: maybe what you need to search for is Arab Spring failure. See what the Economist wrote:

Floccina writes:

I was just talking about this yesterday, as much as I was against Bushes crazy war, I cannot blame ISIS on him, it was the Arab spring. If Sadaam was still in power the Arab spring may have happened in the Shiite par Iraq also with massive slaughter of the same ensuing.

Rob writes:

A good example of a mainstream foreign policy strategist speaking out against support for the Arab Spring, specifically air strikes on Libya, is Dr Henry Kissinger. He wrote articles at the time, however, the below video provides his views on the subject:

The argument seems to be that you can never be certain of which parties will gain control of government during or after a political revolution.

Little Tripoli writes:

As this article makes clear, the Arab Spring doesn't happen in a vacuum:

Obama's approach to FP seemingly driven by a desire for a grand rapprochement with Iran a la Nixon, as well as campaign promises to erase the blot of ill-founded occupation meant that he effectively handed over external influence across Iraq and Syria to Iran.

It might work. The perspective of the administration appears to be that this approach will pay dividends in the mid to long term (10-15 years hence). Oil prices could help too. But in the meantime he threw the green revolution and the Syrian democrats under a bus and left the field open to sectarians and fanatics whilst removing the stabilizing influence of an American military presence in Mesopotamia.

Aaron R. writes:

I may have a decent counterexample. Tunisia does seem to be better off than it was under Ben-Ali.

The moderate Islamist party took power early on, governed moderately, and then handed over power peacefully when it lost the next election. It then announced its plans to regroup and regain a mandate when the next elections are called.

Market reforms are under way. Liberalization and denationalization continue, and the country appears to be stable.

As far as I know, this is the only success story.

Ismail writes:

Each country within the Arab Spring is different and so would have different outcomes.
Tunisia has had a relatively better time. See good analysis by Francis Ghiles

The differences in each country makes it difficult to have predicted all good or all bad for the Arab Spring as a whole. One need only compare today's Poland and Ukraine for different outcomes after communism.

E. Harding writes:

David, do you at least agree with Assad? That the U.S. should put pressure on Turkey to secure its border and on the Islamic State's foreign financiers?

E. Harding writes:

The previous comment was meant for another post and should be deleted. My bad.

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