So far at the Israeli Presidential Conference, speakers have treated the so-called Arab Spring with guarded optimism. At last night’s plenary session, Bernard-Henri Levy insisted that the uprisings across the Arab world as a reaction to tyranny represented an opportunity for Israel to champion the cause of oppressed Arabs. In the morning session, however, historian Niall Ferguson took a much more pessimistic tone. Westerners who view the Arab uprisings as on par with the popular and peaceful revolutions that overthrew Soviet domination in eastern Europe are making a mistake, Ferguson warns, and the phrase “Arab Spring” is a misnomer.
Watching an oppressed people rise up against tyranny is easy to cheer, but the West and particularly Americans have underestimated the consequences of revolution. “Americans were euphoric in 1789 in Paris,” Ferguson reminded the audience. “They were euphoric in 1917 in Petrograd. They were euphoric in 1949 in China.” Those moments of popular revolt quickly turned sour and led to even greater oppression — and worse.
What happens in countries undergoing revolution, such as in the current Arab nations and in those historical examples? Capital flight almost always follows, which creates economic collapse, higher prices, and unemployment. The misery and anger that results plays into the hands of radicals who usually take the opportunity to find scapegoats for the collapse, from within as well as without. They seize power and begin to prosecute their hatreds in order to bolster their popularity — and if that dynamic follows in the Arab nations, that’s not going to be good news for Israel.
Therefore, Ferguson warns, the window for Israel to resolve its conflicts is closing faster than people imagine. As radicals take advantage of political and economic chaos, they will attempt to legitimize themselves with the masses by attacking Israel. The masses themselves are not necessarily progressive and Western-leaning anyway, Ferguson said, regardless of whether they Facebook and Twitter, a mistake that Ferguson says too many people are making in their optimism. “Annihilationist philosophies didn’t die with national socialism,” he warned. “It was resurrected in what we now call radical Islamism.” The so-called Arab Spring may be unleashing the forces behind that philosophy, and is at least as likely as a sudden wave of Western-style democratization.
Note: The Israeli Presidential Conference is covering my travel expenses.