"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Guillotine, The Reign Of Terror, And The Arab Spring–The US Still Doesn’t Get It

No one ever said that the French Revolution was velvet or easy.  Approximately 50,000 people were executed during the Reign of Terror, and over 15,000 by the guillotine in Paris.

The initial Revolution in 1789 was a popular uprising to overthrow the monarchy and the nobility, both of which had gotten arrogantly out of touch (“Let them eat cake”); and after years of subjugation at the hand of the aristocracy, the peasants had had enough.  Louis XVI and his consort Marie Antoinette were summarily deposed and decapitated. 

That might have been enough for some countries – there was little violence in Romania after Ceausescu and his wife were executed; and although there was some dechoucage after Papa Doc was exiled– a selective destruction of the property of his henchmen and coterie -  there was no wholesale slaughter.  Mussolini was strung up by the feet, Moammar Qaddafi met an unceremonious end, but in neither Italy nor Libya was there the carnage of the Reign of Terror. Why did France turn so violent?. 

Some historians have suggested that the public was so frustrated that the social equality and anti-poverty measures that the revolution originally promised were not materializing,. Jacques Roux's Manifesto of the Enraged in 25 June 1793, describes the extent to which, four years into the revolution, these goals were largely unattained by the common people.  Encouraged by popular support, the Jacobins created a Committee of Public Safety, a body which was to rule with "near dictatorial power".

This arrogation of power to a very few who acted with no constraints or accountability produced the vengeful savagery of The Terror. Not only did the Jacobins feel it was their duty to expunge every last trace of the old aristocracy, they went on a witch hunt for their non-aristocratic enemies who were caught in the post-revolutionary sweep.

The Jacobins had an influential leader, Robespierre, a man who had the support of both his political colleagues and the patriotic support of French peasants who thought that their revolution had been coopted.  Robespierre said:

The goal of the constitutional government is to conserve the republic; the aim of the revolutionary government is to found it... The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the enemies of the people but death... These notions would be enough to explain the origin and the nature of laws that we call revolutionary ... If the revolutionary government must be more active in its march and more free in his movements than an ordinary government, is it for that less fair and legitimate? No; it is supported by the most holy of all laws: the salvation of the people. (Jacques Heynen ‘Murders without Assassins’)

On 5 February 1794, Robespierre stated, more succinctly, that, "Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible.” (Raymond P. Steams, Pageant of Europe).

No one has completely explained the savagery of The Terror – why otherwise normal, moral, and civically-responsible citizens could have become complicit in such a genocide; and why the movement’s leaders felt that only through the execution of thousands of supposed traitors that the Revolution could succeed.  Many have suggested that the Terror was no different from the Holocaust where ordinary Germans of varying sentiments, kept quiet or indirectly helped the Nazis carry out their gruesome work. French peasants followed their pre-Hitler, Robespierre.

The Terror, of course ended, and in 1799 Napoleon became First Consul of France.  Within a few short years he named himself Emperor, fought three wars with Russia, was finally defeated and exiled. Following Napoleon’s final defeat by the English at Waterloo, the Bourbons were restored to power in the person of Louis XVIII, and order was finally restored.

It took twenty-five years for the upheavals started by the French Revolution to subside. After the Reign of Terror, France was ready for an Emperor who would lead the country once again to glory, but without kings.  Napoleon said he had laudable aims that guided his European and Russian adventures.  He wanted one, unified, peaceful Europe, under his aegis, of course; but the vision appealed to many.  It took many more years for France to settle issues of monarchy, empire, and republic.

How is French Revolution relevant to the political upheavals in the Middle East today? The ‘revolutions’ in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia all started with a popular uprising and the downfall of dictators.  While Tunisia made the transition to a reasonable democracy, Egypt and Libya have not. In Egypt there was a counter-revolution in which the army, the former power, deposed Mohammed Morsi who himself had become an Islamist dictator.  The counter-revolution in Libya continues and is close to a civil war.

The ‘revolution’ in Syria has been transformed into an Islamist regional free-for-all, with neighboring countries scrambling to align themselves to their best advantage.  ISIS has emerged out of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria as a transnational force, one which has expressed its goal of a pan-Arab Muslim Caliphate and has made significant advances towards this end. The externally-sponsored ‘revolution’ in Iraq – the US deposition of Saddam Hussein – has resulted in even more chaos, and the country is only slightly less likely than Syria to descend into full-scale civil war.  The Kurds are making life difficult for Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

The point is that it is revolutions are messy affairs and the toppling of dictators or autocrats usually leads to a power vacuum into which differing political factions enter and  fight for influence, power, and money. A country is lucky if it has only one revolution and is not subjected to decades of factional rivalries, wars, and bloodshed.

The United States has been myopic in its view of the Middle East.  From its overly optimistic and idealistic assumption that liberal democracy would directly follow from the deposition of a dictator; or that the Syrian opposition – seemingly by the force of its moral authority and democratic credentials alone – would topple Bashir al-Assad. The US has misunderstood the most fundamental principle of revolution – almost always it is the result of factional interests as much as it is popular anger.  The Reign of Terror and the French Revolution itself was partly a result of the struggle between the Jacobins and the Girondins. The overthrow of Ceausescu, many political observers agree, was not a popular uprising but a coup.

As we have seen time and time again in recent years, there is no such thing as a ‘popular uprising’. Leadership and organization are always necessary to create a political force; and in most cases different factions vie for this leadership, often agreeing to fight within a coalition but privately knowing that they fight will go on far after revolutionary victory.

The United States sees Middle East conflict through the lens of 1776 – a heroic struggle for independence from the British, followed immediately by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and a representative government.  While it is amazing, given the scope of revolutionary history, that the US did not suffer the post-revolutionary paroxysms of the rest of the world, it is a mistake to take the American experience as a model.  It is the exception, not the rule.  So-called American ‘exceptionalism’ has its roots in varied ground, perhaps none so foundational as the Revolution and the years following. If we could do it, then all countries can.

Even a cursory analysis shows that our revolution and theirs are as dissimilar as possible.  If you exclude the Indians and African slaves, pre-Revolutionary America was relatively homogeneous and committed to the same goals and ideals of wealth, freedom, and a Christian God.  Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Turkey – any of the Middle East players for that matter – are dangerous and volatile mixes of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and every possible sub-sect and religious confession possible.  Saddam Hussein and the Egyptian military simply stifled their sectarian ambitions.  The same was true of Tito in the Balkans.  Once he was dead, the region exploded in ‘gimme mine’ violence.

Not only is it simplistic to assume that the countries of the Middle East will ‘get over it’ and see the light of Ronald Reagan’s ‘shining city on a hill’; it is wrong to conclude that they even want our brand of liberal democracy.

There is no sign that any of the factions fighting for supremacy, whether al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, al-Shabab, want pluralism and social equality.  Civil strife will end either when one faction gains complete and absolute control or when parity occurs – that is that all factions are relatively equal.  Other than that, liberal democracy, Yankee Go Home!


There is no doubt that most if not all Americans truly believe that the machine of history stopped when it arrived on our shores.  There could be no better political system than liberal democracy; no economic system more productive than the market; no social organization more suited to civil progress than pluralism, diversity, and inclusivity.  How shocked we are that many countries and their citizens are saying buzz off, we have a better way.  How could they believe that a theocracy is better than representative democracy? How could they believe that a Muslim Caliphate is preferable to a commonwealth of nations?

One has to have sympathy for poor Obama.  He doesn’t get it; and there is no way that he can.  The weight of American history, American institutions, American ethos and culture make it impossible for him or his claque of CIA, State Department, and Homeland Security officers to see clearly and objectively.

Not only are we up against an implacable enemy – Radical Islam – we can’t accept the fact that our enemies believe in their systems far more than we do in ours, and are ready to fight to the death for it.  We cannot even understand the foundations for these alien beliefs.

Inertia is such that it will take a long time for the lumbering Ship of State to do a left or right hard rudder.  For the time being, we are steaming on as though the water were calm and untroubled.

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