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Arab Spring, Israeli Winter

Since the late 1980s, I have argued that the fundamental question in war and foreign affairs has changed. It is no longer which state will triumph over which other state. The new question is whether, in the face of the rise of powerful non-state entities, the state system itself will survive.

The two most important books on that question were both written by Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld. The first is The Transformation of War [1], the second is The Rise and Decline of the State [2]. Though published later, Rise and Decline offers the historical evidence behind the thesis in Transformation and is best read first.

Over the years Martin and I have become friends. I recently interviewed him on the subject of the misnamed “Arab Spring” and its potential outcomes for Israel. America’s neoconservatives have cheered events in the Arab world, thinking that the weakening or destruction of Arab states would benefit Israel. Van Creveld offers a useful corrective to that optimistic assessment.

 

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The American Conservative: Does the Arab Spring point to summer or winter for Israel?

Martin van Creveld: For Israel so far, the “spring” has been a minor disaster. Let’s not waste time on countries such as Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, which are far away and whose impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict is relatively minor. The revolution in Egypt has led to a sharp deterioration in the relations between that country and Israel. The fate of Syria hangs in the balance, but it is entirely possible that the fall of the Assad regime will result in anarchy and cause Syria to turn into a second Afghanistan, a base for anti-Israel terrorism. Jordan too is not necessarily immune.

TAC: What is really going on in the Arab Spring? Is it the rise of democracy and “freedom” as the West defines it? Or something very different?

MVC: The situation seems to vary from one country to another. In Tunisia, the so-called Yasmin revolution has led to the installation of a relatively moderate Islamic government. Whether or not that means democracy, will, however, only be put to the test if and when the time comes for another election which the opposition may win. In Libya, the outcome has been virtual disintegration of the central state which is unable to cope with the various regional militias. Yemen following the revolution has become even more anarchic and more of a stamping ground. In Egypt, the most important effect of the revolution so far has been the loss of control over the Sinai, which likewise is becoming, [or] has already become, a haven for terrorists and criminals. As I said earlier, the fate of Syria hangs in the balance.

It would seem that, in each country, four outcomes are possible. They are, first, the substitution of one military dictator for another; second, the rise of an Islamic dictatorship; third, anarchy; and fourth, democracy. Generally speaking, the last possibility is the least likely one. The reason for this is the persistence of tribalism, which makes democracy very difficult to achieve.

To use a historical analogy, ere Cleisthenes was able to establish the world’s first true democracy in ancient Athens he had to demolish the tribes into which the population was divided. In Rome, by contrast, the survival of the tribes led to the creation of an aristocratic republic. Only late in the second century B.C. did attempts at greater democratization get under way: the outcome, as we know, was military dictatorship.

TAC: American neocons reportedly played a major role in devising for Likud a strategy that called for the destruction of every Middle Eastern state that could threaten Israel—with no thought about what might replace those states. Are you aware of this strategy? What role has it played in events we are now witnessing? Does it remain Israel’s strategy today?

MVC: I’d say that, as the invasion of Iraq showed, the neocons have grossly overestimated their own ability to influence events in the Arab world. Typical of them! As to Israel, as far as I know it was as much taken by surprise by those events as anybody else. There was no question here of any coherent strategy aimed at achieving anything.

TAC: What role did the Iraq invasion play in current events in the Middle East?

MVC: To be honest, I do not know that it played any role. Saddam, after all, was brought down not by his own people but by U.S. military power. By contrast, the various [Arab Spring] revolutions were indigenous, the product of long-standing pressures and grievances that differed from one country to the next.

TAC: How does this end?

MVC: Depending on the country, in one of the first three ways on the above list. One thing appears certain: namely, that no Arab country is going to become a nice, democratic, liberal, and apple-pie loving state anytime soon.

William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation and the author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook [3].

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Arab Spring, Israeli Winter"

#1 Comment By Aaron Gross On December 11, 2012 @ 11:01 am

Nothing new or surprising in this interview, is there? I thought The Transformation of War was a brilliant book, so I kind of expected more here. But Martin van Creveld, like Lind himself, sometimes asserts some pretty far out categorical things, so maybe the news in this interview is that there’s no news.

This is kind of an Old TAC point – that is, neocons – but it’s not really accurate to say that “the” neocons favored regime change in those Muslim states. Some of the major neocons warned about it from the start, including I think almost all of the neocon mideast specialists.

By the way, does one say “van Creveld” or just “Creveld” when you don’t use the first name? Is “van” like the German “von”?

#2 Comment By Andrew On December 11, 2012 @ 11:13 am

I’d say that, as the invasion of Iraq showed, the neocons have grossly overestimated their own ability to influence events in the Arab world. Typical of them! As to Israel, as far as I know it was as much taken by surprise by those events as anybody else. There was no question here of any coherent strategy aimed at achieving anything.

As any fervent ideologues, neocons exist within a dogma (of their own making). The first attribute of dogmatism is atrophy of the learning faculties. Neocons’ military incompetence is mind-boggling but, then again, they are, for the most part, not capable of learning, nor do they understand reality. I believe it was Ilana Mercer who pointed out that neocons actually harm Israel rather than help. Development of even moderately successful strategy (of any kind, but especially military-political one) requires ability to incorporate a massive array of factors in one’s strategic considerations, it also requires subject matter (s) knowledge: from geopolitics (of whatever qualifies today as such) and history to military science. And then, of course, comes contingency planning. Virtually none of that exists on the contemporary neocon Parnassus. Considering the background of most of neocon ideologues it should not surprise anybody anymore. Neocon ideology is another communism and it will go its way too. I am talking of course about their foreign policy doctrine, even few things that may be right in it, once in the neocon framework begin to have an adverse effect.

This whole neo-conservative business reminds me of David Bowie’s interview some years ago in which on the question of reporter about intellectual roots of the 70-s rock-music David answered with a smirk that there were none. He answered to the effect that it was nothing more than hectic (360 degrees, as he put it) irrational borrowing from every possible style and it was based purely on emotion and feel of it. This is precise definition of neoconservatism, as far as the foreign and, consequently, defensive (that is offensive) policies go. A hodge-podge compilation of salon academia’s ideas (for the most part) burdened with its own, perceived, grandeur and irrational (???) feelings.

#3 Comment By Jack On December 12, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

First off, I’d have to say that writing the final chapter of the “Arab Spring” (as appears to be happening here) is absurdly premature. The American Revolution officially ended in September of 1783, and this article is equivalent to looking at America halfway through 1785 and saying “well that about wraps it up for the United States.”

Second, I’d say that Creveld’s assertion of only four possible outcomes (military dictatorship, Islamic dictatorship, anarchy, and democracy) is sorely lacking. He seems to tacitly acknowledge this by referencing the moderate Islamic government that has emerged in Tunisia, but the underlying implication he makes is that the people in the Middle East are simply too tribal to come up with any other outcome. Turkey – at once overwhelmingly Muslim and fiercely secular, democratic yet with the military being the ultimate power – seems to put the lie to his notion that there are limited outcomes possible. And of course, they’re the oldest republic in the region by far.

Third, with regards to what it means for Israel, I’d say it does make things a bit more dicey. Instead of convenient and predictable dictatorships, they may find themselves surrounded by moderate Islamist states, increasingly constitutional monarchies, or outright democratic republics who are less interested in maintaining the old order of things and more interested in pleasing their own constituencies. For Israel, then, continued belligerency towards Arabs and Muslims might not be the wisest course of action.

Finally, the last statement – “that no Arab country is going to become a nice, democratic, liberal, and apple-pie loving state anytime soon” – suggests (again) that the author believes Arab people are somehow genetically incapable of self-governance or even civilization. Apple pie aside, this strikes me as a little bit of bigotry on his part.

Plenty of societies have transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. Some take longer than others. It took us over a decade to go from revolution to republic, and even then it wasn’t finished. Writing off the “Arab Spring” a mere two years after it began is a bit much, don’t you think?

#4 Comment By Karl Kraut On December 13, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

Aaron Gross: “By the way, does one say “van Creveld” or just “Creveld” when you don’t use the first name? Is “van” like the German “von”?”

– Yes, the correct name is always “Van Creveld”, as it is a Dutch name, probably refering to the German city of Krefeld. If you leave off “Martin”, you have to write “Van” with a capital “V”. But otherwise, it’s “Martin van Creveld”, lower-case “v”.

See also:

[4]

The Dutch have even more options that can be found in between christian and surname; like for instance “van den”, “van der” or “in ‘t”. Some people are even named “Jump in th’field”, for example (and just an example):

[5]

#5 Comment By Thomas On January 12, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

The American constitution forbids “Taking without compensation”…. Yet the country/state of the chosen…. is is ENTIRELY “Taken without compensation”…… To interview a “historian” from such a state…. is to legitamise the “Taking without compensation”…… if you/they have the guns and bombs to enforce such theft AKA Taking (Without Compensation) then so be it… But to present a clepto-state as an Democracy is misleading at best… Especially as the native population is subsumed as apartheid second class [citizens soundsWRONG…. Especially when there is incessant talk at the highest levels of government of EXPELLING the natives who have lived on that land for more than a thousand years…

#6 Comment By Thomas Sm On February 10, 2013 @ 10:30 pm

This is silly. Israel is participating in the effort to destroy Ba’athist Syria. The point of taking out Assad is to isolate Hizbollah and then have a clear path to Iran. A Syria full of crazy mujihadeen can be contained and will not modernise or gather an effective air defence system. It will be an enemy of Iran and Russia and dependent on the Gulf Arabs, whose excesses can be controlled by the US.

I do not think you have to take Assad’s word for this. Look at their air strike and they have hinted there are more on the way. The Israelis (at least the expansionists among them) want turmoil, not stability. A stable, prospering, modernising Arab world can easily unite against them.

#7 Comment By Thomas Sm On February 10, 2013 @ 10:39 pm

“By contrast, the various [Arab Spring] revolutions were indigenous, the product of long-standing pressures and grievances that differed from one country to the next.”

—This is also false. The Egyptian Revolution was aided greatly by the help of Gulf Arab media (especially Al Jazeera), connected, though they are, with reactionary monarchist régimes. Their entirely provocative coverage inflamed the situation, and, it turns out, they largely back the Muslim Brotherhood. In Libya and Syria, these media have behaved similarly, and the Qataris had actually military units fighting in Libya (look it up). The Qataris and Saudis are on record funding the jihadis in Syria and funneling weapons into the country…now, as of recently, we see the US joined the effort covertly a few months later with Petraeus’ blessing.

This is not to say that the local grievances are not real, simply that I have zero confidence that opposition forces would have defeated a Qadhaafi or an Assad in a free and fair election, rare though those be. They would have been essentially safe without the conspiracy of Gulf Arabs, NATO (including the Turks), and, to some extent, Israel.

They are all military conquests whether directly or by proxy!