What Went Wrong in the Arab Spring?

February 10, 2016


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council it is my pleasure to welcome you to this Public Affairs program.

The discussion this afternoon is the topic that for the past several years continues to be of ongoing interest, which is to say, "What Went Wrong in the Arab Spring?"

We consider it a matter of great fortune to have the expertise of two outstanding academics, Sir Adam Roberts and Rashid Khalidi, who are both quite knowledgeable on this issue. Their insight will be instructive. This discussion will be based on a second edited volume of articles by Sir Adam and others, entitled Civil Resistance in the Arab Spring, which contains the findings of the Oxford University Research Project on Civil Resistance.

A little more than five years ago, a street vendor lit himself on fire to protest the Tunisian government's lack of employment opportunities. It was not clear at the time that a single act of self-immolation would catalyze dissent across the region, but protests gathered momentum in Tunisia, the president fled, and 11 days later protests began in Egypt that would eventually oust President Hosni Mubarak. Unrest spread to Syria and Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, Libya and Lebanon, as a generation of young Arabs demanded an end to tyranny corruption and economic decay.

The great liberal revolutions of the Middle East had at long last begun—or so the story was told. Now, five years later, these utopian aspirations have taken on a darker cast, as old divides and the organic sprouting of liberal democracy in the Middle East have become nightmares.

For the next 25 or 30 minutes, Sir Adam and Professor Khalidi will discuss the triumphs and the tragedies, the strengths and weaknesses, the hopes and the disappointments of the Arab Spring.

As a way of laying a foundation for our audience, would you mind spending a few minutes in just giving us a brief background on civil resistance in the Middle East?

I'll turn it over to you.


ADAM ROBERTS: Well, I'm sure all of you here, ladies and gentlemen, will have some conception of civil resistance in your mind, and indeed U.S. foreign policy has often interpreted events in relation to civil resistance in various parts of the world under the presidency of Obama, who made frequent reference to it.

Civil resistance is essentially a nonviolent form of resistance for a large-scale public cause and involving the use of a wide variety of different methods of resistance. It's a technique of action which has been on the increase since the early 20th century. It was particularly prominent in the early 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, which contributed to the overthrow of communism in those countries, and which was, interestingly, adopted among populations in the Arab world before 2011, most strikingly a few years earlier in the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.

So, it's not as if it has no roots in the region. On the contrary, it was seen as a method of political expression against autocratic rule, which was based on a theory, which was the theory that you could undermine the pillars of an autocratic regime by public demonstrations which appealed to the army and other elements for support.

I think the question that Professor Khalidi and I need to address above all is the question of how much the cases that we are looking at really were civil resistance, or did they involve other elements. But also, how come that a method of struggle, which I have always been interested in because it presents an alternative to political violence, ends up preceding—and some would say causing—the most extreme levels of violence that we see in the countries—wars in Yemen and Syria and, arguably, Libya, authoritarian rule restored in Egypt? I could go on with the list of disasters we will refer to more. But I think that is a really difficult question. Civil resistance as practiced in the Middle East is not wholly innocent of the charge that it led to these dismal consequences.

RASHID KHALIDI: My charge here is to ask some questions and begin a discussion with Sir Adam.

I have to recommend this book to you all. It has some remarkable contributions by some quite distinguished scholar practitioners. There is a copy of it here, Civil Resistance in the Arab Spring. This is what we are really talking about today. This is not a plug for your book. This is because I am going to kick off with this.

I think that I would begin by saying a couple of things, and I'll throw a question to Sir Adam at the end. The first thing I want to say is that, whatever one might say about the outcome—which you, correctly I think, have described—which is an outcome of war and chaos in many countries or restoration of even more obnoxious authoritarian regimes than existed before, this was a region that from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, for 40 years—and I'm talking about the Arab countries—saw almost no regime change. Whatever did it—and I think it was initially certainly civil resistance—four of these regimes collapsed within a matter of months, from the beginning of events in Tunisia, through Egypt, through eventually Libya and Yemen, and in other countries, as you pointed out, ended up in civil war and proxy war, several of these countries. So, civil resistance provoked a remarkable change in the Arab world.

I think the first question I would put to you is a very difficult question, which is: Civil resistance provoked or started this series of changes, but what is to be done when this popular civil resistance to a dictatorship provides openings for one of two things. In the first case, for armed resistance by groups or forces well-supported from outside; and secondly, for political actors that have a completely different agenda from the civil resistance actors?

I'll be more specific. In the first case, I'm particularly referencing Syria. In Syria, you had a clear upheaval which had a popular cast to it and which involved civil resistance. But I think it's very important not be carried away with some of narratives that one hears. One should look at the figures provided by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is a Syrian opposition outfit based in Britain.

Look at the names which are provided for casualties in first few months from March 2011 for who was killed. Well over half—or about half, it changes from week to week and month to month—of those killed are regime security personnel. The other half are civilians who, as the narrative correctly has it, were mercilessly gunned down, while exercising their rights to civil resistance, by regime security forces.

What about the others? The others were not injured by thrown projectiles. The others were ambushed or blown up by organized military opposition. That's the first case. In other words, what happens when popular civil resistance to a dictatorship provides an opening for a planned organized armed resistance, in this case, I would argue, probably well-supported from outside?

The second case is obviously the Egyptian case. Whatever the motivations and the aspirations of the people who marched—and they were hundreds of thousands in Tahrir and across the bridge and the images are unforgettable—the people who ended up exploiting that outcome were political actors, in this case the Muslim Brotherhood, with a completely different agenda.

That's the first hard question that I think we have to deal with.

ADAM ROBERTS: It's exactly that kind of question that prompted us to do the book, because we recognized just how difficult these questions are.

I think it's accepted by the authors of the book, maybe with not all the detail that you've just given, that civil resistance did provide an opening for much more violent forces to take action and was, therefore, part of a story which is, quite frankly, a tragedy. Preventing that from happening is extremely difficult if you're operating in the context of a society which is deeply divided and has a certain history of political violence. So point taken completely on that.

Likewise, one of the clear lessons to emerge from the book is that the vision of civil resistance, which had been widely advanced by various theoreticians of the idea, was a vision of popular uprising to get rid of a dictator. There are two questions to raise about whether that's the right way of seeing things.

The first question is the obvious one: Are you ready for the post-dictator phase; what kind of plans has the movement got for organizing society, for new constitutional arrangements, and so on?

The idea that there could be, as it were, a revolution caused by a crowd with their mobile phones runs up against the difficulty that you really do need organization, a political party, a system, and leadership—not least, leadership that can call off demonstrations as well as call them on. All of that is really necessary, and it was often lacking in the Arab Spring.

One of the lessons that will perhaps come later in the conversation—there are a lot of lessons we will draw—but one is that it's too simple just to say "X must go" as an adequate basis for a movement. It became the theme of most, but not all, of the Arab Spring movements that whoever happened to be the ruler of the area must go. If you're not prepared—getting rid of the leader doesn't get rid of the regime—it doesn't change very much.

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, the slogan was "Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam," which means "The people want the fall of the regime." That was the most commonly used slogan, and it says nothing about what happens after the regime falls.

Let me move to a second set of questions. There is a quite, I think, wonderful introductory piece here by Edward Mortimer and Chibli Mallat, which talks about what they call the Arab exception. In other words, why is it that this is a region that for so many decades was immune to regime change, was immune to the winds of democratization that swept Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, parts of East Asia, parts of Africa, Latin America, and so on? Why did the Arab world not change in the same way that other regions did?

They very rightly dismissed some of the shallow and borderline racist cultural explanations having to do with Islam. In fact, most Muslims are not in Middle East or the Arab World and most of them live in democratic countries. So that's obviously not the issue.

They focus on something that I think is actually, probably, if not the most important factor—and they argue it is the most important factor, it's one of the most important factors—which is that this is a region in which oil, and in which regimes which derive rent from oil and which are absolute—I call them absolute autocracies of a pre-Magna Carta level. In other words, absolute sovereigns with absolute power to do absolutely anything they want and absolutely unlimited resources have dominated the Arab World.

Given all of that, my question is not why was it possible for civil resistance to overthrow these regimes, but how can one expect regime change where these regimes, almost all of them in one or another, are supported by these oil autocracies, and how quickly can we expect this to happen?

I say this as a historian. I'm not a political scientist—some of my best friends are political scientists. [Laughter] Some of them are in the audience.

But I think of the fact that if you look at a country like France, their revolution in 1789 did not lead to a stable republican regime until 82 years later. Nobody was expecting democracy and human rights in France in 1794 or 1804 or 1854. In fact, they didn't have most of those things for most of those intervening decades.

The English Revolution of 1640 didn't really result in limitations on the power of the monarch permanently until 1688. So, we are talking about two generations, or three or four generations.

So, given this peculiar condition of the Arab world of oil autocracies, how can we expect civil resistance to overcome this?

ADAM ROBERTS: The essential feature of an oily regime [Laughter] is that it doesn't need the population to pay taxes, certainly not on any significant scale. One or two countries in the region are beginning to introduce taxes in cases where they didn't have them before, including, I believe, even certain moves in Saudi Arabia. But, basically, you have a system where the governments don't depend on the population for anything much except a certain amount of passive obedience, which can be assisted by substantial payouts of one kind or another. So, it's easy takings for an oily regime.

I have no simple recipe for how to change that, other than I do think it's the case that where you've got a regime that has such dominant power in a society the way in which you may be able to gain access to some of that power is if the armed forces are neutral or take the side of the demonstrators. Of course, that was part of the story in Egypt, not that Egypt is an oily state, and Tunisia.

RASHID KHALIDI: You're right.

ADAM ROBERTS: But where a state has not just oil but also an army which is totally beholden to the government, I think it's extremely difficult. I am not in favor of universalism. I don't believe that one can come up with universal answers. One of the problems I have—I have to be frank about it—both with some forms of American advocacy of democracy and some forms of American support for democratic revolutions by nonviolent means is precisely, you do have to think about circumstances, the culture, the interests of different groups in society, and they do vary.

RASHID KHALIDI: Let me talk about a related topic, and perhaps you can respond to this.

These as you call them oily regimes, these oil autocracies, don't just establish these pre-Magna Carta-type systems in their own bailiwick. We're not just talking about Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, Qatar and so forth, doing to Qataris in Qatar or in Saudi Arabia to Saudi Arabians whatever they do. Since the 1970s, since the oil boom, they have dominated the politics of the entire region. I mean the subvention to the military regime in Egypt is in the billions annually, and so on and so forth.

Or, they've been engaged in covert and overt intervention to make sure that essentially—as the Habsburgs and Romanovs did from the 1848 Revolutions as late as they could—revolution, democracy, parliaments, constitutions do not spread to the extent to which they can prevent that from happening—not just in their own countries, but as far as they can reach.

This is linked to an issue that, I think, has surfaced in the last couple of years as the strength of some of these regimes outside—I'm not talking now about the oil regimes, though them as well—the Syrian regime or the Iraqi, what there is of an Iraqi state, the deep state in Egypt—I'm talking about the Ali Abdullah Saleh element of the state in Yemen. And one could go on and on.

In countries that have not suffered much, like Algeria, how does one deal with such powerfully entrenched states when they are externally supported—and by externally, I'm not just talking about Washington. In fact, I'm not mainly talking about Washington. I'm talking about Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and Doha. So, that's a question for a civil resistance, but it's also a question for anybody who wishes democracy well. What does one do about these oily Habsburgs and oily Romanovs, as it were?

ADAM ROBERTS: It's an issue that was faced, I think, with particular clarity in Bahrain, where the Shia population was particularly involved in the opposition to the Al Khalifa regime. They were very impressively organized. It was not a trivial revolt. And indeed, they did get some support from members of the Sunni population. It wasn't entirely a sort of narrow sectarian divide. But one of the reasons why they ran into difficulty, not maybe even the principle one, was of course Saudi Arabia next door.


ADAM ROBERTS: Saudi Arabia wanted to preserve Bahrain exactly as it was for a number of reasons. It's convenient to have as a playground for wealthy Saudis. But it's also a country where, if there was a democratic revolution, (a) it would worry the Saudis because of their internal order, and (b) it would worry the Saudis because of the lingering claims that Iran has in relation to Bahrain and the fear that it would be disruptive.

That's a problem that advocates of democracy have in many countries. If the ethnic composition of the country is such that a democratic government representing an ethnic or religious majority is one that could lead to a new foreign policy direction for the state, that's of course always likely to upset allies.

So it's a really tricky problem. We're dealing not just with individual states, but with a system which varies from state to state, not presenting a uniform picture, but it's a system that's very hard to budge.

RASHID KHALIDI: It's a particular problem, as you point out, not only in Bahrain but in Iraq, in Syria, and for that matter in Lebanon, where you have sectarian and ethnic divisions.

This has been a very gloomy session. [Laughing] I want to say one gloomy thing, and then we'll try and end, perhaps, on a less gloomy note.

ADAM ROBERTS: If it's only one, I'll be happy. [Laughing]

RASHID KHALIDI: We haven't talked very much about Yemen. There's a wonderful piece in the book by Helen Lackner, whose work I haven't seen for a while and I'm very happy to see that piece. She wrote perhaps one of the best books on Saudi Arabia that nobody has ever read, a wonderful book [A House Built on Sand], and this is a lovely piece.

I think what is happening in Yemen is probably one of the saddest things going on as a result of the Arab Spring. Everybody knows about Syria, because Europe is about to implode because of the Syrian refugee crisis. Everyone knows about Syria because Russia and the United States are playing a new Cold War with competing bombing campaigns. Everybody knows about Syria because it's one of the great catastrophes of the beginning of the 21st century. Nobody knows about Yemen.

It is a country which had, as the article very well points out, exactly the kind of civil resistance under which all kinds of more sinister forces were operating, or under which more sinister forces later on exploited, and is not being torn apart by this combination which we first saw in the Lebanese Civil War—civil war and proxy war and massive external intervention.

That's the gloomy note I want to touch on. The book doesn't really talk about external intervention, though the quite brilliant first chapter deals with it and your concluding chapter deals with it.

How do people involved in civil resistance get their heads around this? We now have a new Cold War between the United States and Russia, just as we had with the Soviets and Americans during the Cold War, treating the Middle East as one of their major arenas for rivalry. How does one overthrow a regime when, one way or another, you're going to have a superpower plus a clutch of many regional superpowers putting their fingers into your business? It's very gloomy. Yemen, the uncovered, unreported, unknown catastrophe, is one of the saddest examples of this.

ADAM ROBERTS: Well, I'm not going to give an instant hopeful recipe in response to your mixture of gloom and hopefulness, other than—

RASHID KHALIDI: I'm mainly in gloom. I'll get to hopefulness in a minute. [Laughing]

ADAM ROBERTS: The two clearest lessons of these events, it seems to me, are that it's not necessarily wise to start off with the big demand of regime change. But in some countries—we have chapters in the book on Jordan and on Morocco—there were movements which from the start were rather explicitly reformist.

Now reformism is very boring and dull, but it does at least provide a basis for negotiation with a regime and opens up possibilities of at least modest developments. It has often happened in history that movements that begin with modest causes like that and then begin to achieve things then can gather momentum and gain the confidence of others.

Another positive lesson that emerges is that if you have a political culture in which the competing parties within a state are actually willing to lose an election—which is the main test of democracy, you've got to be willing to lose an election—and if they are, then you have a basis for having a democratic system. Uniquely in the countries we're talking about, the only Muslim Brotherhood-type party that was willing to lose an election and said so was in Tunisia, Ennahda.


ADAM ROBERTS: They had reached that conclusion about participation in democratic politics on the basis of being willing to lose an election because of the very harsh experiences they had in the early 1990s. Some pretty good and impressive people were involved.

So Tunisia hangs on in there as just about the last hope of the Arab Spring, having once been its instigator, poster boy, and center. Things in Tunisia are not going altogether well, but the case does indicate that multi-party democracy can be introduced even in the Arab world, even in the Muslim world, if the conditions and the attitudes and the degree of social trust are more or less right.

RASHID KHALIDI: I was going to end with Tunisia, but you've done it yourself.

The 1848 Revolutions did not establish democratic governments in any country in which they occurred. But a few decades later, most of the countries where those revolutions took place had democratic governments. It took them generations. That's Europe, in some cases Western Europe.

The Tunisians are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, as you said.

I think we should take heart from the European examples, which were not overnight successes. There are no overnight successes in the real world.

What's happened in the Arab World is, if one has friends and family there, extremely ugly in many cases and in many places. But I think 1848 and Tunisia should, in different ways, give us some grounds for hope.


QUESTION: John Hirsch with the International Peace Institute. First of all, thank you both very much for a very good discussion.

Your last point actually prompts the question of what happened in the European states in those intervening decades. Was it economic development, opportunity for people, and so on?

But the first question I wanted to ask you is about the Internet and its role in misleading people to thinking that major transformation was at hand. Please correct me if you have a different perception, but much of the mobilization was through the Internet. Other people have made the point that when you're facing the army in Tahrir Square, that's very different from sending emails to 20,000 or 500,000 people. So I wonder if you think that the mobilization through the Internet had a noxious effect on what happened actually. Thank you.

ADAM ROBERTS: Some of the people who took part—for example, some of the Egyptians who led the Tahrir Square movement—have now expressed regret on precisely this point. They've recognized that what they were after was a sort of instant gratification, which is not something you get very often in politics.

RASHID KHALIDI: Or anything else. [Laughter]

ADAM ROBERTS: They've been rethinking the whole issue of whether they should have been involved in forming political parties, because they realized that after Mubarak fell they had nothing. They had the possibility of restarting the Tahrir Square Movement—and indeed, there were further demonstrations—as a way of putting pressure on the regime.

But of course, as it turned out, repeated demonstrations tend to antagonize the public. They don't want permanent demonstrations or permanent revolution. So that wasn't a very powerful mechanism.

I think the rethinking that is going on is quite profound and interesting and points actually in the much the same direction as what we suggested in the book.

RASHID KHALIDI: I would just add briefly that I don't think that the Internet and social media had anything like the impact that the American media pretended that they did. They played an important role. I have this argument with my students all the time. They think the world has completely changed and nothing was ever like it is now. They are wrong.

QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.

In light of the conversation you just had, I want to go back and remember the sort of conventional narrative on the initial uprisings in Syria. As I remember it, we all thought as the Arab Spring moved across the region that Syria would probably survive, and then suddenly it arrives in Syria.

My question is, when the people that first rebelled—as I remember, it was in a place called Daraa—and I'm doing this to ask you how correct this is or is not—that the people who first rose up I think thought of themselves as reformists, but that the narrative says that Bashar al-Assad overreacted and assumed that these were regime-change people, and that that overreaction made the situation so much worse than it would have been. And behind that is the thought that maybe there was a possibility in Syria for a real reformist movement, had Bashar al-Assad reacted differently, that would have produced a happier result than it has now.

RASHID KHALIDI: I think that the conventional narrative is right in terms of the overreaction of the regime, but I think that personalizing it and talking about Bashar al-Assad involves an oversimplification as to what the regime consists of. The overreaction was, in part, the knee-jerk response of individuals in charge of the security services—among them, his brother, incidentally, Maher; among them at the outset his now dead brother–in–law, Assef Shawkat; and others who did overreact.

But they were overreacting not just to civil resistance. If the tale told by the casualties, the names and the places and the numbers is correct, they were overreacting both to civil resistance, which may in fact—I think you're perhaps right, Warren—have been reformist in its aims.

But they were also reacting to something else that was going on at another level and that the people who engaged in civil resistance didn't have necessarily anything to do with, and this was an armed attack on the regime security services, which took, if you count the dead from the beginning to the end, between a third and a half of the casualties are regime forces. So we're told "he killed a quarter of a million of his people." Well, a quarter of a million Syrians died, but if you look carefully, almost half of them were regime security forces, if you look at the first few months where we have names—and these are opposition figures, this is not the Syrian regime; this is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

So I think they overreacted to two sets of things, and they did exactly what the father's regime did in Hama. They just unloaded with all the horrible weight that a repressive state with a huge military and security apparatus can muster.

QUESTION: Now that we know what went wrong, can you tell us how to fix it? [Laughter] What would you advise our president to be doing, particularly in Syria? That seems to be the most problematic area at the moment.

RASHID KHALIDI: I'm going to let you start. [Laughter]

ADAM ROBERTS: Thank you very much.

RASHID KHALIDI: You're not an American citizen, so he's not your president. I have to answer it too.

ADAM ROBERTS: I must confess that I have throughout been a pessimist about the extent to which foreign intervention in Syria would be possible, because in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, there is naturally enormous hesitation about getting involved in a situation such as that, which in some ways is more difficult than those that were faced in Afghanistan and Iraq originally, and even more have a doubt because it's not clear what the policy should be of the West or the United States in it, other than specific humanitarian purposes.

There is a case for some kind of safe area, even one that is wholly or partly within Syria. There was a case—maybe it's more difficult now because of Russia's involvement—for having a no-fly zone in part or all of Syria. But now that Russia is so deeply involved, they've become even more difficult.

I personally think—and it's a wet answer to a really good question—that the United States needs to show leadership over the refugee issue, which is one that is likely to cause very profound and adverse effects in Europe. Merkel might fall because of the position she has taken.

RASHID KHALIDI: I think the European Union may be permanently transformed.

ADAM ROBERTS: The European Union is in terrible trouble because of the difficulty over the Schengen borders.

And we face a situation where United States is essentially an observer of all of this. I personally think that there will be costs to the United States. It has an interest in maintaining the Atlantic Alliance—it's not the only alliance, but it's an important one.

There is a need for some fairly strong leadership, not necessarily based on bargaining about exact numbers of refugees that will be taken, but establishing a principle of having a better system of vetting and sorting out the refugees in the countries neighboring Syria, and then a better system of use of the Navy and other means to get such refugees out that are accepted as having refugee status, without risking their lives.

But if we allow the present situation to endure, of people drowning by the hundreds in Mediterranean, it will be a permanent stain on our societies and will be viewed by succeeding generations as an extraordinary scandal.

RASHID KHALIDI: I would just add it's an excellent question and it's a very hard question to answer. I don't think at this stage we are talking—in the case of Yemen or Syria or Libya, or for that matter Iraq—only about civil wars. We are talking about proxy wars and external interventions that make the Spanish Civil War look like child's play. I mean there are levels and levels and levels.

One of the things that, if anybody were to ask me, I would advise the president to do is to see what can be done about limiting the external intervention by people who are pouring fuel on the flames.

Now, understandably, one of those powers, one of the most important, is Russia—not much influence the United States has over Russia. Another is Iran—not much influence the United States has over Iran. Iran is one of three or four major Middle Eastern states—Turkey and Saudi Arabia being two of the others, Israel being a third—which are U.S. allies over which the United States has absolutely no purchase. Not only no control, they don't listen to us, they don't do anything we want. In fact, quite frequently they do exactly the opposite of what we want. All three of them are major allies in the region. I'm not talking about Egypt. I'm talking about Saudi Arabia and Turkey in particular, insofar as their intervention in Syria is concerned.

But if our government is to do anything besides trying to do diplomacy with intractable rivals and foes like Russia and Iran, I think it has to try and limit the intervention of these countries, some of which, I must insist, are pouring oil on the flames and are encouraging some of the nastiest, most reactionary, most poisonous forces in the entire Middle East.

Daesh, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), does not exist in a vacuum. It exists with money coming from outside. It exists with weapons coming across the Turkish border. It doesn't exist without those things. It has a power of its own, a dynamic of its own, an ideology of its own, a base of its own, taxes and so forth. But it doesn't exist without those things, those externals. Those things are things that our allies control.

Now, if they are our allies, we have some leverage over them. That means not just wrestling with the president of Turkey or the king of Saudi Arabia. That means wrestling with the multibillion dollar corporations which want to continue a certain kind of relationship with those countries.

I hate to talk about indecent things, but, frankly, if one talks about Saudi Arabia and people who would not want a change in our policy toward Saudi Arabia or our weapon sales or dealing with them in a variety ways, we have to talk about oil and we have to talk about aerospace and we have to talk about defense. Those are levers on all of these countries in different ways. To use those levers requires the kind of power that some presidents actually don't have.

So to be very frank, it's very hard to give a president advice when you're telling him to commit political suicide and go up against the most powerful forces in the U.S. economy.

QUESTION: Besides discussing Assad, what do you think about our approach to ISIS?

ADAM ROBERTS: I have given evidence to the House of Commons Defense Committee indicating that I think there is a case for military action against ISIS. I support that. I particularly supported it after the extraordinary massacre of the Yazidis and capture of the Yazidis in August 2014. It left a situation where either nothing was done, which would make us complicit in what was going on, or some action had to be taken. That was an unusual situation. There are not many where action from the air can actually be effective. That was one where it could.

I've supported the use of force within Syria against ISIS, but without assuming, as many in the political debate did, that somehow it's all about the Royal Air Force making a decisive contribution against ISIS. Our own contribution is pretty small.

Ultimately, air action isn't going to be the decisive factor. It's ground action. The interesting feature of that particular conflict is that it has been nongovernmental, non-state entities in the form of Kurdish forces who have been much the most effective in countering ISIS.

But I maintain that ISIS will ultimately implode, because they are obviously deeply unpopular within the territory they control. Also, the entire program is one that must make enemies of every other state in the world, just about, because if their program is to establish a worldwide caliphate—and they are still talking about that—that's a threat to every government in the region.


ADAM ROBERTS: And beyond, yes.

So, I think it is highly probable that as events move on and as ISIS appears not to be invincible—its having some successes in some places, but it is also having many failures and retreats—and as it offends more and more people, as it must do by the logic of its own insane global megalomania, there will be gradually forming a larger coalition against it.

RASHID KHALIDI: I would agree with that. I would just add that to resolve this whole problem one has to deal with the imbalances inside Iraq, one has to end the Syrian War, and one has to end this absurd war in Libya. These are breeding grounds for the most noxious kinds of forces.

We may be able to expect that this phenomenon will implode, but I don't think that the kind of salafi jihadi terrorism which is bred of an extraordinarily intolerant variant of intolerant Wahhabi Islam is going to go away. This stuff is like mercury. If you hit it with a hammer, you just spread it everywhere. It has to be dealt with politically. It has to be dealt with via resolving some of these crises. Those are really hard.

I mentioned how hard it would be for the president to deal with Syria. Iraq is equally hard and Libya is equally hard. These are not easy things to do. I don't think we're doing the right thing, but to do the right thing would be in each of these cases very, very difficult. I think to deal with them effectively and finally it will require resolving those conflicts—as well as the Yemen conflict, which is another extraordinary breeding ground.

We all do know that the people who attacked this city 14 years ago came either from parts of Saudi Arabia or parts of Yemen, or they are of Saudi or Yemeni origin. Osama bin Laden comes from Wadi Doan in Yemen. So when we hear there are now Daesh bases all over Yemen, this is not a strange phenomenon.

QUESTIONER: The New York Times had a big article that Pakistan was very involved in supporting ISIS as well.

RASHID KHALIDI: Another very important ally which absolutely will not do anything we want. [Laughter] Brilliant.

QUESTION: Youssef Bahammi.

Every Arab country has its own coats of arms. For example, there are countries like Morocco and Jordan, like you mentioned earlier, that had peaceful reforms, and the problem has been handled at the stage where there was a communication with the protestors. In cases like Egypt, like Yemen, and like Syria, the problems have escalated mostly due to the fact that the political regimes in these three examples were technically military dictatorships for a long time. For example, the problem of Egypt was not getting rid of Mubarak by putting in his place four other generals. He never talked with the origin of the problem, the people in Tahrir Square, who started the protests. What is the best way to communicate with the people who invoke the problem in the first place?

ADAM ROBERTS: The best way for a government to communicate with the people—well, we have examples in front of us. There were very intense discussions at various phases in Jordan, and there were some, perhaps not so many, in Morocco. They do at least open the possibility, for example, of a wider franchise and more powers given to parliament than had been the case in the past. The movements that advocated these modest measures have, on the whole, survived, they have not resorted to violence, and the conversation goes on.

The problem is that, particularly in Jordan, this country faces acute threats. It's involved in the military action against ISIS that we were just talking about, and it has a huge number of refugees on its territory to add to the already very large number of Palestinian refugees that have been in Jordan since ever.

In the face of those two threats, sadly, there are some in the regime who believe this is not the time to try any experiments. So there is a certain amount of delay, friction, in implementing change. But I still think that these cases are advertisements for a more cautious approach to political change than simply demanding the head of the regime.

Speaking as a Brit, I can't help but notice that on the whole, monarchies survived the Arab Spring better than republics. [Laughter] But that's not something I should say in the United States.

QUESTION: Michael Schmerin.

Since 1948, if not before, the State Department in the United States and many countries in Europe have said that if you solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict you would have peace in the Middle East. Yet, the Arab Spring has sort of thrown that out the window, given that there are at least five failed states surrounding Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though still needing resolution, has certainly taken a backseat to the matters at hand.

How did the diplomatic corps and the leaders of Europe and the United States miss what happened with the Arab Spring and clearly were unable to respond to it in any credible way and, as you have pointed out, to have any influence on those five failed states and our major allies there?

QUESTION: My name is Chris. I want to thank you guys very much.

Sir Adam, I want to return to the frustration that you voiced in the beginning about the American tendency to support democracy promotion and ask a question about the reformism you spoke a little bit about. As you know, in the United States we have had a different experience with the idea of class distinction and, as a result, we are always going to have a certain portion of our population that resists the idea that circumstances dictate that certain areas are more suited for one-man/one-vote democracy than others.

With that as a background, understanding that's always going to exist in the United States, I'm curious to hear what either of you think about the reform that seems to be being attempted inside Saudi Arabia right now. It has been reported that the crown prince is working very closely with McKinsey in trying to develop a plan for the future of the economy. And it's also happening at the time when the relationship between the United States and Iran is putting our relations with Saudi Arabia under a different kind of pressure from certain members in Congress.

I'm curious if you can give us a little bit of your thoughts as to what you think the prospects for those reforms inside Saudi Arabia might be and if you can kind of make the case for those people in the United States who will always think that the circumstances are appropriate to support democracy no matter what, that the kind of reform is worth waiting for.

QUESTION: My name is Bruce Toman.

This is for you, Professor Khalidi. You said quite fiercely, "We must end the civil war in Libya." How, especially in any sense of maintaining the autonomy of the people there and allowing things to play out in time?

ADAM ROBERTS: Very briefly, I don't think the Israel-Palestine problem is the sole explanation for all these troubles. It's one part of it. It has contributed to a sense of moral indignation in many parts of the Arab world against the United States for supporting Israel in relation to the West Bank, the occupation of the West Bank and so on. But, just as apartheid wasn't the cause of all the other revolutions in Africa, although they used presumed Western support for apartheid as an excuse, so I think the Arab-Israel issue has been maybe overstated if it's viewed as the sole cause of these problems.

On the United States tendency to support democracy promotion, I am absolutely not saying that any type of country—be it Arab or whatever, Muslim, Catholic—is not suited to democracy. There have been various theories of that kind in the past that have all been discredited.

What I am saying is that the preconditions for democracy are difficult to establish and they do include a degree of social trust. It's a difficult job, and I think Professor Khalidi is entirely right to say that it takes time.

What we have in the Arab Spring—what we saw originally—was something evanescent that only lasted for a short time, just as in 1848 what you refer to as the Springtime of Nations was evanescent, and yet it had very large consequences. I will leave the question on Saudi Arabia and the last one to you.

RASHID KHALIDI: We don't have much time. These are all very, very good questions actually.

I think there are people who obsessed about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and I don't think they were only people who were demanding that the United States pay attention to the Palestinians. I think that when you said "Middle East" in the United States, all people thought of was Israel and the Palestinians. That was the media. That was a lot of public opinion.

I actually don't think American policymakers had that delusion. They paid attention to it. But, in my honest opinion, most of the attention that they paid to it, from Secretary of State Kissinger and presidents Nixon and Ford through Secretary Vance and President Carter on up, had to do very much more with the Cold War and American advantage in the Middle East than it did with the brown eyes of the Arabs and Israelis.

When and if securing peace in the Middle East obtained massive advantage for the United States in the Cold War, disadvantaging the Soviets, the United States did that; and where not, the United States did not advance peace. I think the documents are there. We can go into the foreign relations of the United States for those decades now, right up to the 1980s, and I don't think there's any question that nobody thought that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict was the most important thing. The most important thing for policymakers up to the end of the Cold War was the Cold War. I could continue that argument to the present.

But I do agree with what Sir Adam said. If you want to know why the United States is not popular, it's because people all over the world, without exception—except in the United States, Israel, and a couple other countries—think that the United States is unfairly biased in favor of Israel and that without the United States' support Israel couldn't have survived. That's a very common and very popular view. Whatever some of the most unrepresentative regimes on the face of the earth, which control most Arab countries, say or do, public opinion feels that way in the Arab world. I don't think that's the most important thing in the Arab world, but it's there.

As far as reform in Saudi Arabia—well, good luck. [Laughter] You have the only country on earth which is named for and whose citizens are described as belonging to a ruling family. Even in Jordan, which is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan—it doesn't call the people Hashemite, and the abbreviation for Jordan is not Hashemite. The abbreviation for Saudi Arabia is Saudi, which is "belonging to the family of Ibn Saud." That is an accurate description of the country. I called it a pre-Magna Carta regime. It's a pre-Louis XIV regime. It is "L'etat c'est moi" in every sense of the word, in a sense of which Louis XIV couldn't have said it or meant it.

Now, if McKinsey is on the job, then I think we can all rest assured. [Laughter] For example—I don't know if they are the ones who advised this—the privatization of Aramco, which is supposedly underway, will not lead to the looting of Saudi Arabia's biggest public resource as happened in Russia and other countries, and will undoubtedly shower benefits on all the Saudis and maybe lead to political reform. I don't know.

I will say about the new regime in Saudi Arabia that you have a completely new cast of characters running the country, which is to say King Salman's son, the deputy crown prince; and his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef. These are a new generation. They are a new mentality. They are behaving in a different way. Whether this will lead to reform or will lead to the continuation of an entirely new approach to the region—the willingness to commit Saudi troops to Syria is something that I would never have heard from Ibn Saud or any of his sons up until Salman. None of them ever offered to intervene directly. When they briefly intervened in Lebanon as part of the Arab deterrent force, they stayed for about a year and a half and then pulled them out. I've never seen Saudi Arabia intervene outside its frontiers, as it's doing in Yemen.

So this new leadership is not just a new generation, it's an entirely new mentality. I have no idea, and I think many Saudi citizens and people in the region have no idea, what to expect—good, bad, indifferent. It's a new world as far as this regime is concerned. It's the same family, but it's a completely new generation.

And they're in charge, the king is not. The king is backing his son and the king is so far backing Mohammed bin Nayef, the crown prince. But "El Alim Allah," as they say, only God knows, where that can lead.

The last question about Libya—yes, I was very forceful about Libya because I think Libya is one of the most egregious examples of external intervention, and it's external intervention by actors whose heads actually I think could be knocked together by external bigger powers.

A great deal of the conflict in Libya—I don't mean what Daesh are involved in; those guys are independent dangerous actors, they're different—but much of the civil strife in Libya between Libyan factions is fueled by two Gulf autocracies, which are completely dependent on the United States for their existence in terms of protection from the outside. I mean they have air forces and they have armies and they have internal security forces, but they couldn't stand up to Iran for seven seconds. None of the Gulf oil regimes actually can defend themselves. The Emirati army in Yemen includes two battalions of Colombian mercenaries. These are not countries that can defend themselves. They are dependent on us.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, Israel—those are big, powerful countries. The United States cannot tell them what to do. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar, with all due respect, they are fueling in large measure that civil war. Perhaps a word can be said to—they're not fools, the people who run these countries, they're smart men—they're all men.

PARTICIPANT: That's the problem.

RASHID KHALIDI: Maybe. [Laughter]

So I don't think Libya is easy because of Libya's internal dynamics, and I don't think it will be as easy, because it's not just those two. There are many other external actors. And there is Daesh, which is a wild card, and they are growing in power and importance in Libya.

But I actually do think that of the four, that's the least difficult for the United States and its friends to deal with. And it's not a case where you have to deal with either the Iranians or the Russians. So what is so hard about this?

JOANNE MYERS: Well, I think you'll all agree with me that this was a very special tutorial. Please join me in thanking both Professor Khalidi and Sir Adam. Thank you.

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