An illustration depicting an uppercase 'R' and the Arab spring
© Shonagh Rae

How many revolutions in history have been “successful”? How many have delivered lasting and stable political change? These are interesting intellectual questions, which are provoking new debate inside America’s security and foreign policy apparatus, particularly when looking at the Middle East.

Two years ago, when tumultuous change swept across the region, it was common to refer to events as the “Arab spring”. The sight of young crowds congregating in the streets of Cairo or Tunis seemed inspiring. It was easy for us all to cheer or at least post a message of support on Twitter or Facebook.

These days, some key US leaders have quietly made a subtle linguistic shift. Instead of talking about the “Arab spring”, they are discussing the “Arab revolution(s)”. And while that “r” word might sound hopeful too, there is a crucial catch. “If you look at revolutions in history – say, the American, Russian, French, Chinese or Cuban – there is perhaps only one that turned out well: America,” a Washington grandee declared to a high-powered group of business leaders and policy officials earlier this month in Aspen. Thus, if the “normal” course of history plays out, he added, then “we had better be planning for a generation of turmoil and unrest”. Far from being an aberration, in other words, the current mess in Egypt or Syria will come to seem like the tragic norm – or so this new “revolution” argument goes.

Some non-Americans might find this vision of history objectionably slanted. For one thing, America’s “revolution” did not immediately produce an entirely stable and peaceful democracy. Instead, it eventually delivered a very violent civil war. And some revolutions beyond US soil have produced much better outcomes than the cynics expected, if not always entirely peacefully. The collapse of the Berlin Wall did not deliver mass bloodshed in eastern Europe. The Baltic states broke free from Russia without too much dramatic upheaval (a development I remember only too well, since I started my career as a journalist writing about those Baltic revolutions and found the lack of cataclysmic drama frustrating). And if you want another reminder that history can sometimes deliver pleasant surprises, take a look at the brilliant new biopic of Nelson Mandela being released in the UK in January: as it shows, the “revolution” that took place in South Africa was almost as extraordinary as anything that occurred in America.

But irrespective of what you think about individual revolutions, it is crystal clear that the new “r” word poses big problems for America’s establishment, particularly in the Middle East. What has been overlooked during the recent drama over the debt ceiling is that fiscal policy is not the only question splitting the nation: the political world is now also deeply divided about what it should do about foreign policy – and those revolutions-cum-springs.

The debate at Aspen, which featured numerous former and present foreign policy players, illustrated this split. One chunk of the establishment feels strongly that America needs to intervene more forcefully in the Middle East, not just for humanitarian reasons but also to protect the aspirations of people wanting a “revolution” against despotic regimes – and to prevent extreme versions of Islam gaining ground. But other parts of the establishment feel equally strongly that it would be madness to get involved – that this would probably make things worse, particularly given the sorry, messy history of revolutions. “The American public is overwhelmed with globalisation, they are war weary,” complained one former military leader.

Indeed, the only thing upon which everyone agrees is that the current fiscal fights make the policy options far worse by undercutting US economic power, military muscle and credibility. Or as one policy grandee thundered: “The biggest threat to national security today is not what is happening elsewhere [say, the Middle East] but in the two square miles in Washington.”

Such battles are not entirely new. In the 18th century, founding fathers such as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson argued bitterly about whether to support the French revolution. But when Jefferson was worrying about Paris, America was a minor player on the world stage. Today, it is not. Either way, the key point is this: the next time an American politician talks or tweets about the Middle East, watch if that “s” word – “spring” – crops up or if the controversial “r” word appears instead. Subtle semantic shifts can matter deeply – particularly when they are barely noticed at all.

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