The Harvard history professor believes Americans are naïve about the nature of rebellion and notes (rightly) that most end in carnage and tyranny. Comparing the upheavals in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere to our own revolution is a fool’s errand, in Ferguson’s view.
“The people who made the American Revolution were, by 18th-century standards, exceptionally well-off and well-educated. People in Libya today are closer to the sans-culottes of the Paris back streets, the lumpenproletariat of the Petrograd slums, or the illiterate peasants who flocked to Mao’s standard. And that is why the likelihood of large-scale and protracted violence is so much greater in the Arab world today than it ever was in North America in the 1770s. Poor, ill-educated young men. Around 40 million of them. […] The far more likely outcome—as in past revolutions—is that power will pass to the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements in the revolution, which in this case means Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.”Professor Ferguson’s points are worth mulling seriously. Yet, he sees only darkness where there remains the possibility of light. I am not as pessimistic as he. History does not repeat itself precisely. Ferguson underestimates Arab fatigue with autocracy (be it secular or theocratic) and overestimates the power of radicals. It’s a new day. Tellingly, he fails to mention that the most radicalized Islamist group of them all – Al Qaeda – has been totally sidelined in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. That fact alone is a game-changing development. The question now is whether the Obama White House can fashion a coherent grand strategy to exploit this potential opening in Arabia. That will require fresh thinking, bold action and, with all due respect to Hillary Clinton, a new secretary of state.
Obama, with his focus on domestic affairs, and Clinton, with her evident inability to think strategically, can be fairly criticized (as Ferguson does) for allowing the remnants of Cold War orthodoxy drive foreign policymaking in the Middle East. The status quo – propping up autocratic regimes for the illusion of stability – is no longer tenable. If we’re wily enough, there remains an historic opportunity to soften the landing of the revolts. Ferguson’s darker scenarios are not inevitable. But it’s going to require Obama getting his best international chess game on. Now's the time to start earning that Nobel Peace Prize the world awarded you, Mr. President.