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Is the Arab Spring a Black Swan?


Understanding the Western response to the Arab Spring, a colorful designation of the democratizing movements of varying character that have rocked the foundations of the Arab world, is an ongoing process.  These movements are also seen as posing possibly serious threats to the structure of economic and strategic interests associated with long standing American and European influence in the region.  On the surface after some obvious hesitation, even ambivalence, the liberal democratic governments of the West, headed by the United States, declared their support for the Arab Spring, and even mounted a ‘humanitarian intervention’ (disguised as a No Fly Zone to protect the Libyan civilian population so as to discourage Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council) to help the rebels prevail in their civil war against the Qaddafi regime. Everywhere in the region the political outcome of these unfinished uprisings remain shrouded in multiple doubts. 

Having just visited Egypt for a week I came away with this dual sense that the revolutionary dynamics have produced remarkable results that form a glorious chapter of Egyptian history, but also that there are a variety of dark forces that are working under the radar to contain if not reverse this exhilirating democratizing momentum. In the foreground was the widespread acknowledgement by all sectors of public opinion in Cairo that the more reflective governing policy is of popular sentiments the more likely is a definite adjustment of diplomatic stance with regard to the Israel/Palestine conflict. This stance is already evident in the opening of the Rafah Crossing and in the robust Egyptian encouragement of Palestine Authority/Hamas reconciliation.  

Looking from outside, I encountered one brief insight into real American thinking about the Arab Spring that was for me particularly revealing. It was published in the comment section of the May/June 2011 online website of Foreign Affairs, the most influential voice on foreign policy in the United States. It was written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth, and opened with this rather startling sentence: “The upheavals in the Middle East had much in common with the recent financial crisis: both were plausible worst-case scenarios whose probability was dramatically underestimated.” What an odd comparison! The equivalence was premised on the negative character of both occurrences, which led the authors to identify the emancipatory movements in the Middle East with the perjorative label of “upheavals,” thereby ignoring the manifest revolutionary and reformist challenges being directed at the established repressive political order. At their worst, these movements could be downgraded to ‘uprisings,’ rather than the image of ‘upheavals’ that mainly suggests purposeless disorder. 

The most remarkable aspect, by far, of the Taleb/Blyth comment was to treat these Middle Eastern events as illustrative of unanticipated “worst-case scenarios.” Worst-case? Such a perception only makes sense if it unintentionally reflects the undisclosed underlying strategic consensus that the Arab Winter was far better for the West than the Arab Spring. In effect, that authoritarian government in the region was a necessary correlate of Western grand strategy long built around petropolitics, and more recently extended to the containment of political Islam and sustaining Israeli regional security goals. Netanyahu and other political leaders in Israel acknowledged as much by their outspoken admission that they were sorry to see the Mubarak regime collapse. 

Nissam Nicholas Taleb is a financial risk analyst who made a wider stir when he published his book Black Swan  a couple of years ago. It has as its central and compelling thesis that there is a pervasive tendency for history to be shaped by unpredicted events, and especially by occurrences that have not taken place in the past. His vivid central metaphor is the assumption that all swans are white because no other color had been seen until the black swan variety was discovered in Australia. This is an interesting alternative approach to what I have been calling ‘the politics of impossibility,’ a phrase meant to suggest that the impossible repeatedly happens, making future studies based on past trends and statistical projections almost certain to be wrong. 

I am not contesting the idea that implausible happenings should be taken into far greater account when contemplating the future. What I am remarking critically upon is the bland classification of the Arab Spring as ‘a worst-case scenario,’ and the fact that such a comment could survive scrutiny from the normally very adept gatekeepers at Foreign Affairs. Is it to be explained as an accidental political oversight or more darkly as a revelation of the mindset so ingrained within the American foreign policy establishment as to be unnoticeable? If the latter, then, it is not surprising that such a phrasing would not even be noticed because it was accurately expressive of the private discourse among foreign policy elites on the impact of these developments. Supportive of this latter interpretation is the fact that this Black Swan comment has remained featured on the Foreign Affairs website. 

It is possible that I am exaggerating a flourish that is nothing more than a slip of the pen! At the very least, however, it should serve as a reminder, if not a warning, that there is not only pro-democracy cheering going on in the Washington situation rooms that shape the foreign policy of Western countries, especially the United States, with respect to what to hope for in the Middle East. As the Chinese supposedly believe: “two persons sleep in the same bed but they have different dreams.”  

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