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Arab Spring Bears Fruit: Chemical Weapons, Civil War

The Arab Spring is finally beginning to bear fruit. An article in today’s FT reports that Syria has a decades-old chemical weapons program that may fall into the hands of terrorist groups amidst the chaos of Syria’s civil war. Syrian stockpiles include significant amounts of nerve gas and “mustard blister agent,” and while they are apparently well-protected by the Assad regime, it’s anyone’s guess what could happen to them if the regime falls. The opposition group, like its counterparts in Libya, is difficult to pin down and is a diverse set of anti-Assad elements rather than a unified movement. Should Assad fall, the fate of the weapons would lie largely on which group took power and how quickly and effectively it could secure these stockpiles. With Hezbollah and al-Qaeda reportedly eyeing the country, this is a gamble few would be anxious to take.

During the halcyon days of the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Western media outlets were filled with lofty predictions: the end of autocracy in the Middle East, the rise of the Arab twitterati youth, and the emergence of a liberal majority in the Middle East that would wipe away decades of tyranny and oppression. One year later, with repression in Egypt, fighting in Libya, and civil war in Syria, these predictions have been revealed for what they were: wishful thinking marred by an absence of critical thought about the region and its history. The reality is much uglier.

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  • Fred

    People call me a bigot because I just don’t believe Middle Eastern cultures are capable of democracy, but the folks in those cultures just keep proving me right again and again. The willful naivete of the West, and especially of Americans, in regard to the Middle East is beginning to approach insanity.

  • WigWag

    I am afraid Via Meadia is right; the “Arab Spring” is little more than a way station on the Muslim world’s relentless march back to the 10th century. What’s amazing is that it was not only liberal internationalists like Tom Friedman who were duped; Friedman can always be counted on to get it wrong. What’s surprising is that neoconservative thinkers like Robert Kagan turned out to be an even bigger apologist for the Arab Spring then his more liberal fellow pundits.

    If any thing proves the startling incompetence of our pundit class (Professor Mead excepted) it is the Alice in Wonderland quality of their reporting on the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular.

  • Sage

    In my own experience, promoters of “democracy” and “popular rule” in the Middle East are maddeningly impervious to events and facts that disprove their wild theorizing. The most any of them are willing to acknowledge is that the transition to freedom is going to be “messy” and “not like America.” Pointing out the fact that politically humane popular movements in the Arab Muslim world are are extremely rare, small, and overwhelmed by the Islamist variety, their only answer is that you must think dictatorship is the only appropriate kind of government for “those people,” or that you think brutal regimes like Assad’s deserve our support.

    It is impossible to actually set their eyes for five minutes on the practical realities of life in that part of the world–the realities of power, the realities of history, and the actual reality of current events as they are unfolding. In this respect they are more or less identical to the people who will become angry at YOU if you point out the terrible consequences of various political schemes like rent control–“What, don’t you think people deserve housing?” Such obtuse indifference to real-world consequences makes any constructive debate impossible, because the introduction of relevant facts only induces them to fall back behind a barricade of moral posturing and accusation.

  • holmes

    It seems that whatever we decide to do or not do in the Middle East becomes the opposite thing we should have done, according to the chattering classes. When we supported dictators, we were hypocritical, realpolitik jerks. When we supported democracy, we were naive and reckless cowboys. When we do nothing, we should definitely do something! When we intervene, we should do more! No less! No, definitely way more!

    We need to cut through this and pursue our interests, which course of action may vary at times. But if we’re arguing that toppling Assad is a bad thing, I can only disagree (unless it turns out to be bad, in which case we were really stupid to intervene.)


  • CraigZ

    Not to mention the former Iraqi chemical weapons which Saddam sent across the border before March 2003. Those who excoriated Bush for not finding WMDs were either too dense or too naïve to wonder just what happened to those. Of course many who berated Bush knew all too well where they went, but the prospect of cheap political points was worth the damage they did to American foreign policy and security. And it did hand them the elections of 2006 and 2008.

  • EvilBuzzard


    They’re quite capable of Democracy. When 80% of your population believes that yes, in fact, adultorers should be stoned more often, we just don’t seem to like the guys they elect….

    From a voter fraud propective, I’ll bet the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent victory in Egypt was way more moral and upstanding than your average US municiple election result.

  • Kris

    “Arab Spring Bears Fruit”

    Such weighty discussion. Why don’t we unwind with a nice little ditty?

  • Polcham

    It is the will of Allah. Do not interfer.

    He works in strange ways, but it is his way and his will.

  • Lyle Smith

    So status quo dictatorship over self-determination is the smart diplomacy angle now?

    Would you say no to helping the North Korean people out if they miraculously turned on their leadership just because somebody nefarious might get a hold on the WMD there?

  • Lyle Smith

    And yes, reality is ugly… that’s the understatement of the century.

  • Mark Buehner

    This was always the best argument for preventing nukes from being developed by rogue regimes. Imagine if Syria had nuclear weapons, we would HAVE to support the regime, no matter how despotic and anti-American they are, because in the chaos of a civil war the threat of nukes getting loose is paramount. Thats our situation with Pakistan and why they can jerk us around at will- whats our alternative? Punish the regime and watch the jihadis take control of the nukes? Thats unthinkable, so Pakistan can do anything up to and including sheltering Bin Laden and we can’t do anything about it short of attacking their nuclear stockpile and risking nuclear war.

  • Bohemond

    Syria’s chemweps stockpiles- greatly enhanced by Saddam’s stuff smuggled out of Iraq in early 2003.

  • memomachine

    *shrug* you can’t have a nation until you end tribalism. As long as there is tribalism a nation is just a word to describe the geographical location of where the dominant tribe is looting. Tribalism and democracy cannot co-exist. Hasn’t worked, won’t work and will never work.

  • gs

    …these predictions have been revealed for what they were: wishful thinking marred by an absence of critical thought about the region and its history.

    You’re describing Bush’s Second Inaugural Address.

  • don

    Ah, yes, those advanced Muslim twitter types will save their world with modern technology. We shouldn’t be surprised. There was the 2003 shrinking penis panics in Khartoum, Sudan, caused by high tech gossip mongering attributing the malady to Zionist strangers shaking hands with the local devout. Jews, in Khartoum, oh my!

  • Ellen

    I would happily let the Middle East stew in its own juices, if only it would stay in its own juices.

  • Tom Holsinger

    The real threat from Syria’s WMD are its biological weapons, not its chemical weapons. The latter are only a local problem due to transport and delivery issues. The biological weapon threat is terrifying. This includes the documentation and staff.

  • SteveMG

    Let’s substitute “nuclear weapons” for “chemical weapons” and consider the implications.

    A Shi’a nuclear bomb in Tehran will likely lead to a Sunni nuclear bomb in Riyadh. Followed by other regional powers wanting their own devices.

    A nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Swell, just swell.

    The US may be able to contain a Iranian nuclear breakout. But I’m doubtful that we’d be able to contain the other nations wishing to acquire their own devices.

    War with Iran would be horrible. No one denies that. No one, except fools, wants one. But the consequences of not stopping their program will be, in my view, even worse.

  • Bryan

    Fred: “People call me a bigot because I just don’t believe Middle Eastern cultures are capable of democracy, but the folks in those cultures just keep proving me right again and again.”

    Israel has had a functioning democracy since 1948, with no coups, no violent transitions of power, and no changes of constitution. The State of Israel has enjoyed more governmental stability than France, a country whose people I assume you would not accuse of being incapable of democracy.

    I also assume that you were quite simply not talking about Israel when you referred to “Middle Eastern cultures.” In some ways, that’s fine: Israeli culture, especially its political culture, is heavily influenced by the West. But on the other hand, excluding Israel from “Middle Eastern cultures” also reinforces the claim that Israel is not an authentically Middle Eastern state, that it is a foreign import artificially plopped down in the middle of someone else’s home. That claim has dangerous implications.

  • gringojay

    Peace Dividend suspended due to mismanagement of the higher ups. Movie at 11th hour is ….

  • Fred

    EvilBuzzard, You are absolutely right. They are capable of the one-man-one-vote-one-time variety of democracy. I should have specified that they are not capable of liberal democracy and the rule of law (except perhaps Sharia).

    Bryan, You are absolutely right that Israel is a lone outpost of civilization in that part of the world, but Israel is more Western than Middle Eastern culturally. So while they are certainly _geographically_ Middle Eastern they are not _culturally_ Middle Eastern, and I did say Middle Eastern _cultures_. l

  • Richard Treitel

    The Middle East is not the only place in the world where democracy is difficult to establish and preserve. Far from it. We who have grown up under democracy tend to see it as the natural order of things, but as Olson points out, the natural order for nation-states is monarchy. Even Western Europe lived under it for millennia, and the transitions of European nations to even primitive forms of democracy were slow and bloody.

  • Orson

    Somehow all the nay-sayers above keep missing the Arab successes. Like, say, Morocco – where constitutional reform along the lines of Spain is proceeding.

    This progress is consistent with the civil society triumphs in Central Europe after communism fell: a functioning democracy sharing (or practically sharing) borders with a newer one.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Re: “People call me a bigot because I just don’t believe Middle Eastern cultures are capable of democracy, but the folks in those cultures just keep proving me right again and again.” Fred, I’ll keep you company, because I believe exactly as you do. Let me go further, however, by stating that the connection between Middle Eastern culture and authoritarianism/totalitarianism runs through Islam. The truth of the matter is that one cannot reconcile Islam with the western notions of freedom, plurality, and intellectual skepticism. Islam, added to traditional Arabic culture, predisposes its adherents toward strongman political figures. Recent history amply proves this is so, i.e. Nasser, Hussein, Assad, etc.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Re: “Somehow all the nay-sayers above keep missing the Arab successes.” Orson, I would be happy to recognize such “successes” as you note – as soon as they exist. It is far-too-early to proclaim any of these reforms successful (leaving aside what defines the term), given how many false starts and flat-out failures have gone before. In other words, I’ll believe it when I see it.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Debating whether the nations of the Middle East are capable of “democracy” is to ask the wrong question. Given the vote, people in places like Iraq have proven capable of casting individual ballots – remember those “purple fingers” about which Bush and Co. were so excited? – but the outcome is that they use the vote to install sharia law. The real question should concern whether or not these nations and peoples are capable of creating, building and sustaining civil society based around something besides the clan and tribalism. Thus far, they have not proven equal to the task. What the future holds, no one knows… but it should be interesting.

  • richard40

    Turkey has been a reasonably functioning democracy for awhile. Definitely not perfect, and currently drifting disturbingly Islamic, but still democratic, generally peaceful, and somewhat western oriented. I suspect that is because Turkey bordered Europe, and was heavily influenced by the west, especially their best leader, Ataturk.

    Jordan has been a fairly responnsible and somewhat free country as well. Of course they are a monarchy, but they also have a parliament that makes them at least close to a european style constitutional monarchy.

    There is also a chance that Iraq may end up with a survivable democracy, mainly because of the democratic institutions we built up while we were there. Also, because of their 3 factions, shia, sunni, and kurd, they are less likely to elect a majority religious dictatorship. The main threat to their democracy is not elections, but the 3 factions breaking up in a civil war.

    I dont think that muslim countries are incapable of democracy, but I agree that just overthrowing a dictator and having an election is not enough. You need to build up civil society, free speech, religious tolerance, and rule of law traditions first. Sometimes the best way to do that is not to have instant elections, but to first have a period of rule by a benevolent dictator, like Ataturk. The problem there though is making sure the benevolent dictator actually is benevolent, stays benevolent, and stays in power long enough to build up real democratic institutions.

  • Jim.

    Watch Niall Ferguson predict an awful lot of this, a little more than one year ago.

    Pay particular attention to how foolish and naive the people criticizing him look, based on what we’ve seen since.

    We haven’t seen the worst of his predictions come true; but it’s still, as he says, “early days”.

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