The Arab spring has only distractedly caught my attention this past year. Recently, I wanted to catch up a bit. Concurrently, there is rising tension between the West and Iran over its nuclear program. So, now is an opportunity to revisit a few readings and evaluate their pertinence with the benefit of hindsight. These are Robert Baer’s books (2002, 2004, 2008) and an article by Nassim Taleb in Foreign Affairs (2011).
Mr Baer is a retired CIA field officer whose books deal with the Geopolitics of the Middle East. His message is that the West pursues misguided policies in the Middle East, a combination of short sightedness and a lack of understanding of the region. In the USA, specifically, the agency has become blindly reliant on technology (hence notable failures, such as 9/11) and, as pertaining to the Middle East, oil rules. A cliche, perhaps, but one that he recounts from personal experience. What is the pertinence to current events? To cut to the chase, one of his book says that the West supports Saudi Arabia to secure access to its oil, Saudi Arabia funds the Muslim brotherhood, and it’s only a matter of time before we see it emerge as a powerful force. As it turns out, this potent Sunnite movement has emerged as the dominant party in Egypt. Policy makers in Washington are preoccupied as to whether they turn out to be moderate or radical.
Nassim Taleb stirred a controversy in 2011 by labeling the Arab spring a
worst case scenario in an article published in Foreign Affairs, The Black Swan of Cairo1. My understanding, from quickly skimming over the issue, is that this label reflected not his opinion but the realpolitik of the West: they would have preferred continuity over uncertainty. Getting back to his article, it likens the West’s support for Egypt’s secular ruler to the foreign policy equivalent of the Greenspan put. Furthermore, the recent US policy in the Middle East is an overreach. In each case, the backlash stems from the inherent unpredictability of the system, and, after the fact, fall victim to the hindsight bias. His recommendation is
Stop supporting dictatorial regimes in the name of pseudo-stability.
By the time this article was written (May 2011), the West had already understood that the geopolitical landscape would never be as the same, and had already adjusted, or, at least, gave assurances that it had. So Mr Taleb’s recommendation, above, came a bit too late. Analogies to Black Swan in economics, such as the Greenspan put, above, are not very helpful because the two domains are very dissimilar. One cannot assess the support for Egypt’s ruler, whose reign lasted 40 years, without consideration for the the counter-factual. Remember, the Soviet Union and the West were still waging a proxy war when he rose to power, less than a decade after the Yom-Kippur war… Mr Taleb suggests that the West’s attitude towards these regimes was to counter radical Islam (
The US policy towards the Middle East has historically…). I think, but I’m not sure, that Mr Baer would probably say that, by and large, they were not paying attention to this matter, before 9/11.
- The contentious sentence containing a
worst case scenariois not to be found in the article that is given above. Maybe it’s a revised version, but the analogy to the Greenspan means the same: something bad (again, from the standpoint) erupted after something supposedly good (no volatility).