Reactions to Reflections on the Arab Uprisings

Yesterday, Marc Lynch posted a thoughtful and candid set of reflections on how political scientists who specialize in the Middle East performed as analysts and forecasters during the Arab uprisings, not before them, the subject on which most of the retrospectives have focused thus far. The background to the post is a set of memos Marc commissioned from the contributors to a volume he edited on the origins of the uprisings. As Marc summarizes, their self-criticism is tough:

We paid too much attention to the activists and not enough to the authoritarians; we understated the importance of identity politics; we assumed too quickly that successful popular uprisings would lead to a democratic transition; we under-estimated the key role of international and regional factors in domestic outcomes; we took for granted a second wave of uprisings, which thus far has yet to materialize; we understated the risk of state failure and over-stated the possibility of democratic consensus.

Social scientists and other professional analysts of world affairs should read the whole thing—if not for the specifics, then as an example of how to assess and try to learn from your own mistakes. Here, I’d like to focus on three points that jumped out at me as I read it.

The first is the power of motivated reasoning—”the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs.” When we try to forecast politics in real time, we tend to conflate our feelings about specific events or trends with their likelihood. After noting that he and his colleagues over-predicted democratization, Marc observes:

One point that emerged in the workshop discussions is the extent to which we became too emotionally attached to particular actors or policies. Caught up in the rush of events, and often deeply identifying with our networks of friends and colleagues involved in these politics, we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment.

That pattern sounds a lot like the one I saw in my own thinking when I realized that my initial forecasts about the duration and outcome of the Syrian civil war had missed badly.

This tendency is probably ubiquitous, but it’s also one about which we can actually do something, even if we can’t eliminate it. Whenever we’re formulating an analysis or prediction, we can start by ask ourselves what result we hope to see and why, and we can think about how that desire might relate to the conclusions we’re reaching. We can try to imagine how someone with different motivations might view the same situation, or just seek out examples of those alternative views. Finally, we can weight or adjust our own analysis accordingly. Basically, we can try to replicate in our own analysis what “wisdom of crowds” systems do to great effect on a larger scale. This exercise can’t fully escape the cognitive traps to which it responds, but I think it can at least mitigate their influence.

Second, Marc’s reflections also underscore our tendency to underestimate the prevalence of inertia in politics, especially during what seem like exceptional times. As I recently wrote, our analytical eyes are drawn to the spectacular and dynamic, but on short time scales at least, continuity is the norm. Observers hoping for change in the countries touched by the Arab uprisings would have done well to remember this fact—and surely some did—when they were trying to assess how much structural change those uprisings would actually produce.

My last point concerns the power of social scientists to shape these processes as they unfold. In reflecting on his own analysis, Marc notes that he correctly saw how the absence of agreement on the basic rules of politics would complicate transitions, but he “was less successful in figuring out how to overcome these problems.” Marc aptly dubs this uncertainty Calvinball, and he concludes:

I’m more convinced than ever that moving beyond Calvinball is essential for any successful transition, but what makes a transitional constitutional design process work—or fail—needs a lot more attention.

Actually, I don’t think the problem is a lack of attention. How to escape this uncertainty in a liberal direction has been a central concern for decades now of scholarship on democratization and the field of applied democracy promotion that’s grown up alongside it. Giuseppe di Palma’s 1990 book, To Craft Democracies, remains a leading example on the kind of advocacy-cum-scholarship this field has produced, but there are countless “lesson learned” white papers and “best practices” policy briefs to go with it.

No, the real problem is that transitional periods are irreducibly fraught with the uncertainties Marc rightly spotlighted, and there simply are no deus-ex-machina resolutions to them. When scholars and practitioners do get involved, we are absorbed into the politics we mean to “correct,” and most of us aren’t nearly as adept in that field as we are in our own. After a couple of decades of closely watching these transitions and the efforts of various parties to point them in particular directions, I have come to believe that this is one of those things social science can help us understand but not “fix.”

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  1. I, some character who knew little about the second Libyan revolution other than that Gaddafi was dead, thought Libya would instantly turn into Somalia from the day I heard that Gaddafi died, as I thought it would be impossible to establish any NATO presence there. I was only off by two and a half years.

    I, some character who knew literally nothing about the Iraq War other than that America under Bush invaded in 2003 and that post-Saddam Iraq tends toward instability, predicted Iraq would fall back into civil war the year after the U.S. left. I was only off by two and a half years.

    Interestingly, in both these cases, I was right for precisely the wrong reasons. I never considered Obama would adopt a policy of malicious neglect toward Iraq before late last year, and I never thought Libya would turn into any kind of democracy, ever.

  2. I also fell into the same trap as the author regarding Syria’s war. Before the war began, I never thought the two sides would be so irrational as to resort to massive violence, and I thought the rebels would win pretty quickly if they did. My delusions were shattered by August of 2012. Before early-mid-2013, I thought Obama’s goal in Syria was to win, not to bleed Iran and Hezbollah.

    • Grant

       /  November 18, 2014

      I think that gives a lot of power and focus on one person without the domestic constraints, backlash over Libya and other international events happening at the same time. No decision made by a president was ever made in a vacuum.

      • Yes, and that doesn’t make him look better.

      • Grant

         /  November 19, 2014

        So being forced to consider whether or not your opposition and the public are actually willing to put up with an extended air campaign (that isn’t intended to forestall the collapse of Iraq) and whether that air campaign would ruin nuclear talks with Iran after you’ve already suffered international criticism over Libya is a sign of a bad president?

        Despite what history books on an event like to think, presidents typically can’t just say “I think I’m going to devote my energies, my nation’s energies and all of the political capital that I and my nation have to this one issue”.

        Maybe in the year 2024 time we’ll see some op-ed blaming Obama for in 2014 not foreseeing and preventing a new war in Rwanda before it happened in 2019. They probably won’t remember then that in 2014 Obama had to consider the midterm elections and how he should handle his last two years in office, Russia in Ukraine, China in the South China Sea, US healthcare law, US immigration policy and how to have any kind of serious policy on Iraq and Syria when most of his allies in the area have different concerns from the US and one another. So at the time hypothetical wars in Rwanda probably aren’t going to be the most immediate issue.

        There’s a difference between thinking that a president isn’t the greatest ever and not taking into account the limitations and lack of precognition that a president works under.

  3. Will Barrow

     /  November 19, 2014

    This reflects a wider problem: an American foreign policy built on the assumption regimes head inexorably toward Western style democracy and human rights, or that emerging powers seek global unity. Mainstream US media framed the Arab rising as a ‘democratic movement’ on a false assumption and then usually interviewed people who spoke English (a bias in those countries itself) about the uprisings. This engendered a massive confirmation bias which was repeated over and over.

  4. Texas Cowman

     /  December 2, 2014

    I remember predicting Assad would be out by February . . .of 2013.
    That was before I realized the slow game being played in Syria.
    Assad is only the snubbing post in the corral, and that corral is Syria.
    Here it is December of 2014, ISIS has risen, and U.S. bombing has begun.

    Meanwhile, the Syrian military has been degraded by 2 more years of war,
    the population has been displaced and the infrastructure that ISIS
    never built, is being systematically destroyed by U.S. bombing.

    The goals of this game are not to replace Assad, but to make Syria
    internationally unimportant. After that, the colonial buzzards can come
    pick the carcass.

  1. Reactions to Reflections on the Arab Uprisings | IR Theory & Practice
  2. Libya, Calvinball, Solidarity: Reflections on Reflections |  SHOAH

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