The uprisings sweeping the Middle East have provoked considerable efforts to apply the lessons of past revolutions. Unfortunately, the history invoked in these debates is often incomplete and subject to interpretation. It is dangerous to forget the ambiguity and complexity that are fundamental in historic transitions but often lost in after-the-fact analysis. It is no less dangerous to draw the wrong lessons, or to draw premature lessons, from events like Egypt’s revolution, which is far from over and could still have an unhappy ending.
Thomas de Waal’s “Three Cheers for the Man Who Did Nothing” is an example of how history can be interpreted in many ways. De Waal, who has done first-rate reporting from the Caucasus for years, including recently for The National Interest, celebrates Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s “monumental restraint” as the U.S.S.R. disintegrated and praises the “magnificence of politicians who, confronted with a difficult situation, decide to do nothing.” He quite correctly observes that “by instinct, both personal and political, [Gorbachev] did not want to see blood shed.” As a result, relatively few people were killed directly on his orders and in some of those instances, Gorbachev appeared to have been manipulated or misled by hard-line subordinates.
This argument is fair enough as far as it goes—but it ignores Mikhail Gorbachev’s duty as president to protect the lives of Soviet citizens, a responsibility that required difficult moral choices. Gorbachev’s failure to use force in a number of cases allowed ethnic massacres to take place—most notably the killings of Armenians in Azerbaijan and of Turks in Uzbekistan—where the best available estimates indicate that many thousands died. So while Gorbachev may deserve praise for restraining Soviet hard-liners and preventing a government crackdown, he cannot escape responsibility for standing by during massacres in the streets. As a result, one can legitimately debate whether action or inaction displays greater moral courage.
Furthermore, the imploding U.S.S.R.’s street violence was not spontaneous or unpredictable as de Waal seems to imply when he writes about the “political challenges that erupted in the Soviet Union.” The ethnic, political, and other challenges to Soviet rule did not simply “erupt”; they were natural consequences of Gorbachev’s failure of leadership or, in other words, his “monumental restraint” in the face of his country’s disintegration, when he did not make any meaningful arrangements for a smooth transition to the new order.
Mikhail Gorbachev launched historic changes in his country not only without any roadmap, but without any idea about the nature of the political system he was trying to change. He did not appear to consider the implications of destroying a multiethnic country that had been ruled through force and coercion for centuries. His favorite saying—“the process has started”—demonstrated both his own detachment and a very Russian belief that everything would somehow work out in the end without particular effort on his part. It was this attitude, as well as Gorbachev’s visible refusal to use force, that accelerated the Soviet Union’s disorderly disintegration.
The collapse of the U.S.S.R. was definitely a blessing for Central Europe, the Baltic States, Georgia, and others who wanted full independence from Moscow. Despite this, public opinion polls from the time showed that the majority of Soviet citizens did not seek that outcome. While relatively few outside and increasingly even inside Russia would today want to return to Soviet-style state, Gorbachev’s approach—which de Waal describes as one of equivocation—imposed not only short-term costs, like the outbreaks of violence, but also long-term costs to the economies and societies of the Soviet Union’s fifteen successor states. Those long-term costs also included hundreds of thousands of human lives cut short by plunging life expectancies as health care and other social supports disappeared. In fairness, Boris Yeltsin and his supporters have a very large share of the responsibility for the Soviet Union’s hard landing and particularly for Russia’s unnecessarily painful experiment with democracy and free markets in the 1990s. Still, while Mikhail Gorbachev did not order or intend the deaths of so many, his decisions clearly contributed to the situation that produced them.
From this perspective, Gorbachev may have been a better moral example if, like Mahatma Gandhi, he remained outside government. As the Soviet Union’s head of state, commander in chief, and top law enforcement officer, his record is far more mixed. To his credit, Gorbachev did manage to avoid civil war and to maintain sufficient control of the country’s nuclear weapons. That will obviously affect his treatment by future historians, including in his own country.
Gorbachev’s experience should sound a cautionary note in assessing other authoritarian regimes under pressure from aggressive crowds, as should Russia’s experiences in 1917—to an even greater extent. Russian Police General Alexander Speridovich, a former chief of Tsar Nicholas II’s personal security force and a perceptive historian of revolutionary movements, wrote that the Bolshevik revolutionaries “main power came from the shameful inaction of the tsarist government” and its officials responsible for security in St. Petersburg. Only several months later, the weak and indecisive interim government allowed the Bolsheviks to take over without much resistance.
In both February and October of 1917, quite a few well-meaning Western politicians and commentators praised the restraint of Russia’s authorities, who were reluctant to use force. What followed is well-known and should warn us against premature optimism about revolutions we do not fully understand. It also suggests that pressuring flawed but friendly governments from resisting angry mobs can backfire, as it did later in Iran in 1979. These situations present difficult moral decisions—would it have been more moral to back the Shah more strongly?—and it is a mistake to oversimplify them.
Libya is neither benign nor friendly, of course, and as a result if something of a special case. Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi is a poster boy for bad behavior among third world despots. Since he rose to power, he has personified tyranny, human rights abuses, bizarre rhetoric, and incompetent economic management. He supported and engaged in widespread terrorism against the United States and its allies as well and—because of the circumstances of the changing times—escaped the full force of the retaliation that he richly deserved.
Now that most American citizens appear to have been evacuated safely from the country, there is no reason to treat el-Qaddafi with kid gloves. He is uniquely isolated in the Arab world and beyond, as demonstrated by the unanimous vote condemning him at the United Nations Security Council. So far as anyone knows, there are no nuclear weapons or materials in Libya. And the country appears to be falling apart before our eyes, with opposition to the unbalanced and eccentric dictator growing. With all of this in mind, there is no reason that the United States should not cooperate with its European allies and, to the extent possible, Libya’s neighbors to expedite his removal from power.
But Libya is different from Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, and other more benign governments that have been under pressure from street protests. Americans should think twice about the lessons of history in those cases, where the consequences of abrupt and unpredictable regime change could be dire for important U.S. national interests, including key military basing arrangements, counterterrorism cooperation, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Dimitri K. Simes is President of The Nixon Center.