Libya, Calvinball, Solidarity: Reflections on Reflections


My Monkey Cage essay Reflections on the Arab Uprisings has generated a really fascinating set of responses and commentaries over the last two days. I’ve been collecting the various blog posts and tweets, and wanted to take the opportunity here to respond to some of the major comments and themes in the discussion.

Reflections, for those who haven’t yet seen it, presented an honest self-critique of some key areas where I think my analysis failed during the course of the last few years. It also served to introduce a POMEPS Studies collection of essays by colleagues who did the same thing, more or less. My essay summarized and highlighted a whole group of analytical problems which individual authors had identified or which had emerged in our workshop discussions.  For my own part, I identified four major problem areas: the outcomes of the Libya intervention; the inadequate effort to overcome the pernicious effects of Calvinball; the pathologies overwhelming the promise of the new Arab public sphere; and the struggles to incorporate Islamists into transitional systems.

The purpose of all this was not self-flagellation. It was to try and advance the progress of the field by clearly and frankly assessing errors in order to improve analytical performance going forward. Some of the responses were of the quality you’d expect from the nether regions of Twitter, but many of them were thought-provoking and constructive.

Some commentators — almost all non-academics — took my piece to be saying that political science utterly failed in explaining the Arab uprisings, or that I should be fired or do the honorable thing and quit my job in shame.  That’s a terrible way to interpret the argument, but also quite revealing about how different communities think about arguments and errors. Of course the mistakes and problems identified in Reflections don’t mean that the field has failed. On the contrary, overall the field has done a great job engaging with the Arab uprisings, offering an enormous volume of real time commentary, analysis, and thick description of complex events, and now producing a bounty of high quality books and journal articles.  Just a few months ago, I wrote in considerable detail about how the field had done well in anticipating and explaining the uprisings.

I could have gone on at great length about all the things we got right, but that wasn’t the point of this exercise. The point was to model public self-critique. You would think from the state of public discourse that nobody has ever made a mistake about anything. I can assure you that this is not  the case. Everyone, without exception, has gotten things about the Arab uprisings wrong: .  Some might not even realize it, which is kind of sad. Quite a few are primarily political animals who really don’t care, as long as their arguments prove useful. Many just see no intellectual, social or professional incentive to admit it. Whatever the reasons, acknowledgement of analytical mistakes in public policy discourse remains about as common as a brigade of pink unicorns. Ken Pollack’s 2004 self-critique of his arguments on Iraq and Dave Weigel’s annual pundit self-audit still stands as one of the only major examples of such an exercise.

Academics, who thrive on peer review and slashing workshop debate and endless methodological tinkering, should be better than this — especially senior academics protected by academic freedom and tenure.  My Reflections shouldn’t be some kind of testament to my exceptional integrity – they shouldn’t be exceptional at all. Self-critique should be as standard to our craft as citing our sources and specifying the boundary conditions of our models. Of course academics should publicly acknowledge analytical mistakes, just as they would during the peer review process and conference circuit. I’d like to see the major think tanks, newspaper columnists, and omniscient Twitter experts do the same, though I’m not expecting it.

Libya: As I expected, by far the greatest volume of responses has been to my acknowledgement of the failure of the Libya intervention. Most of this has come from critics of that intervention, naturally, who are delighted that a supporter of the intervention has recanted. There was some confusion over my comment that I didn’t regret my support for the intervention, however, which I tried to explain on Twitter (a special thanks to those critics who responded thoughtfully to those elaborations). Let me try again.

The intervention was never the easy call which its supporters and opponents alike portrayed. My self-critique was motivated by the clearly negative long-term outcome and the failure of key mechanisms (such as the demonstration effect or national reconstruction) to operate. The intervention did save many lives in the immediate term; I don’t believe that there were diplomatic solutions on the horizon or that Qaddafi would have showed mercy. I remain convinced that in the absence of the NATO intervention there would have been a horrific massacre in Benghazi and then throughout rebel-held territories, that the U.S. would have been blamed for its inaction in the face of these atrocities, and that Libya would be beset by horrific, if different, problems.

My point is that these were extremely difficult calls, with risks associated with every course of action, but that to me it also simply isn’t acceptable to refuse to reassess those decisions in light of later developments. I believe that it is simply intellectually irresponsible to not weigh the overwhelmingly negative outcomes in Libya when thinking about intervention. I really don’t understand how Libya’s experience of state failure, civil war and regional destabilization can be ignored when arguing in favor of new interventions, in Syria or elsewhere. That does not mean that the arguments for the Libya intervention were weak or dishonest or manufactured for ulterior motives. It does mean taking these lessons into account for future analysis.

Solidarity:  My argument that the field tended to over-identify with activists and their passions prompted some intriguing responses, mostly in private, which very much deserve careful thought.  Several of my colleagues objected forcefully to this critique, not because they disagreed about the observation about our identification with activists but because they placed greater value on that solidarity.  For these colleagues, scholarship and public engagement should to a large degree be about giving voice to those in the region, offering support to their revolutionary struggles, and amplifying their hopes, aspirations, and analyses. Analytical distancing in the name of methodological rigor would be a betrayal of these normative commitments. The field, in their view, needs more solidarity and identification with activist communities, not less.  These discussions go to the heart of deep, long-running arguments about the purpose of scholarship and the value of different methods.  That’s a conversation which of course will, and should, continue, and I would love to see more public writing on the subject.

Calvinball: Jay Ulfelder offered one of the most thoughtful commentaries on a specific point by suggesting that the problem of transitional uncertainty might simply be unresolvable. Decades of theory and practice on transitions, he argues, suggests that “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.” This, he concludes, “is one of those things social science can help us understand but not “fix.””

I tend to think that Jay’s right about this. At the same time, I think that there’s call for a deeper look at how these deep uncertainties shape identities, strategies, and outcomes.  It seems to go deeper than what I’ve seen in the literature on the shadow of the future and incomplete information.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, for instance, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was profoundly shaped at every level — organization, ideology, identity, strategy — by its clear understanding that taking power was not an option. Removing that constraint proved more radically destabilizing than might have been rationally expected. Similarly, the intensity of the Tunisian and Egyptian responses to Constitutional battles highlights the extent to which the stakes went to the core of identity, and were not just distributional arguments over institutional design. At any rate, I’ve been working on an academic paper on this for a while, which I really need to finish, and would welcome more thoughts!

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