Former senior CIA officer Mike Morrell admitted last week that the US government badly misunderstood and misdiagnosed the Arab Spring which began in Tunisia in December 2011. There was a lot of optimism at the time in the West over the events across the Arab world as long suffering and oppressed populations in a number of countries protested in grassroots movements for change. Hopes soared that regimes ranging from dictatorships to autocracies to monarchies to “hereditary republics” would soon be replaced by some kind of democracy.
Reality has a nagging habit of interfering with theory however, and the last few years have shown quite clearly that the early jubilation has yielded to despair as civil wars and insurgencies have arisen in Libya, Yemen, Syria and there is an unquestionable lack of freedom in many other countries.
Much analysis has been proffered as to why and how these populist campaigns failed to become entrenched. My interest lies in a different direction: why were we all so convinced it was going to work?
Perhaps the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, the quagmire in Afghanistan and an overall lack of social progress across the region led us to be optimistic. Maybe we needed to have something positive to believe in. Decades of bad news are hard to take after all.
At the time one set of predictions did strike me as unlikely. Some expressed the certainty that the events of the Arab Spring were a catastrophic blow to Al Qaeda and to terrorism in general. Others were less sanguine.
Not that I want to boast, but I and a number of my colleagues organized a symposium for Canadian government officials in the spring of 2012 in which we cautioned that it was too early to celebrate and that terrorist movements could not be counted out yet. It turns out we were prescient.
It is important to be somewhat charitable towards the US intelligence community. It is never easy to analyze events to come and/or their impact. Some have a distorted view of how intelligence works. It is not a question of “connecting the dots”. Intelligence analysis is not analogous to your six year old child’s school art assignment where by joining dots 1-35 a rabbit miraculously appears. In the intelligence world, thousand of unnumbered dots come in from all directions and it is rarely obvious what the final picture should look like, if a final picture even exists.
Another analogy would be how different cultures have interpreted the stars in the heavens. What to us is the Big Dipper was the Great Bear to the Greeks and The Plough to the Chinese. The same dots were interpreted differently by different people. (NB thanks to my eldest daughter for this analogy)
The inability to predict the future direction of the Arab Spring was not necessarily a failure of intelligence. We should always remember what Yogi Berra said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.