In each case the body count was in the millions

Quote of the day for Sunday, March 6th, 2011:

Newsweek is one of the last places I’d expect to find sober political commentary (maybe being sold for $1 has stunned the company out of its indulgent stupor!), but this on-line article last week from Niall Ferguson, entitled Un-American Revolutions, is one of the sanest opinions I’ve read on the tumult shaking the Muslim world:

Time and again, Americans have hailed revolutions, only to fall strangely silent as those same revolutions proceeded to devour not only their own children but many other people’s too. In each case the body count was in the millions.

So as you watch revolution sweeping through the Arab world (and potentially beyond), remember these three things about non-American revolutions:

  • They take years to unfold. It may have seemed like glad confident morning in 1789, 1917, and 1949. Four years later it was darkness at noon.
  • They begin by challenging an existing political order, but the more violence is needed to achieve that end, the more the initiative passes to men of violence—Robespierre, Stalin, and the supremely callous Mao himself.
  • Because neighboring countries feel challenged by the revolution, internal violence is soon followed by external violence, either because the revolution is genuinely threatened by foreigners (as in the French and Russian cases) or because it suits the revolutionaries to blame an external threat for domestic problems (as when China intervened in the Korean War).

The article this is quoted from is quite brief, but Ferguson is able to supply some historical perspective to what has struck me all along as a remarkably pollyanna-ish view on the uprisings across the Mediterranean basin from almost everyone who has been writing on it. Democracy at long last? Huh? Don’t look now, but there might be more to establishing a democratic republic than letting mobs have their way in the halls of power.