This is the first of two posts in nisralnasr discussing US history as a source for understanding events in the Middle East. This one concerns the Revolutionary War; the next one will address Reconstruction and After.
The history and politics of the US have long been presumed, not least by Americans themselves, to be sui generis. Until recently it was widely understood that American law might have much to teach other legal traditions but little to learn from them. American political institutions do not, we have almost all been taught, prosper in other soils and we ourselves have no reason to adopt the practices from abroad. There is not much point then to comparing American experiences and those of other countries. That this is self-evidently so is made real in the practice of my discipline where American politics and comparative politics are seen as two distinct sub-disciplines.
American history and politics remain what was once called Whig history: a narrative of perennial improvement. No matter what sordid and terrifying features of the past are unearthed, the narrative remains Whiggish. The more we learn about the horrors of the past the more certain we become of how far and how irreversibly we have come. Another particular feature of how we prefer to understand our own history, consonant with Whig assumptions, is that we are the authors of our fate—collectively and individually. Americans have made American history, we want to believe, without any external assistance. Whether this is a common belief for a liberal republic or for an imperial power deserves study, but as we seek to understand the rest of the world through the lens of our own history we should take care not to believe our own myths too strenuously.
In a recent, widely read discussion of the Islamic State the American-born and educated French scholar Scott Atran argued that US history can help us appreciate its revolutionary potential. Citing a study of contemporary jihadis and the Viet Cong, Atran asserts “what matters in revolutionary success is commitment to cause and comrades.” Atran connects this study of contemporary fighters to those who fought in the Continental Army with George Washington. Atran recalls the winter of 1777-8 when Washington withdrew with his army to Valley Forge, not far from Philadelphia. “Haggard remnants” of that army, Atran reminds us, were on the verge of leaving Valley Forge when Washington gave a speech, an “inspired appeal” as Atran describes it. After hearing Washington’s stirring appeal the troops “fused together in the harsh winter…henceforth able to withstand any adversity.”
Atran is arguing that revolutionary action is the fusion of a deep sense of sacred justice with personal solidarities. IS cadre, in this argument, is the fusion of a belief in a sacred mission shared by committed activists tested in conflict. Whatever the objective status of their beliefs revolutionaries understand their goals to be sacred and their links to be those of personal devotion to each other as well as their ideal. National liberation, the Islamic caliphate, or the dictatorship of the proletariat can presumably all provide such goals and be championed by comrades of such devotion.
This essentially voluntarist view of revolution has deep roots in American social thought although it was probably not shared by most of the men who founded the state. We can find it among others for whom transforming a movement into a state was never an option or simply never succeeded. “If you will it” as Theodor Herzl told his followers in the Zionist movement, “it is no dream.” Saul Alinsky, the premier community organizer, once said “We must believe that it is darkest before the dawn of a beautiful new world. We will see it when we believe it.” Or, in the words of Jefferson Davis, first president of the Confederate States of America, “Obstacles may retard, but they cannot long prevent the progress of a movement sanctified by its justice, and sustained by a virtuous people."
Human beliefs matter, but believing that the sheer power of belief is all that really matters beggars belief. In the US successful business executives, like the movement leaders cited above, fervently believe that their fervent commitment to their product and their own well-being propelled them beyond their peers and competitors. Businessmen, no less than civil rights leaders, have dreams but we rarely take them as models when we talk politics. Not simply because they are businessmen but because so many of them fail.
As the leaders of the American Revolution well understood, neither Valley Forge nor George Washington’s speeches were the key to victory. Contemporaries and most modern historians recognized two very different undertakings in 1777 as crucial to the success of the revolution. Neither involved Valley Forge or George Washington and one was, at least briefly, a direct threat to Washington’s leadership. As most of Washington’s contemporaries were well aware, he was in Valley Forge because the British had successfully captured Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress. British troops had earlier taken control of New York and not long thereafter they successfully besieged Charleston. In short, while Washington waited out the winter in Valley Forge, the British had seized control of three of the most important cities on the North American continent and in the entire British colonial empire including the capitol of the revolt.
The revolution was rescued by foreign support, not emotional discourse. In September and October 1777, General Horatio Gates and the elements of the Continental Army under his control won the battles of Saratoga, decisively defeating General John Burgoyne near the upstate New York town. Gates’s defeat of Burgoyne effectively ended any possibility of British control of the Hudson Valley or of regaining control of Boston. It also very briefly provided a challenge to Washington's command. News did not travel fast in the late 18th century but when accounts of Saratoga reached Paris two months later, King Louis XVI promptly decided his government could enter negotiations with the American envoy Benjamin Franklin to assist the revolutionary cause.
Louis was no revolutionary, but he was willing to work with American insurgents out of fear that the British consolidation of a transoceanic empire at French expense would leave France in a permanently weakened situation. France had lost its primary North American and South Asian possessions at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. To engage the French, Britain was forced to draw down its land forces in North America and re-direct its fleet away from the American coast. Once this occurred the revolutionary colonists were able to fight British forces on a more nearly equal footing. Yet even what most Americans think of as the final defeat of Britain, the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, was the result of a victory by the French fleet over the British in the Chesapeake Bay and a joint Franco-American ground force.
It is thus not surprising that Saratoga and the decision of the French monarch are the crucial events for understanding the success of the American Revolution, not Valley Forge. The success of the American Revolution, like that of others, depended far more significantly on international succor and support than it did on the intense commitment of the revolutionaries.
The supposition that revolutions succeed because revolutionary heroes refuse to accept defeat has a long history. Still, indomitable will as the basis of victory and its absence as the cause of defeat is far more common an idea among reactionary radicals than among conventional leftists. Far more common among the latter is the belief that social change including revolution is the result of institutional and social structures than the untrammeled desire of the revolutionaries. It has also long been a staple of critics of liberal societies whose members and leaders are generally thought to be insufficiently dedicated to the rights and liberties whose importance they proclaim. Arguing that the success of the opponents of liberals is due to the strength of their commitment is frequently used to buttress a claim that a more tough-minded approach to protecting society from the depredations of its enemies is necessary.
The Islamic State has not succeeded because of the devotion of its members although commitment to the cause has probably brought people who otherwise might have been engaged elsewhere to the border areas of Syria and Iraq that it controls. It has succeeded, to the extent that it has, because more powerful states regionally and internationally have not been able to agree on whether or how to eliminate it. That seems to have begun changing recently—Russia, the US, Turkey and Iran have increasingly come to practical arrangements that will make it more and more difficult for the Islamic State to function. In the process they have also come to arrangements to resolve their disagreements about other actors in the region as well. These include Bashar al-Asad, the Ba’thi regime in Syria, and a multitude of anti-regime political and military forces including the Kurdish ones.
Here, however, it is possible to see another way in which the American experience usefully illuminates events in Syria and Iraq. If it is true that insurgents and revolutionaries cannot succeed without international help, it is equally true that external states cannot simply generate whatever forces they would most prefer in a given conflict. There is every reason to believe that Louis and his ministers would have preferred different American allies than the ones they had. But in the end, intervening to help the insurgents in North America as part of a global strategy aimed at Great Britain required the French government to work with whatever leaders had survived on the ground.