A number of observers, such as Andrew Sullivan, have been calling the events of the last two months in North Africa and the Middle East the "Arab 1848." The reference is to the numerous revolutions that swept the states of Europe in 1848.
I've just recently covered that period of history in my Western Civilization class, so I've been pondering the implications of the analogy, particularly in light of last week's UN resolution authorizing the use of force against Qaddafi's Libya.
The most sobering fact about the original 1848 is the ultimate failure of most of the revolutionary movements. While the wave of revolutions in 1848 showed the enduring power of ideas like liberal ideology and nationalism, most of the early gains were wiped out by a conservative counterattack.
When examining that failure, historians usually emphasize the splits between liberals and nationalists and between the middle and working classes. Starting a revolution can be the easiest part; coming to a common understanding of its goals is often the hardest. Those divisions were exploited by conservatives who sometimes used brutal force to re-establish their power.
But there is one other factor I mention: the fact that Great Britain, the most liberal power in Europe at the time, did not intervene to aid the liberal and nationalist forces. And that's where the analogy to today kicks in again. The United States now stands in relation to the Arab revolutions as Britain did to the ones in Europe in 1848.
The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, was primarily concerned with maintaining the balance of power in Europe. That had been Britain's chief objective for decades, and all players understood that by weighing in, Britain could tip the balance. According to The Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy, "Appeals poured in upon him from all sides — desperate cries for help from distressed potentates, insistent demands for aid from struggling patriots."
While Palmerston "iterated and re-iterated with a frequency that became monotonous his exhortations to the dynastic despots to make timely concessions to national democracy," he rebuffed all pleas for outright intervention for liberal or nationalist causes.
For example, when the Hungarian nationalist leader Louis Kossuth begged for British assistance in the face of Russian intervention to re-impose Austrian rule over Hungary, Palmerston resisted, even though "British public opinion ... began to express itself clearly and loudly on the Hungarian side."
Palmerston was personally appalled by the crackdown against the revolutionaries, writing privately that he thought the "Austrians are really the greatest brutes that ever called themselves by the undeserved name of civilised men." In the end, however, he contented himself with diplomacy to help save Kossuth's life, not his Hungarian regime.
Up until last week, the United States had been largely able to avoid making any such hard choices about active intervention in the Arab 1848. The protests in Tunisia and Egypt ended with repressive leaders stepping down, while other protests, such as the one in Morocco, never reached the boiling point.
And then came Libya.
Qaddafi's brutal use of military force to quell the protests and subsequent rebellion raise the specter of the conservative backlash that destroyed the revolutionary momentum of 1848.
Despite its sympathies, Britain then was not on an ideological crusade, and it remained on the sidelines. This week, the U.S., prompted ironically by Britain and France, entered the fray. While the Obama administration has avoided stating that it is now committed to the fall of the Qaddafi regime, that is the reality. Whether or not that is wise remains to be seen.
In my classes, I always say that the lack of British intervention was, compared to the splits among the revolutionaries themselves, a relatively minor factor in the outcomes of 1848. But we'll never know if a different British response might have produced a different outcome. Although there is no way truly to replay history, this intervention in Libya may be as close as we can get.