The Arab Winter Cover

The Arab Winter

A Tragedy

Noah Feldman

Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2020, 216 pages

Book Review published on: February 26, 2021

For anyone interested in international affairs, foreign policy, or the Middle East in particular, The Arab Winter: A Tragedy is a worthwhile investment in time and money. That is not to say that the book is an easy read. It is not. Discussions of political theory interwoven with philosophical discourse tend to be complex, linking abstract concepts in ways that can be difficult to follow. Noah Feldman goes to great lengths to lay out his logic and is generally successful in doing so. Still, it is relatively easy to get “lost in the sauce.” To Feldman’s credit, his logic is complicated but not convoluted. This book that must be studied, analyzed, and reflected upon in order to extract its full value. A reader who expects light, simple, fluffy conclusions will be sorely disappointed. The reader who approaches this work as a serious educational experience will not be disappointed.

Be prepared for some internal recalibration of terms, however, to avoid railing against cognitive dissonance. Encountering a chapter titled “Islamic State as Utopia” can be unsettling. At first glance, that title appears to be an oxymoron, using the common definition of utopia as an ideal or perfect society, especially when we know that the Islamic State became distinctly dystopian in its embrace of rape, torture, and wanton murder in pursuit of its political goals. Feldman acknowledges the dystopian outcomes of the Islamic State in its attempts to establish a caliphate, but he argues that the idea of a sixth century-style caliphate constituted a utopian ideal for many. In Feldman’s words, “The Islamic State’s version of political Islam was … utopian, salafi-jihadi, and revolutionary-reformist. It was also emphatically nondemocratic.” The author grapples with the murderous extremes of Islamic State behavior. While he does not justify that behavior, he attempts to explain it as a byproduct of “the distinctive, elevated mood and state of mind associated with the creation of a revolutionary—reformist polity”—not as an excuse, but as a causative factor.

Feldman lays out three basic arguments: (1) the Arab Spring was a new Arab political experience, (2) Arab nationalism in the “Arab Winter” is very different from Arab nationalism prior to the Arab Spring, and (3) events following the Arab Spring changed political Islam—the aspiration to a constitutional political order grounded in shari’a. The core of this work is three comparative case studies examining the events in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia. At its essence, the book tries to explain why the Arab Spring uprisings failed to produce a lasting constitutional democracy in Egypt, why the uprisings in Syria devolved into a disastrous civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, and why the outcome in Tunisia was so different from those in Egypt and Syria. Spoiler alert: Feldman concludes that the “magic ingredient” in Tunisia was a pragmatic realist view that in order to succeed, the competing political entities had to agree to share participation and power, rather than adopt an “all-or-nothing/winner-take-all” attitude and impose its will on the rest. In this, his argument is compelling.

This author has sterling bona fides. He is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He is the author of eight other books, including The Three Lives of James Madison; The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State; Cool War: The United States, China, and the Future of Global Competition; Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices; and What We Owe Iraq. He was an on-the-scene eyewitness to many of the events he described, served as senior constitutional adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and advised members of the Iraqi Governing Council as they drafted their Transitional Administrative Law. He has “been there and done that.”

All in all, this is a publication worth seeking out. Just be prepared for a rigorous intellectual workout.

Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas