The View From Olympus: The Brinton Thesis in Action

The headline on page A7 of today’s (July 1) New York Times reads, “ISIS Threatens Al Qaeda as Flagship Movement of Extremists.” Al Qaeda, it seems, is being outflanked. What a shame.

ISIS now has the street cred al Qaeda achieved with 9/11. Why? Because 9/11 was a long time ago, and ISIS is doing things now while al Qaeda is off the front page. ISIS’s spectacular advance in Iraq may be followed by an equally rapid withdrawal, because that is how light cavalry warfare goes. If ISIS does show staying power, that will indicate it is largely a front for the Baath , which is what I suspect. ISIS’s announcement of a “caliphate” with (surprise!) its own leader as caliph is also good for lots of ink, but like its military advance may fade quickly. Under Islamic law, ISIS does not have the authority to proclaim a caliphate or a caliph. The legitimate caliph is the head of the House of Osman, the dynasty that ruled Turkey as both Sultan and Caliph up to 1923.

If we stand back from the daily headlines, the ISIS phenomenon and especially its displacement of al Qaeda look like a textbook case of the Brinton Thesis in action. Named for historian Crane Brinton, whose specialty as a scholar was the French Revolution, the Brinton Thesis says all revolutions proceed in a series of coup d’etats leading ever more to the most extreme positions, until a final “coup of Thermidor” pulls everything back to the center and the revolution is over. Based on what happened in France–the coup of Thermidor, which was a month in the French revolutionary calendar, marked the end of the revolution–the Brinton Thesis has shown wide application. I suspect that Iraq at present is another textbook case.

What does this suggest for American policy? First, because the coup of Thermidor must come from within, we and everyone else concerned should wait. We cannot make Thermidor happen. Second, American intervention against ISIS, which would really be intervention on the side of the Shiites against the Sunnis, is likely to slow down the process we want to see move as quickly as possible. As has been true since day one of the war in Iraq, we would be working against our own interests. Third, as is the case now in Afghanistan, every American casualty will be directly traceable to ass-covering by politicians, in this case President Obama who seems to lack the guts to just say no to pressures to get re-involved in Iraq. How hard should it be to refuse to go back into a sewer you have finally crawled out of?

The one exception to point three will be if we have to send in forces to secure an evacuation of all Americans from Iraq. The fact that the additional troops we just sent have as their mission securing the embassy and the airport may indicate we are planning for that.

How soon might the coup of Thermidor happen if we are smart enough to stay out? My guess is that we are witnessing the early stages of Islam’s Thirty Years’ War.