- From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East by Sean L. Yom
In this book, Sean Yom examines one of the most important questions in comparative politics: what determines regime durability in authoritarian states? He offers a provocative answer, asserting that durability is largely a product of the level of external support. The more foreign powers intervene and aid autocrats to help squash domestic opponents, the less durable these authoritarian regimes will be. Yom argues that external support undermines regime durability by increasing the incentives that push leaders to rely on repression to defeat domestic challengers. This outcome makes authoritarian regimes stand on feet of clay. Repressive governments supported by external powers can afford to exclude and marginalize most social groups beyond the narrow band of ruling elites. Thus when crises erupt, the government possesses little breadth of support to rally around the regime.
When, in contrast, authoritarian governments lack a major international patron, Yom argues, leaders are often forced to bargain with opposing domestic groups, ultimately widening through patronage and protection the coalition supporting the regime. The broader this domestic coalition, the easier it is for the government to weather crises when they come.
Yom apples the argument to the evolution of domestic politics for much of the twentieth century in three key Middle Eastern countries: Kuwait, Iran, and Jordan. To Yom, the relative low level of great power support for most of the twentieth century explains the durability of the Al Sabah monarchy in Kuwait during the 1980s fiscal crisis and the 1990 Gulf War. Conversely, high levels of foreign aid were key to the fragility of the Pahlavi regime in Iran in the 1970s, which was ultimately overthrown in revolution, and the tenuous survival of the Hash-emite monarchy in Jordan since the 1970s due to frequent and intense popular protests.1 [End Page 504]
These cases are well chosen: they exhibit variation in the argument’s dependent variable, regime durability, while holding constant in at least two, and frequently in all three, of the countries the independent variables of important competing explanations of regime stability, including culture, religion, region, colonial history, natural-resource wealth, and monarchism. Because Yom’s independent variable varies across his cases and others’ do not, the plausibility of his claims increase.
The policy recommendations resulting from Yom’s analysis are important. Most notably, the findings challenge the realist notion that countries should give extensive support to steadfast authoritarian allies in order to help keep them in power in the face of rising domestic threats. To Yom, this prescription is exactly wrong: extensive external support will significantly increase regime fragility rather than bolster durability. Yom concludes the book by referring to the foreign policy of the United States in particular: “If Washington wishes to keep even its most unsavory allies in weak states in power, it should get out of the way and support them less. Helping hurts” (p. 218).
Although Yom’s evidence generally supports this conclusion, important nuance in this area is underdeveloped. One of the issues warranting greater analysis is that of time horizons. If foreign support undermines regime durability in the long run, but not necessarily immediately (Mohammad Reza Shah’s hold on absolute power in Iran, for example, lasted 26 years), and if political leaders frequently base their policies on short-run calculations, at what point and under what conditions should leaders follow Yom’s prescriptions? It is possible—perhaps even likely—that elites are more aware than Yom sometimes implies that their support of repressive regimes is ultimately self-defeating, but nevertheless feel compelled to opt for this choice due to the pressures of immediate circumstances. It is not clear that Yom’s prescriptions are as convincing based on the sole criterion of the short-run survival of valuable allies.
More importantly, it would have been useful if Yom devoted greater attention to foreign aid strategies that are designed to support allies without succumbing to the trap that Yom identifies. Can foreign governments provide...