Learning from the “Arab Spring”

The growing turmoil of the “Arab Spring”—the populist awakening that spread like a brushfire across the Middle East and North Africa after a desperate fruit peddler in Tunisia set himself afire in December of 2010—can shake the optimism of even the most enthusiastic human rights promoter.

As of this writing, populist uprisings have toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. But Egypt’s government remains in a leadership tug-of-war between its military and Islamist parties, while in Libya rebel militias control the streets and the government’s interim leaders still must establish their legitimacy, write a new constitution, and hold elections. Autocrats in Syria and Bahrain continue the brutal crackdowns on their respective populations, with the slaughter in Syria in particular reaching unspeakable levels. That experts wonder whether the “Arab Spring” is more accurately an “Arab Winter” or “Islamist Spring” reflects the uncertainty surrounding the region’s future.

For the United States, the Greater Middle East has long presented a host of tricky challenges. It is home to most of the world’s oil, on which the U.S. and global economies are so dependent; a dangerous theocracy in Iran that seeks nuclear weapons, is expanding the range of its ballistic missiles, and has killed U.S. troops directly and indirectly in Afghanistan and Iraq; the world’s most active state sponsors of terrorism in Iran and Syria; and a vital U.S. ally in Israel that is surrounded by states and terrorist groups seeking its destruction and is facing cooler relations with post-Mubarak Egypt and increasingly Islamist Turkey.

In the short term, the United States must protect its vital interests by navigating the economic, military, and diplomatic landmines that these challenges present. Longer term, the challenge is quite different: to promote freedom and democracy across the region (just as the United States has promoted freedom and democracy in every other region in recent decades). That’s because a freer, more democratic Greater Middle East would benefit America in myriad ways. Liberal democracies do not tend to sponsor terrorism, so a freer, more democratic region would lessen the threats to the United States and its allies. Meanwhile, new free-market economies would provide new trade and investment opportunities for U.S. businesses, generating more prosperity back home.

For Washington, the question is how to get from here to there—how to support democratic forces over the long term without compromising U.S. interests in the short term. That is no easy task. The answer, however, lies not in reducing our efforts to promote freedom and democracy as a result of regional turmoil and retreating to the relative safety of “stability.” Instead, it hinges on understanding that change is coming to this volatile region whether we like it or not—and that a deft combination of savvy diplomacy, targeted economic and technical assistance, and (when necessary) military power can nudge it in the right direction.

America’s quest

For Washington, the challenge of how to balance short- and long-term foreign policy goals is hardly a new one. It cuts to the heart of debates that have dominated U.S. foreign policymaking since America’s rise to power.

From the start, Americans have assumed a missionary role on the world stage, a sense that they created a revolutionary new government and society, rooted in noble values that they were destined to bring to the far-flung reaches of our planet. In U.S. foreign policy, that spirit formed the basis of what’s now known as American “idealism,” the doctrine that America can and should advance the spread of freedom and democracy abroad. Idealism is most often associated with Woodrow Wilson and his call for U.S. entry into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy,” but it reflects a role that Americans have assumed since they began to settle the New World.

Among the foreign policy cognoscenti, idealism competes with the doctrine of “realism,” which dates back at least to Teddy Roosevelt1 and is perhaps most commonly associated with Richard Nixon (and his top foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger). Realists counsel that the United States should single-mindedly pursue its “national interest” and avoid the temptation of nobler goals, if only because the nation has far less capacity to make the world a better place than idealists believe. The battle between idealists and realists forms what Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations, has called the “fundamental fault line” of U.S. foreign policymaking.2

A fault line? Yes. But an unbridgeable chasm? Hardly. Idealism and realism do not present an either/or choice for policymakers, for at least two reasons. First, even idealism is not completely, well, idealistic. It has a healthy dose of self-interest attached to it as well. Idealists believe the United States should promote freedom and democracy around the world not only because it’s right, not only because the United States has the power and influence to make a difference, but for a more selfish reason as well; a freer, more prosperous world will mean more U.S. allies and fewer enemies, fewer wars and less terrorism, more U.S. trade and more markets in which U.S. businesses can invest and sell their goods. Second, in practice, U.S. foreign policy is almost invariably a mix of idealism and realism, as most Presidents of modern vintage have sought to advance freedom and democracy when they could while resorting to hard-headed realism when circumstances required.

As the United States has sometimes learned to its painful dismay, Washington should not apply a once-size-fits-all approach to the world. Every region has its own history, its own politics, its own economy, and its own demography, and Washington has different short-term interests in each region that can constrain its activities. What works in Latin America does not necessarily work in Asia, and what’s appropriate for sub-Saharan Africa may not be appropriate just north in the Greater Middle East. Nor can Washington assume that, with just a clarion call for change or technical assistance to help democratic activists or military intervention to oust an autocrat, countries that were long ruled by despots will easily make the transition to a democracy of which Jefferson and Madison would have been proud. Establishing freedom and democracy is hard work and, for the United States, it requires a long-term commitment to advancing the values of liberty and tolerance and helping to build the infrastructure of political parties, an independent media, open elections, and transparent and accountable government.

All of that brings us to a volatile region of festering frustrations that, until recently, history appeared to have forgotten.

Short-term challenges

More than a year into the “Arab Spring,” you won’t find many experts who think that it has enhanced Washington’s standing in the region, advanced America’s values there, or strengthened U.S. security overall.

Take Egypt, the Arab world’s traditional leader, where Hosni Mubarak ruled with an iron fist but was a U.S. ally who maintained the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and held radical forces in check. Pushed aside by President Obama as his support eroded badly in early 2011, he was replaced on a (purportedly) interim basis by military rule. Military leaders, however, are acting decidedly, well, Mubarak-y—only more so. In a move Western experts do not believe that even the difficult Mubarak would have dared to take, military leaders in February arrested 19 Americans, including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, who were working for leading U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that seek to advance freedom and democracy around the world. The government then began proceedings to try the 19, and two dozen others, for various crimes against the state.

Meanwhile, in parliamentary elections, voters gave two-thirds of the seats to the Muslim Brotherhood or the even more fundamentalist Nour Party, prompting The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg to write: “the majority of voters in the Arab world’s most populous country chose either a party whose motto is ‘Islam is the Solution’ [Muslim Brotherhood] or a party that believes that medieval Arabia is an appropriate state model [Nour Party].”3 Neither party is promising to uphold the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty—especially if Washington responds to the NGO crackdown by withholding aid to Cairo—and both subscribe to doctrines that are antiliberal, anti-Western, and, thus, inevitably anti-American. Cairo’s relations with Washington will almost surely cool, depriving the United States of a reliable ally in its efforts to maintain regional stability and confront Iran.

In Syria, a defiant President Bashar al-Assad has left no doubt that he would do whatever it takes to retain power, continuing a slaughter that has claimed more than 5,000 lives (including women and children), violating every one of his pledges to stop the violence and move toward reform, and provoking calls for international intervention. But the global community remains deeply split over whether to get involved and, if so, how. China and Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution in early February to support an Arab League peace plan under which al-Assad would remove his troops from Syrian cities and step down, while the United States and NATO expressed no interest in military intervention of the kind that gave Libya’s rebels the breathing room to topple Muammar Gadhafi. Syrian opposition groups were split as well, reducing their effectiveness. As Western powers debate whether to help the opposition unite, to arm rebel forces, or to create safe zones in the country, U.S. intelligence reports that al-Qaeda has been trying to capitalize on the chaos (as it sought to do elsewhere in the region).4

As of early 2012, global inaction was improving al-Assad’s chances to maintain power for months, years, or perhaps forever by crushing Syria’s uprising. His future has enormous implications for Washington because he is a strong ally of Iran’s radical regime and works closely with Tehran to arm and protect Hezbollah, Hamas, and other regional terrorist powerhouses. Depending on what kind of government followed, al-Assad’s demise could further isolate Tehran, reduce its effectiveness as a terror-sponsoring force, and make its quest for regional hegemony harder to achieve. Because Iran seeks to displace the United States as the region’s leading power, Tehran’s pain would be Washington’s gain. Washington also would benefit if a new government in Damascus actually did what al-Assad often (though insincerely) hinted to Western audiences that he wanted to do: make peace with Israel, or at least reduce the threat that Syria presents to Israel’s north.

Elsewhere in the region, the “Arab Spring” has been, at best, a mixed bag for the United States. Tunisia, where it all began, has since taken notable transformative steps from dictatorship to democracy, electing a new parliament that will draft a new constitution and witnessing the birth of an independent media and the beginnings of civil society. But, the country is increasingly split between secularists who seek more economic opportunity to match their new-found political freedom and Islamists who seek to impose dress codes and criminalize insults to Islam. In Morocco, where political reform was well underway for years before the “Arab Spring,” King Mohammed VI built upon those efforts with a more comprehensive program, including a new constitution that voters later approved, which shifted power from him to a prime minister. Though parliamentary elections gave power to a moderate Islamist party, that party’s apparent seriousness about addressing economic problems and the reformist king’s role as a check on parliament suggested the country would continue moving in the right direction.

In Libya, post-Gadhafi society remains in flux as interim leaders need to establish their legitimacy, restore some semblance of civil order, write a new constitution, and hold elections. Rebel forces patrol the streets and engage in discriminate detentions and torture, and Libyans in different regions worry about how they will fare in a new political structure. In Yemen, strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh finally stepped down and his vice president replaced him after voters ratified a U.S.-backed deal. But, in the long run-up to those changes, military forces that remained loyal to Saleh were gunning down civilians, secessionist forces were gathering strength in the South, and al-Qaeda’s dangerous branch in Yemen (which Washington worked with Saleh to control) capitalized on the mayhem by seizing some southern areas. In Bahrain, the Sunni dynasty’s modest reforms have not satisfied the Shi’a majority’s demands for more representative government, and the government is continuing a crackdown on protestors that, in its earliest stage last spring, was aided by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states that fear the rise of Iran and other Shi’a forces. Saudi Arabia and Jordan have experienced more limited uprisings by disenchanted segments of their populations, and their monarchies have kept the protests in check through a combination of public subsidies to alleviate the unhappiness and governmental crackdowns to maintain order.

But while the regional turmoil presents a host of short-term challenges for the United States, the picture looks much brighter further into the future.

Long-term prospects

Hopes for a freer, more democratic Middle East and North Africa that would better serve U.S. interests rest on what we know about the region’s people, what we’ve learned about their aspirations, and what tools are at their disposal.

First, the “Arab Spring” should refute once and for all the long-held notion of “Arab exceptionalism”—that, somehow, the people of the Greater Middle East do not crave freedom, do not desire democracy, do not want transparent and accountable government, and do not seek economic opportunity. In a world that’s fast becoming a global community, in which information and images move instantaneously across borders through Facebook and Twitter, YouTube and iPhones, authoritarian governments are increasingly hard-pressed to deny their people the freedom and opportunity that they can so easily see others enjoying not far from home. In seeking those things, people in the Greater Middle East are no different than their counterparts elsewhere.

Second, autocrats are increasingly hard-pressed to avoid global condemnation, global pressure, or even global intervention when they employ violent methods that were once sure-fire ways to suppress home-grown uprisings. Here, too, the revolution in global communications is the biggest reason why. Consider the far different fates that awaited Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria from 1970 until his death in 2000, and his son, Bashar, after each cracked down brutally on uprisings at home.

In 1982, the elder al-Assad sent his army to bring a Sunni uprising in Hama to an end, leveling the town, killing 10,000 to 40,000 people (depending on who you believe), and marking what author Robin Wright described as perhaps “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.”5 While planes bombed from the air, tanks knocked down buildings on the ground. Troops searched the rubble for survivors, who were subsequently tortured and executed. Through it all, a dictator had sent a strong signal to other would-be upstarts and, in an age before victims could show the world through pictures and video in real time, he got away with it.

Three decades later, his son would have no such leeway. In April of 2011, Robert Ford, the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, warned Syrian officials that Bashar al-Assad would not enjoy his father’s impunity to move against a home-grown uprising. “I told Syrian officials ‘do not think you can repeat the father’s tactics in Hama,’” Ford explained to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer nearly a year later. “I told them the world had changed, that with satellite television, with the Internet, with cell phones even, there was no way they could do what the father did and destroy a city without the world really being witness to it. And, as a result, now, we fast forward to 2012, the world can see what the Syrian government is doing and the Syrian government, as a result, is growing more and more isolated.”6

To be sure, as of this writing the younger al-Assad remains in power, brutalizing his people in hopes of crushing the uprising against him. Nevertheless, pressure continues to build for a tangible Western response to al-Assad’s brutality—and the relentless onslaught of video and pictures from inside Syria was clearly contributing to that pressure. By late February, U.S. and other Western officials were starting to talk less about the problems of intervention and more about possible options. Moreover, just last year real-time images of government abuse helped convinced the West to intervene in Libya. When, in the aftermath of such imagery, a besieged Muammar Gadhafi threatened to slaughter his own people by the thousands, Washington answered calls from Paris, London, and other Western capitals to mount a military effort to protect the protestors from the air, giving rebels the requisite time to topple him. The lesson is clear: what a dictator might have done with impunity a decade or two ago is less possible now.

Third, if anything, the “Arab Spring” seems long overdue. Half of the people in the Middle East and North Africa are under 25, and they have grown increasingly disenchanted with autocracies that have not served them well. Unemployment among the region’s “youth” (those 15 to 24) was 24 percent in 2009, more than twice the rate for adults. With little opportunity, youth search for jobs abroad. But the poor quality of their education leaves them unprepared for the increasingly sophisticated jobs that the global economy offers. Meanwhile, pervasive discrimination against women in the region, codified in law and enforced even more aggressively through family, tribal, and religious traditions, hurts not only the women themselves but the region’s economy. In essence, up to half of the population of Greater Middle East nations cannot contribute much to their countries’ economic growth.7

These three dynamics intersect in important ways. Today, the huge numbers of young people who are so dissatisfied with what their societies can offer are also the savviest generation in using social media to bring the outside world to the region and make it harder for despots to brutalize them. Tomorrow, that generation will inherit the responsibility to govern. Meanwhile, the region’s monarchs and strongmen are aging, and they will find it increasingly hard to simply hand down power to a son or other family member.

However the “Arab Spring” unfolds, change will continue to come to this region. The era of political stagnation is ending. The question is: what comes next? The further question is: what can the United States do to help steer that change in the right direction while avoiding the dangers inherent in pushing too hard?

Steps toward a U.S. strategy

Moving forward, Washington will need both a strategic vision and the flexibility to adapt it to “facts on the ground,” among them U.S. relations with the country in question and that nation’s political and cultural history. An effective strategy for the region would include at least the following elements:

Speak consistently, not episodically.

If the three rules of real estate are “location, location, location,” then the three rules of communications are “repetition, repetition, repetition.” Presidents must speak regularly and forcefully about U.S. support for human rights because the Arab people, in particular, have reason to be skeptical. They know that, in the interest of regional stability, Washington traditionally has supported pro-Western autocracies in Cairo, Riyadh, and elsewhere who regularly abused human rights. The support that we provided, in turn, helped the autocrats ignore the aspirations of their people.

The President must make clear that, whether speaking to friendly or adversarial governments, he (or she) will push for reforms that will embed democratic values and structures into the societies that these governments oversee. He should, for instance, urge the military leaders and fundamentalist parties of Egypt to respect human rights as they build a post-Mubarak future, press the interim leaders of Libya to do the same when they write their new constitution, applaud the progress that Tunisia’s leaders have made, and encourage the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan to build upon the limited reforms they have offered. All of that will nurture support among the restive people of the Greater Middle East who are seeking freer and more prosperous lives for themselves and their families.

Respect the home turf

While nurturing the values that, we believe, lie deep within the soul of every human being, the United States must not seek to impose its own formula for freedom and democracy on the region. The people of the Middle East, with their own ethnic and religious roots, their own histories and cultures, must pursue their own paths to freer and more tolerant societies. They may decide to build a U.S.-style federal system, a European-style parliamentary system, or something else entirely. The United States should work with them to ensure that, whatever they create, their political, economic, and social structures reflect the values of freedom and tolerance, transparency and accountability.

Monarchy may be anathema to U.S. views of democratic government—we were, after all, born from a revolution against monarchic rule—but the people of the Greater Middle East do not uniformly share our perspective. Moroccans, for instance, may be dissatisfied with the reforms that their King has provided, but they remain attached to the monarchy and express no broadscale desire to topple it.8 The separation of church and state may be a bedrock principle of American government, but governments in the Greater Middle East will face pressure from rising Islamist forces to insert theological dogma into new constitutions. And, while the United States for two centuries stumbled over race and gender as it sought to perfect “The American Experiment,” governments in the Greater Middle East will have to grapple with fierce SunniShi’a rivalries across and within their nations that have long shaped the region’s politics and economic opportunities.

Build beyond elections

As Middle East expert Kenneth M. Pollack put it recently, “elections do not equal democracy.”9 Washington and the NGOs with which it works must help transitioning nations to plant the values and create the institutions that ensure long-term freedom and democracy. Those values include free speech and free assembly, tolerance and non-violence, transparency and accountability, women and minority rights, and respect for the rule of law. The institutions include opposition parties, a free and independent media, and a thriving civil society that can hold government accountable.

Creating political systems of that nature, and institutionalizing them for the long term, is not easy. That’s why, over the last several decades, nations all over the world have sometimes transformed themselves into free and democratic states, then slipped back to autocracy, and then returned to freedom and democracy. Success requires a sustained commitment by all participants. The alternative to deeply-ingrained democracy is one-time democracy (“one man, one vote, one time”), which could pave the way for authoritarian forces to gain control. That’s what happened in the Palestinian territories in 2006 when U.S. officials pushed for elections; Hamas won a surprising victory, and it then seized Gaza in a violent coup a year later, proceeding to rule the narrow strip with an iron fist while launching thousands of rockets into southern Israel. “The proper role of the free world is not to encourage or to stop elections,” the former Soviet dissident and current human rights promoter Natan Sharanky wrote late last year.

“Its role should be to formulate, and to stick by, a policy of incremental change based on creating the institutions that will lead ineluctably to pressure for more and more representative forms of government.”10

Tie U.S. aid to human rights

Washington should condition its economic, military, and political aid as much as possible on a nation’s progress in protecting human rights. Even with its cash-strapped government, the United States retains enormous capacity to influence the direction of other governments through economic aid, diplomatic support, military sales and cooperation, trade and investment, and leverage over the lending decisions of multi-lateral development banks. By linking U.S. aid to governmental practices, a President can put his rhetorical commitment to advancing human rights into tangible form, thus not only influencing foreign governments but also nourishing support among foreign peoples.

Egypt has long been a top recipient of U.S. aid, and U.S. officials have correctly threatened to slash or end it due to the military leadership’s arrest and trial of the 19 Americans linked to democracy-building NGOs. Also correctly, U.S. officials have offered more aid to Yemen if its post-Saleh government moves toward democratic reform. Washington should keep a close eye on developments as well in Tripoli and Tunis, Riyadh and Amman, and it should boost aid to assist transitions to freedom and democracy and reduce it from governments that are moving in the other direction. It will, of course, have to balance those considerations against the short-term demands of national security, regional stability, and access to the oil on which our economy depends so heavily.

Focus on the long term

For the United States, the conflict between long-term visions of freedom and democracy and short-term exigencies remains a fact of life. But, it must not be a paralyzing one. Yes, Washington must set human rights considerations aside from time to time. Nevertheless, it must make clear, through word and deed, that it retains its long-term goal of advancing freedom and democracy and will pursue it whenever possible. It must avoid the trap of moving from one short-term exigency to another and losing sight of the long-term picture. It also must resist the age-old warnings of pro-American autocrats that U.S. promotion of freedom and democracy will invariably hand power to anti-American Islamic fundamentalists. Instead, it should nurture home-grown democratic forces that can become viable alternatives to authoritarianism of any kind.

Staying the course

In the coming years, as the “Arab Spring” runs its course and the Greater Middle East marinates in more turmoil, the United States is bound to make its fair share of mistakes. In seeking to help establish more freedom and democracy for the region and its people, Washington will push too hard in some places, not hard enough in others. It will assist democratic forces effectively in some places, but complicate matters in others. For U.S. officials, the task amounts to a balancing act.

In May of 2011, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about what he called the “obvious” contradiction between “pushing for democratic reform” in some places while continuing to ensure that U.S.-friendly monarchs in Saudi Arabia and Jordan remain in place.

“I wouldn’t accept the premise,” she replied.

I think that we believe in the same values and principles, full stop. We believe that countries should empower their people. We believe that people should have certain universal rights. We believe there are certain economic systems that work better for the vast majority of people than other subsystems. So I think we’re very consistent. I think that’s been a cornerstone of American foreign policy for at least the last century.

At the same time, we live in the real world. And there are lots of countries that we deal with because we have interests in common. We have certain security issues that we are both looking at. Obviously, in the Middle East, Iran is an overwhelming challenge to all of us. We do business with a lot of countries whose economic systems or political systems are not ones we would design or choose to live under. And we have encouraged consistently, both publicly and privately, reform and recognition and protection of human rights.11

The challenge is to ensure that, while protecting our interests in the short-term “real world,” we don’t lose sight of the long-term world that we aspire to help create.

Lawrence J. Haas is Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. This article is adapted from his book Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers in June 2012.

1 Ted Widmer, Ark of the Liberties: America and the World (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008), 158.

2 Quoted in Ryan Lizza, “The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama’s foreign policy,” New Yorker, May 2, 2011.

3 Jeffrey Goldberg, “Was the Arab Spring a Victory for Extremism?” Bloomberg, December 23, 2011, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-23/was-arab-spring-a-victory-for-extremism-commentary-byjeffrey-goldberg.html.

4 Greg Miller, “Al-Qaeda infiltrating Syrian opposition, U.S. officials say,” Washington Post, February 16, 2012.

5 Robin Wright, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), 243.

6 Interview with Robert Ford, “The Situation Room,” CNN, February 10, 2012.

7 Farzaneh Roudi, “Youth Population and Employment in the Middle East and North Africa: Opportunity or Challenge?” United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Adolescents, Youth and Development, July 22, 2011.

8 Aida Alami, “Moroccan Protests One Year On,” New York Times, February 15, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/16/world/africa/moroccan-protests-one-year-on.html.

9 Kenneth W. Pollack, “America’s Second Chance and the Arab Spring,” Foreign Policy, December 5, 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/12/05/americas_second_chance.

10 Natan Sharansky, “The West Should Bet on Freedom in Egypt,” Washington Post, December 16, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-west-should-bet-on-freedom-inegypt/2011/12/15/gIQAMWWCzO_story.html.

11 Jeffrey Goldberg, “Hillary Clinton: Chinese System is Doomed, Leaders on a ‘Fool’s Errand,’” The Atlantic, May 10, 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/05/hillary-clinton-chinesesystem-is-doomed-leaders-on-a-fools-errand/238591/.