Everyone knows there is no longer an Arab Spring

That there is no longer is an Arab Spring, if there ever was one, is now universally understood.

By
August 22, 2013 22:30
A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood at Giza Square, south of Cairo, August 19, 2013.

Muslim protester raises arms 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Frustrated after another one of the Versailles peace talks’ grueling sessions, French premier Georges Clemenceau complained that God was happy with the Ten Commandments, but Woodrow Wilson needed his Fourteen Points.

Those points – which demanded among other things that all nations be freed, military budgets be slashed, trade barriers vanish and secret diplomacy be annulled – won Wilson the Nobel Peace Prize, but otherwise soon arrived in history’s dustbin.

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Even so, Wilson’s vision of global freedom and international harmony came to epitomize the idealistic strand in American foreign policy, the quest to export America’s values.

A century on, a fratricidal Middle East animated by gas clouds above Damascus and blood pools under the Pyramids is challenging America’s diplomatic idealism in a way nothing has since the Cold War, calling into question the White House’s judgment, consistency and effectiveness. Meanwhile, a skeptical Jerusalem is quietly espousing the alternative strand in America’s diplomatic history, the one that cared for strategic stability more than for idealistic purity.

THAT THERE no longer is an Arab Spring, if there ever was one, is now universally understood.

What began with scores of people torching themselves in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt in a heartbreaking cry for hope, sparking mass rallies that soon toppled dictators, has since given way to tribal wars and religious strife, and what initially seemed like democracy’s triumph soon gave way to its wholesale abuse.

That’s today. However, back when this drama began, Western diplomacy reflexively hailed it as democracy’s long-overdue victory in the part of the world where it was most glaringly missing. It was the continuation of a sentiment that originated with the Berlin Wall’s fall.

The feeling in Washington following the defeat of Communism had been, in the spirit of American diplomat Francis Fukayama’s The End of History and the Last Man, that freedom’s march is predestined, that it is the natural form of human life and that all efforts to suppress it will ultimately be met and defeated by the people’s will.

This was the thinking that underpinned US President Barack Obama’s instinctive response when he saw the masses flooding Cairo, demanding Hosni Mubarak’s removal. It will take decades to learn, after declassification, whether any of the diplomats and spies advising him cautioned Obama that the demonstrators represented but a fraction of the population; that the fundamentalists were waiting in the wings; that betraying Mubarak would unsettle American allies elsewhere; and that taking sides so bluntly in an internal conflict would narrow America’s political maneuver space in the future.

If such advice was not whispered in Obama’s ears in those days, then that would call into question the State Department’s and the CIA’s understanding of the world they are paid to probe. And if such advice was given, but ignored, then Obama will be judged harshly by future historians.

In any event, Obama followed in Wilson’s footsteps, shunning American diplomacy’s alternative school – which has traditionally cared less for changing the world, and more for securing America’s outposts within it.

Letting autocracy be was the path most administrations took throughout American history. Until Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, America sent troops nowhere, and then, in 1956 and 1968, it stood by while the Red Army crushed democratic upheavals in Budapest and Prague, respectively. Successive administrations collaborated with Latin American dictators, sometimes also installing them.

This is how late ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick coined the term “authoritarianism,” with which she distinguished between autocracies that challenged American interests, like Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and ones that served them, like Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.

Mubarak was, for decades, America’s Middle Eastern Pinochet. Would events have unfolded differently had the White House been populated in winter 2011 by, say, Dwight Eisenhower, who paid lip service to democracy while abandoning Hungary to its devices, or by Ronald Reagan who, even while confronting the Soviet Union on moralistic grounds, danced with Latin American dictators? Answering this question is impossible because Obama did not face a rival superpower – or so he thought.

SINCE THE Arab upheaval’s outbreak, Obama has made two major moves: In Egypt, he publicly called for Mubarak to leave office; and in Syria, he vowed to act in case President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons.

Just how much thought and consultation, if any, preceded both of these pronouncements is for now unclear. What is not unclear is that Obama assumed at the time that America was the sole superpower, and that he was free to fire verbal salvos in the Middle East as he pleased. And since his was Wilson’s idealism and at stake was democracy’s emergence, his task, he believed, was to make freedom sprout here and dictatorship wither there.

Now, as noted by Hebrew University’s Shlomo Avineri, it is clear that Egypt’s antagonists all misunderstood democracy. The Islamists emerged from their narrow electoral victory with a winner-takes-all attitude that made them ignore minorities, debilitate the judiciary and over-empower the presidency. And the Islamists’ opponents interpreted street rallies as license to topple an elected government.

Meanwhile, Obama’s idealistic indulgences made him neglect his strategic necessities, as the showdown in Syria has proven that America is not the sole superpower.

Not only did Russia, with full Chinese backing, emerge as an unflinching ally of Assad, its conduct there has been the antithesis of America’s. Whereas Obama’s promise to act in case of gas attacks remained unfulfilled, and this week was also contradicted by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, Russia stood by its superpower’s word, backing its client through thick and thin.

Dempsey’s statement, made in a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), offered a dose of reality that may or may not have been delivered to Obama before he warned Assad last December that using chemical weapons would be “totally unacceptable,” adding that “the world is watching.”

Judging by the White House’s growing silence as events in the Middle East continue confounding its original idealism, Obama has apparently learned the hard way what Dempsey explained, namely that Syria’s situation “is not about choosing between two sides, but rather about choosing one among many sides.”

Should the US select someone to back in Syria, it would have to be led by people prepared to promote America’s interests, he wrote.

“Today,” concluded the general wryly, “they are not.”

Widespread reports this week about a massive gas attack outside Damascus have yet to be confirmed.

Even so, the US no longer denies that Assad has already used chemical weapons. Evidently, he feels secure behind Russia’s shield and no longer fears America.

Moreover, the drama in Egypt also plays into Assad’s hand. Firstly, because ousted president Mohamed Morsi was among his sworn enemies, and openly craved a Sunni Islamist victory in Damascus.

Secondly, because live fire at civilians has now ceased to be an exclusively Syrian practice.

And lastly, because in Assad’s analysis, American interference in Syria now would have to be followed by similar action in Egypt – or Obama the idealist would be inconsistent.

In short, Obama’s Middle Eastern vision is going the way of Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

It was one thing for American idealism to produce the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, or Japan’s humanistic constitution, and then to inspire the fall of Communism.

Those were all aided from below by societies that were ripe for America’s gospel. The Middle East, by contrast, remains infested by tribalism, fundamentalism and also feudalism that America was late to detect, and is in no position to undo.

This, in a nutshell, is what Israeli policy-makers quietly think as they scramble to salvage stability from the jaws of all this mayhem.

WATCHING EGYPTIAN troops arrest the most senior Muslim Brothers, from spiritual leader Mohamed Badie down, many assumed it is the best-case scenario from Israel’s viewpoint. It isn’t.

Israel’s interest is not that Egypt be led by anyone in particular, but that Egyptians be happy; that they have the jobs, dignity and hope that their faltering revolution originally promised.

Since Morsi failed to deliver any of this, best would have been for him to lose power they way he won it – at the ballot box. Instead, just as they were running out of political luck, Egypt’s Islamists were turned into underdogs by the coup.

Worse, they can now be counted on to cultivate a martyrs’ narrative that will register with millions, and possibly inspire guerrilla and terror attacks that the regime might not be able to endure. Israel must therefore consider a scenario whereby the Islamists resurge.

Moreover, relations with Morsi’s regime, while far from romantic, were workable. The very fact that they survived his presidency was a major accomplishment, an indirect acceptance of the Jewish state in circles where it is roundly demonized.

That is why Israel is keeping quiet as Egypt quakes, even though relations with post-Morsi Cairo are expected to be smoother than what preceded them.

Armed with its hard-earned experience three decades ago, when an idealistic Menachem Begin tried, and colossally failed, to democratize Lebanon, Israel is following events in Egypt and Syria with the kind of humility that America and Europe can afford to avoid, but the Jewish state cannot.

Furthermore, history suggests that at the end of the day Washington and Brussels, too, will set aside their idealism and cooperate with Egypt’s generals while striving to nurture the prosperity, education and civic society that will someday produce a democratic Middle East. That is how they treated China after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and that is how they will treat Egypt – provided its leaders follow China’s script, and generate growth, quiet and stability.

Considering both sides’ triggerhappiness, and the absence for now of a local Deng Xiaoping who would revolutionize Egypt’s economy, a transition to optimism remains elusive.

That is what a sober, rather than idealistic, American diplomacy should be considering as it tries to predict the region’s future.

Incidentally, the first coup d’état in modern history, Napoleon’s in 1799, happened upon his emergence from Egypt. Obviously, most analogies to Egypt’s current turbulence are unworkable. For instance, by the time Napoleon arrived in Paris, France’s Great Terror was behind it.

Egypt’s may hardly have begun.


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