America’s role in the Arab Spring

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By David L. Phillips

President George W. Bush maintained that history would judge his invasion of Iraq and efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East. Recent events have not been kind to Bush’s legacy, with Iraq on the verge of renewed civil war and political transitions in the Arab world causing chaos and instability. The United States must not, however, abandon support for reformers on the front-line of change. It should still pursue political transitions, while taking care to do no harm.

Bush justified attacking Iraq, citing his democracy domino theory. “A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region. A free Iraq can be a source of hope for all the Middle East.” Fouad Ajami recently linked regime change in Iraq and the Arab Spring. “There is absolutely a direct connection between what happened in Iraq in 2003 and what’s happening today throughout the rest of the Arab world.”

Iraq is neither sovereign, stable, nor secure. Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is a proxy for Iran. Following the lead of Iraqi Kurdistan, Arab Sunnis are seeking autonomy for provinces north and west of Baghdad. Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki created a political crisis by issuing an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq Al- Hashemi and dismissing Sunni ministers from his cabinet. More than 300 people died last month as a result of the revived Sunni insurgency.

Rather than being inspired by what happened in Iraq, Middle Easterners are repelled by it. They reject the claim that something imposed from the outside by the United States could motivate people to act on behalf of their popular sovereignty.

“Kefaya” means enough in Arabic. Middle Easterners have had enough of corrupt political, economic and social systems dominated by authoritarian cliques. Demanding dignity, they reject the growing gap between decadent wealth and pervasive poverty.

While the Arab Spring represents a hopeful moment, storm clouds are gathering. When Arab dictatorships fall, they are often replaced by budding democracies fragmented by sectarian divisions, paralysis, and violence as competing groups settle old scores and vie for power.

Islamism and sectarianism have fully emerged as the preferred tools for political mobilization. Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda is engaged with Tunisia’s secular elite in a struggle for the country’s soul. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is a moderate alternative to Salafists who secured a quarter of the vote. Libyans are in an uproar over a draft election law, which reinforces regional factions and marginalizes women. Democracy does not necessarily translate into human rights and especially women’s rights.

In other countries, the United States is forced to choose between popular democratic movements and authoritarians who support its global war on terror. While Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh was heralded for confronting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Obama administration is wary of harboring an authoritarian leader who killed hundreds. Washington has muted calls for power-sharing between Shia and Sunnis in Bahrain where the 5th Fleet safeguards the Persian Gulf.

Supporting the Arab Spring also puts the United States at odds with other powers. Russia and China blocked the UN from endorsing regime change in Syria. Russia has also impeded diplomatic efforts aimed at compelling Iran to abandon its nuclear program. It maintains that intensified sanctions could compel Iran to speed up its nuclear program. Qaddafi gave up Libya’s chemical weapons and was attacked by NATO. Korea crossed the nuclear threshold and was rewarded with aid and political talks.

The United States must steadfastly support political reform in the Middle East. It can be more effective, however, by adopting a more humble and strategic approach. Efforts should consider that democratization is a process not an event; political transitions take time. Old elites cling to power. Emerging democratic institutions lack the capacity to manage the transition to democracy. Civil society is weak, eroded by decades of dictatorship.

America’s challenges are exacerbated by its diminished credibility. Moral authority has been undermined by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Abu-Ghraib, Guantanamo, and decades of support for pro-Western authoritarian leaders in the Arab world. Furthermore, US diplomatic clout is compromised by budget scarcities.

US efforts must be based on pragmatism, not ideology. The United States should emphasize democracy assistance, not democracy promotion. It should avoid teaching about democracy, standing behind not in front of pro-democracy activists. Well-intended measures, such as financing pro-democracy groups, can lead to allegations of foreign interference that undermine local initiative.

The Obama administration can still play an indispensable role, acting discreetly and doing more with less. However, humility does not preclude leadership. “Leading from behind” means working more closely with directly affected populations. It also requires close cooperation with allies to advance the noble goals of democracy, development and dignity.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.


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