David Rothkopf

What grade will the West get in applied Middle Eastern studies this semester?

What grade will the West get in applied Middle Eastern studies this semester?

Certainly, Bashar Al Assad feels tested these days. So presumably, does Muammar Qaddafi. So to do rulers and their cronies in Bahrain and Yemen. Deposed elites in Egypt and Tunisia certainly seem to have failed the test of this Arab Spring and the jury is still out as to their successors.

But the leaders in the region are clearly not the only ones being tested. The leaders of the international community have been too and the results so far for them have been no better than those of the embattled regional chieftans … and indeed, they may be worse.

On the Libyan portion of the test, the answers provided have been as hard to decipher as they have been of dubious merit. As the British announced they will be sending 20 military officers and civilian advisers to Benghazi to advise Libyan rebels and the French did similarly, the U.S. had the vice president delivering to the Financial Times the W.C. Fieldsian message that on the whole, we’d rather be in Egypt. 

Facing public concerns that stepping up their involvement may be the first step toward an escalation, the British have bent over backwards to assure their new measures are carefully compliant with the U.N. resolution that blessed the Libya involvement. They are focusing, they say, on "communications and logistics, including how best to distribute humanitarian aid and deliver medical assistance." This comment was apparently written for them by newly out-of-favor author Greg Mortenson given that it is just as implausible as apparently are some sections of his best-seller Three Cups of Tea.

Thus, at this point, even with Qaddafi reportedly feeling the heat and the West floating stories about him considering exile, the reality is we’re weeks into an undertaking that was supposed to take "days not weeks" and the only resolution anywhere in sight is the one from the security council that is fading in our rearview mirror.

So, the Libya part of the test is not going so well. But frankly, in retrospect, it may look it was passed with flying colors compared to many of the other elements of this spring’s challenges.  Because while the West did eventually send a clear message to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak that his time was up and that it would not prop him up, since that high water mark of support for reformers and the Libya response that followed, the message has been "we’ll sit this one out." This has been due in part to the complex geopolitical problems posed when facing choices between democracy advocates and the vital allies they are seeking to depose.  It has also been due to the fact that the Libya muddle has sapped whatever political will existed to get involved from the few governments with any inclination at all to do so.  Consequently, the noble sentiments expressed by the U.N. and NATO leaders that led to an effort to protect Libya’s citizens from its despotic rulers has been followed by utter silence and precious little action at all when it came to protecting the citizens of Bahrain, Yemen, or Syria. In fact, in the case of Bahrain, we can only assume that the position of the U.S. at least has been slightly worse than just inaction … it has involved wink-and-a-nod acceptance since the crackdown has come from close U.S. allies who continue to depend heavily on the United States for security support. 

The inaction in the face of the brutal targeting of Shiites in Bahrain may be partially explained by concerns about Iran’s role in stirring up the Shiite majority in Bahrain, but even here, the response can’t be viewed as part of a consistently effective policy given recent gains made by the Iranians in taking advantage of changes in Egypt to strengthen their relationship with Cairo and via supporting the Assad government in Syria thus strengthening their ties with that regime.  And none of this speaks to the time the Iranians have gained for their nuclear efforts while the world’s attention has been drawn elsewhere in the region.

In fact, judged on humanitarian grounds the score the West will get on this test is at best an incomplete and could well be far more dismal than that.  Strategically, it looks like this Arab Spring may actually strengthen the west’s enemies more than it does the West or Western ideals or interests.  Operationally, it has revealed troubling cracks in key alliances. 

The test is not over for anyone other than Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali. But right now it seems far more likely that the region’s despots will score better in the near-term than will the United States or its allies. With the eventual disposition of Egypt’s transition, Libya’s civil war, and uprisings in key countries across the region still uncertain, this could change and there is every reason to remain hopeful. However, if the real message behind the tortured diplobabble offered up to explain the Libya situation is that — thanks to Qaddafi’s resilience, the rebels’ limited capacity, NATO’s ill-structured mission, and our general strategic befuddlement about balancing our aspirations and historical relationships — the region’s autocrats will be getting essentially a free pass from here on out … then the West may well end up with a big fat "F" on its Mideast report card this semester, with only more complex tests ahead.