The Middle East Channel

How the Arab Spring presages a shifting world order

The spontaneous challenges to existing rulers throughout the Arab world — collectively known as the Arab Spring — presage a momentous transformation in how Arabs will govern themselves in the 21st-century. Yet the pace of events is so swift, the weaknesses of besieged state institutions so great, the rules governing the relationship between the state ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The spontaneous challenges to existing rulers throughout the Arab world — collectively known as the Arab Spring — presage a momentous transformation in how Arabs will govern themselves in the 21st-century. Yet the pace of events is so swift, the weaknesses of besieged state institutions so great, the rules governing the relationship between the state and its citizens so unclear, that every day in this unfolding revolution dawns as a new day.

Trying to tie up into a neat, conceptual package this popular explosion, whose energies are far from being spent, is a fool’s errand. Zhou Enlai’s comment when asked about that effect of the French revolution  — that "it is still too early to tell" — stands as a cautionary warning of the perils of judgments made in real time.

Nevertheless certain observations about the character of the new world emerging seem in order:

1) George W. Bush’s model for building democracy in Iraq — pursued at such cost in blood and treasure — has proved to be no model at all. Indeed, American-led regime change in Iraq is viewed by those challenging the existing order, as well as those defending it, as a poisonous example to be avoided rather than a model to be embraced. Iraqis themselves are observers rather than participants in the home-grown revolts than are coursing throughout the region, with nothing to offer other than warnings about the perils of sectarianism gone amok and the wholesale toppling of institutions built by dictators. Granted that there is no room in history for "what if" scenarios. But what would the Arab Spring look like in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?

2) The contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran has moved to a new plane. The Saudi intervention in Bahrain was a bold, successful, and unprecedented assertion of Saudi domination of the Gulf nations and its commitment to preserve the regimes of Sunni monarchies. Both Washington and Teheran opposed the move, exacerbating a deep split in US-Saudi relations on how best to manage the Arab Spring and heightening the stakes of a Saudi-Iranian cold war.

3) The question of Palestine has not been a central facet of the revolt, but in an era of empowered civil societies Palestine will emerge as a critical litmus test of the popularity of the new regimes and the United States. Newly constituted and democratically elected assemblies in Cairo, Amman, or Sana’a, elected by mobilized constituencies, will not be able to avoid addressing the festering question of Palestine, particularly in an atmosphere of diplomatic stalemate and continuing occupation. Indeed, the absence of a credible negotiating framework is already producing radical and unexpected challenges to Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an address to the Knesset on the eve of his departure for Washington, proposed that Israeli unite in defense of the Iron Wall, a notion made all the more poignant as a result of last weekend’s breaches of Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon by former refugees. Yet the legacy of Arab parliamentary contributions to Palestine is a sobering one. Arab failures in the 1948 war that lead to Israel’s establishment and Palestine’s nakba discredited parliamentary rule and precipitated the era of Arab dictatorships that is only now being challenged.

4) It is a fairly safe bet that, notwithstanding the common themes of the Arab Spring, Pan-Arabism is dead. In the last few decades the Arab capitals of Beirut and Baghdad have been occupied by foreign invaders. Arabs were compelled to call upon Western forces to police an errant Iraqi regime in 1990 and the Arab heartland — Saudi Arabia — was forced to admit "crusader forces" onto its soil to deter/confront aggression from a fellow Arab state. A decade later Arabs watched from the sidelines as Washington and its "coalition of the willing" marched on and sacked Baghdad.

Will the Arab Spring mark the dawn of a new age of Arab community? One of the signature moments of the Arab Spring is the decision by the Arab League to request a Western attack against fellow, if unloved, Arab League member Libya. This extraordinary request — a first in the annals of modern Arab politics — was made by what are admittedly still representatives of the old order now under siege by their own people. But leading the organization then was Amr Musa, who styles himself as the next Egyptian president and the first to be elected in a free and fair contest. Amr bequeathed his successor, the current Egyptian foreign minister Nabil al-Araby, the thankless task of rationalizing Arab support for a NATO-led policy of regime change in yet another Arab capital.

5) A military attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is "stupid." A new voice has been added to those who have been questioning the utility of such a policy — and it belongs to none other than Israel’s just retired spy chief. Meir Dagan, whose credentials as a tough guy are beyond repute, has gone wobbly on Iran. His remarks recall the young boy who gave voice to what everyone already knew but were too afraid to say: the emperor — in this case an Israeli or even American attack in Iran — is naked. An attack on Iran simply makes no sense. The Arab Spring will proceed without the all-consuming distraction of a military assault on Iran. Case closed.

6) The international community is devoting the greatest amount of resources to the least consequential and least modern Arab revolt — the one occurring in Libya. This policy choice may not be an anomaly at all, but rather a symptom of a deeper malaise. Among the less noticed remarks included in the WikiLeaks release of US diplomatic cables was that of a Chinese official who was reported to have remarked on Washington’s pre-occupation with "small countries" in the Middle East. This remark was made before Washington, dragged along by other NATO members, took up arms against the Qadaffis.      

China is not alone in watching Washington’s extraordinary engagement in the Middle East, but its assessments have a unique value, for they represent the views of the one country whose power across the globe  — in all realms — economic, political, and military — has already led many to define the 21st century as the Chinese century. China is not only embarked upon a reassertion of its place on the center stage of world events. It is doing so with a keen and cautious sensitivity to the power, capabilities, and sagacity of the United States.

One does not need to be Sun Tzu to wonder at the absence of a strategic rationale driving Washington’s tremendous expenditure of blood and treasure and energy in the Middle East region. It is one thing to invest these resources and succeed. For example, to successfully press the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu to end the occupation. It is quite another to intervene without achieving the desired outcome, as with Israel, or even establishing a strategic purpose — as in Libya, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

These crises in the application of American power abroad are not one-off aberrations. Washington may not realize it but there are consequences to declaring the solution to the Israel-Arab conflict to be a national objective but then failing to achieve it. It does matter when decisions are made to invest trillions without lasting purpose in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US would not be the first superpower to be undone by its own shortcomings and the loss of its strategic compass. As wealthy and powerful as the U.S. is, there is only so much money in the bank.

As the Chinese comment suggests, the national security course pursued by Washington today reflects deep national and institutional shortcomings, years in the making, that Americans have been loathe to recognize, let alone address. President Obama has an opportunity to "reset" US policy towards the tumultuous Middle East, and answer the vociferous popular expectations of a change in US policies. Complacency in the face of such challenges is itself a measure of the problem.

Geoffrey Aronson is the Director of Research and Publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace and editor of the Foundation’s report on Israeli Settlement Activities in the Occupied Territories. 

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