Don’t Give Up on the Arab Spring

Why America did the right thing in Libya -- and freedom will eventually win.


The cruel irony of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens’s death will not be lost on Americans. If it wasn’t for President Barack Obama’s decision, however belated and reluctant, to intervene in Libya, the brutal dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi would very likely still be in power today. Stevens, in particular, had gained the respect of Benghazi’s rebels for his strong support of their cause. He was, to use the cliché, a friend of Libya. But he is now dead, for reasons that are apparently tied to a movie that no one is Libya has actually seen.

For ordinary Americans, the understandable reaction is one of anger, even betrayal. We liberated them — this time for humanitarian reasons, and even though our vital interests were not at stake. And now they besiege our embassy and kill our ambassador. When I woke up today, a friend asked me half-jokingly, "What’s wrong with Muslims?" That is, whether we like it or not, the question that many — including American liberals who have, time and time again, given "Muslims" the benefit of the doubt — will be asking.

And it is here that narratives will collide. The anti-Islam film in question was a pretext much more than the cause of yesterday’s violence. It could have been anything. Anti-American anger, even in Libya, the most pro-American country in the Arab world, remains palpable, lingering underneath the surface of apparent gratitude. But, that aside, even if the United States did everything on Arabs’ wish lists, there would remain a small, influential fringe that would find another reason to hate — or at least dislike and distrust — the United States.

Outside of exceptional cases where the United States intervenes decisively on one side or another, Arab attitudes toward the world’s preeminent power are generally what economists would call inelastic. In other words, even when the United States does "good" things — such as ending the war in Iraq — Arab public opinion does not seem to change all that much. Even in Libya, anti-American sentiment will almost certainly increase after the NATO operation fades from memory. In fact, in several Arab countries, U.S favorability ratings have been lower under Obama than they were in the final years of President George W. Bush’s administration.

It is sometimes difficult for Americans to understand just how deep-seated Middle Eastern anger is. Some of it is illegitimate, but much of it is at least based on things that have actually happened. Algerians will bring up 1991, when what was then the region’s most promising democratic transition was aborted by a Western-backed military coup. Iranians will often bring up 1953, when their democratically elected prime minister was toppled in a CIA-sponsored coup. These dates, far from a remote, forgotten history, are very much alive for those who still suffer the consequences of those tragedies. Anti-Americanism can diminish, and probably will, but to expect an overnight transformation is fantasy.

Large pluralities or majorities in the Arab world are 9/11 "truthers" who believe that either the United States or Israel were somehow responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Yes, this is irrational — one simply has to look at the fact that al Qaeda took credit for the attack. But many Arabs believed, well before Sept. 11, 2001, that the United States was not just a well-intentioned country that sometimes did very bad things, but a veritable force for evil. So it wasn’t difficult for them to believe something that the vast majority of Americans simply couldn’t — that Americans could acquiesce or even actively support the murder of their own countrymen.

The easy response, for Americans suffering from Arab Spring fatigue, would be to give up on the Middle East. They could disengage, and treat the Arab world as what it seemed to be yesterday — a place well outside the grasp of normal, reasoned political analysis. But that would be a grave mistake, especially now. It should be obvious that disengaging from the Arab world is what both Salafi extremists — not to mention Arab dictators — want. The more the United States disengages, the more room they will have to grow in influence and power, and the more commonplace events like those of last night will become.

For decades, the United States undermined Arab democracy through its consistent support of Arab autocrats. But the Arab uprisings have changed that basic calculus and upended our Faustian bargains with the region’s despots (well, at least with some of them). In countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and of course Libya, interests and values are not fully aligned — they never will be — but they are as closely aligned as one can hope. And that is not an opportunity that should be squandered. In all three countries, the United States is finally playing a positive, even crucial, role in supporting the economic recovery of democratically elected governments that, while deeply flawed, enjoy popular legitimacy.

Our commitment to these transitions has at times been tepid — but there are those who would like the United States and Europe to dial down their efforts even more. Such calls must be resisted.

The White House must redouble its commitment to the Arab Spring. Across the region, Salafist extremists and other unsavory characters are trying to fill the power vacuum left by a weak and confused international community. Americans, now more than ever, need to hear a clear narrative of why Arab democrats need our support in their struggle against radicals. To put it more bluntly, what the Obama administration may need — both to turn the tables on its critics at home and its enemies abroad — is to opt for a "don’t let the terrorists win" response. To be sure, it’s a crude sentiment — and one that can be used to justify nearly anything, as it was under the Bush administration. But today it actually makes sense. It has the added virtue of being not only good policy for the Arab world, but good politics back home.

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow in Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy and the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.

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