Keep Calm and Carry On
The Arab world needs our help; it just doesn't know how to ask nicely.
The other day I was on a talk show where the host asked me, "Are we better off now than we were before the Arab Spring?" And I said, "Who is we?" The furious attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in the Middle East have left many Americans feeling that the neighborhood was a lot safer when it was patrolled by pro-American generalissimos. But for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen -- the countries where citizens overthrew those hated rulers -- the demonstrations were a sideshow, if a mortifying one. The tumult offered a forceful reminder that "good for us" is not the same as "good for them."
The other day I was on a talk show where the host asked me, "Are we better off now than we were before the Arab Spring?" And I said, "Who is we?" The furious attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in the Middle East have left many Americans feeling that the neighborhood was a lot safer when it was patrolled by pro-American generalissimos. But for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen — the countries where citizens overthrew those hated rulers — the demonstrations were a sideshow, if a mortifying one. The tumult offered a forceful reminder that "good for us" is not the same as "good for them."
I have always assumed that a more democratic Middle East would be good for the United States in the long run, but bad in the short run. George W. Bush was right when he said, in his second Inaugural Address, that "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands" — or at least he would have been right if he had said something less resonant, like "our security depends on legitimate government in the Islamic world." In the long term, good for them is good for us. In the mean time, however, freedom releases poisons as well as noble aspirations. One of those poisons, of course, is anti-Americanism.
Of course, there’s nothing new about explosions of hostility to the United States in the Arab world; what’s new is how far they’re allowed to go. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was always prepared to stoke popular anger at Israel or even the United States, but his thugs would have broken up a demonstration long before it threatened the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The new government of President Mohammed Morsy, however, not only lacks the fine mechanisms of control available to Mubarak, but cannot afford to side with Washington against an outraged populace, as a dictator could. One quarter of the seats in Egypt’s genuinely free parliamentary elections this past January went to Salafists with an explicitly Islamist agenda, and Morsy cannot ignore them as Mubarak ignored the more moderate Islamists in his own parliament. Ergo, the U.S. embassy gets trashed.
It would be nice, and of course it would be just, if leading figures stood up to the raging crowds, as Tom Friedman has demanded they do. But such honesty is likeliest to flourish where the political or personal costs are tolerable. Few public figures criticize the blasphemy laws in Pakistan because extremists have shown that they will kill people who do so. Libyan National Congress President Mohammed al-Megareif may have felt able to forthrightly criticize anti-American violence, as Morsy did not, because Islamists were roundly defeated in Libya’s elections, and Salafists are a far less organized force there. And, despite the organized assault which led to the deaths of four Americans there, Libya is the only country in the Middle East where the United States has earned enough goodwill by its actions to override the inveterate anti-Americanism produced by long U.S. support for dictators or the widespread belief that the West is somehow responsible for everything bad. That’s not going to change for a long time; what happened last week will happen again, with different provocations producing much the same ugly effect.
The temptation for the United States to disengage from the Arab world could become overwhelming. Look at Pakistan, where, despite $18 billion in military and civilian aid over the last decade, the United States is widely hated (and where the government declared a "Day of Love for The Prophet Muhammad Holiday" so citizens could wreak their fury without missing work). Only Pakistan’s necessary role in the war in Afghanistan has prevented those funds from being drastically reduced; as U.S. troops draw down, so, inevitably, will the aid. A group of conservative Republicans has drawn up legislation requiring the Obama administration to submit a report on the embassy attacks in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen prior to a vote on aid to those countries; one of them, Rand Paul, has been holding up an omnibus spending bill over demands that the U.S. cut aid to Pakistan. So far, President Obama has not shown any sign of having second thoughts; and the administration, to its credit, has agreed to provide $1 billion in debt relief to Egypt, and has supported a $4.8 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
That money matters not because it will buy the U.S. goodwill — it won’t — but because it can help stabilize the nascent democracies of the Arab world. The greatest threat to the infant regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen is not religious extremism but economic failure. The Arab Spring has made Salafists more visible, more ambitious, and arguably more dangerous. But it has made many of them more pragmatic. Like the more moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists have formed political parties and begun, if grudgingly, to practice the arts of political engagement and compromise. Al Nour, Egypt’s chief Salafist party, accepts the concept of a civil state, albeit with an "Islamic reference."
Religious extremism could still derail democracy, but we may give it too much weight because it is so obviously "bad for us." The frustration and embitterment of tens of millions of unemployed and currently unemployable young people is a more insidious danger. It is these young men who serve as eager recruits for a mob, and often for jihadist armies. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar, has suggested that the crowd trying to set fire to the U.S. embassy in Sanaa was drawn from Musayk, the dead-end neighborhood which lies below the embassy and some of the city’s finest hotels. Sanaa, wrote Johnsen, overflows with young men looking for an outlet for their rage; last week’s attack was "frustration and anger masquerading as protest."
Mitigating that frustration and anger has to be the long-term goal both of the nascent governments in the region and of U.S. policy. I don’t know how much hope there is for Yemen, a desperately poor country rapidly exhausting its natural resources and plagued by both domestic rebellion and an American-backed war against an al Qaeda mini-state. Yemen looks like Afghanistan writ small. Still, President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi is trying to serve as a bridge among the country’s warring factions; and it’s worth noting that two days before 5,000 people stormed the U.S. embassy, a crowd estimated (by one of its organizers) at 200,000 marched through the streets demanding the repeal of legal immunity for the despised former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. That would argue that Yemenis care more passionately about political justice than about illusory affronts to their religious faith.
Yemen is going to be very frail for a very long time; but economic assistance can make a more immediate difference in Egypt and Tunisia. (Libya will soon have enough oil revenue to stand on its own feet.) Of course, outside help will not matter nearly as much as domestic economic policy: the Morsy government will have to dismantle the bureaucratic and regulatory regime which has stifled economic life in Egypt, and ultimately challenge the insidious role of the military, which dominates much of the country’s economy. Washington has a role to play here as well: Last month, a team headed by Robert Hormats, a senior State Department official, visited Cairo to discuss reforms in advance of final negotiations over the terms of the IMF loan.
President Obama probably deserves more credit than he has received for reacting calmly to last week’s events. It’s characteristic of him that he would be overly cautious about embracing the Arab Spring, but also steady in the face of heavy weather. (A Romney advisor has said that a President Romney would attach conditions to debt relief for Egypt.) Right now, Obama has all the political space he needs from an American public whose mind is completely elsewhere. It would become a lot harder for him, or Mitt Romney, to stay the course if the Middle East has another bout of temporary insanity. Is it too much to ask for American crackpots to hold off on the Islamophobia until, oh, 2013?
James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.