Take Cover

Gale force winds in the Middle East.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Regardless of who gets to enjoy the White House movie theater for the next four years, the first film Barack Obama or Mitt Romney ought to watch is Wolfgang Petersen's 2000 disaster classic, "The Perfect Storm."

Regardless of who gets to enjoy the White House movie theater for the next four years, the first film Barack Obama or Mitt Romney ought to watch is Wolfgang Petersen’s 2000 disaster classic, "The Perfect Storm."

Like the doomed, intrepid crew of the Andrea Gail in author Sebastian Junger’s tale of the powerful 1991 Nor’easter, the United States is caught up in its own perfect storm in a Middle East it can neither fix nor flee.

The looming crisis with Iran, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Syria’s implosion would be trouble enough. But an Obama or Romney administration will also face an Arab world at sea.

It would be wrong to predict the worst from the Arab revolutions. Newly empowered Islamists and nationalists will need the West for many things, causing them to moderate their more revolutionary goals — for now. Hope and progress will mix uneasily with violence and political and economic dysfunction. Donald Rumsfeld was right: Democratization  — if that’s what’s actually in train — is indeed a messy process.

What distinguishes this particular storm, however, is its chronic and durable character. If the storm hit, broke hard, and passed that would be one thing. But unlike Junger’s meteorological event, this political storm will ebb and flow for some time to come.

I can already hear the critics in the background: This is all too dismal, democratization takes time, there’s been real progress — in Egypt, for example, where the country’s first civilian government shares power with the military. My fellow FP columnist, Marc Lynch, wrote a terrific piece analyzing why the recent outburst of Muslim rage isn’t nearly as significant as annoyingly negative worriers believe.

I concede much of that. And it would be wrong to be guided too much by our fears – just as we were guided too much by our hopes in the initial bloom of the Arab Spring.  Nor can we rush to judgment or evaluate political change in this region by our own history and standards. After all, even in the case of the United States, it took a century and a half, including a bloody civil war, to reconcile the promise of equality contained in the Declaration of Independence with the legitimization of slavery contained in the Constitution. And of course, we’re still far from perfect when it comes to attitudes about racial equality.

What’s important is not the end state. We hardly know what that will be. The relevant question is: Are the trend lines running in the right direction? Unfortunately, they may not be.

When the Arab Spring initially broke in late 2010, few could have predicted its character, arc or direction. Whatever hopes there were for easy transitions, inclusive institutions, enlightened leaders, and stable democracies were quickly overtaken by harsher realities.

Secular forces quickly lost their pride of place to Islamists of various strains, particularly in Egypt. These groups were much more determined, cohesive and better organized. Military elites also jockeyed and competed to preserve their power. The repressive powers of the state in places like Syria, Bahrain, and tribal rivalries in Yemen and Libya asserted themselves even while historic elections, transitional leaderships, and new parliaments held out some hope for positive change. And throughout these historic events, the United States figured only marginally in the narratives, grievances and tropes of those Arabs in the streets seeking to own and control their own destiny.

No more.

In a dramatic turnaround, America seems to be front and center (again) in the Arab story. Three forces have come together — like a perfect storm — to threaten the promise of the Arab Spring. And these elements reinforce one another, creating a downward spiral that will be hard to break.

1. Anti-Americanism: We shouldn’t kid ourselves — there is an enormous reservoir of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, and it has been brewing for years. The vast majority of Arabs may like America and Americans, but the fact is they don’t like our policies. What’s more,  a disturbingly large minority of conservative, militant Muslims don’t like anything about us either – particularly our culture’s openness, tolerance, permissiveness and high bar on protected speech.

The sources of Arab anger toward America run deep. We are perceived among many as modern day colonialists throwing our weight around, not taking Arab and Muslim sensitivities seriously, supporting Israel, invading Iraq and Afghanistan, methodically whacking Muslims with Predator drones, bucking up Arab oil sheikhs, interceding in the Arab world when it suits our interests (see Libya) and allowing the Arabs to fend for themselves when it doesn’t (see Syria).

This anger and sense of humiliation has been loosed, not constrained, by the so-called Arab Spring.  Public opinion is now freer to shape the political climate in the region, and new governments are less able or willing to control or repress it. Since American policies are not likely to change quickly or easily, we’re in for a long, turbulent ride.

2. Islamists: Let’s be clear: The "Arab Spring" is really an Islamist Spring. That doesn’t mean that militant Muslims are taking over the world — the Islamists are divided and constrained by their newfound responsibilities of governance, and in Egypt’s case dependence on the West for economic support. But what it does mean is that when fair and free elections are held in the Middle East – take Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, and Lebanon as examples — Islamist parties do very well. They out organize, out mobilize and outsmart their secular, liberal counterparts.

And even where they don’t fare well, such as in Libya, minority groups representing radical Islamist elements can have an impact far out of proportion to their actual support among the general public. It’s the nature of the human enterprise — determined minorities act, majorities acquiesce. The thousands-strong demonstration of Libyans protesting out-of-control militias in the wake of the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens is a hopeful sign, but it has done almost nothing to change the balance of power between what passes for central authority and armed groups.

And let’s not forget the fact that the Islamists are operating in deeply traditional and religious societies. As a result, they have an edge over liberals and other secular reformers who occupy only narrow cultural and political space. This was dramatically reflected in the entire Tahrir Square narrative of 2011, where the Western media wrongly believed that young revolutionaries committed to freedoms that would have made Thomas Jefferson blush were taking over the country. I think it’s fair to say that they (and we?) jumped too soon on a bandwagon that has now broken down

With the rise of the Islamists comes a much lower bar for what constitutes an offense, particularly if generated by the West against Islam. In this sense the vile anti-Islamic video Innocence of Muslims wasn’t simply a pretext for arousing grievances, but reflected the consequences of a clash between Western values and those of Islamists, whose sensibilities have proven impossible to accommodate with our notions of free speech.

Fouad Ajami is right: Modernity requires the willingness to be offended — and with the digital revolution, to be offended on a global scale. In 1981, a Turkish Muslim tried to kill John Paul II — in Vatican Square no less. How many Muslims were killed or embassies attacked by angry Christians looking for revenge? And yet we have a series of events on the opposite side of the ledger — the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the publication of The Satanic Verses, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Geogh by an angry Moroccan Dutchman, and the murder, threats, and intimidation that followed the publication of Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

Admittedly, America has a unique and very high bar for protected speech. However, the standard for freedom of conscience and expression in many parts of the Muslim world is also very low, and not likely to change anytime soon. I can walk into Times Square and say just about anything I want without fear of arrest or death, as long as I don’t disrupt the public order. It is a cruel irony that in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the place that embodied so much hope and promise of freedom, there’s no freedom of conscience. Should anyone offend the prophet there, the consequences might be fatal.

3. Weak and Enabling Governments: Finally, the third element in this storm is the behavior of new governments, which are either unwilling or unable to manage this new angry Islamic populism. In Benghazi, the Arab world’s new Dodge City — a city with far too many guns, grudges and grievances — the Libyan government simply seems incapable of establishing order.

In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi’s government initially seemed to be taking a page from its authoritarian predecessor – control the riots when it suits you and don’t control them when you want to make a point or are under pressure from others to do so. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allowed crowds to torch the Danish Embassy in Damascus following a Danish newspaper’s publication of the caricatures of the prophet, Hosni Mubarak would never have permitted anyone to violate the U.S. Embassy, occupy its grounds for hours, and raise Islam’s black flag over its gate.

This isn’t a plea to have the authoritarians back. What it reveals, however, is that Morsi’s response to the anti-Islam film reflected a different agenda than his predecessor. He’s much more sensitive to Islamist sensibilities and also under pressure from hardline Salafist movements.

The power and fury of last month’s attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East and beyond has abated. There’s a reason for that: Governments that have some measure of control over their streets, particularly in Egypt, need things from America and can’t afford to allow lawlessness and disorder to prevail without compelling cause.  

But the factors that produced the attacks are here to stay. U.S. policies that enrage, aggrieve and humiliate Arabs and Muslims who are only too ready to be enraged, aggrieved, and humiliated are unlikely to change; the capacity of groups and governments to exploit them may only grow stronger; and the uncertain transition to more inclusive democratic systems ensure that an angry Islamic populism won’t be defused anytime soon.

So, should we give up on the Arab Spring and stop trying to encourage the possibilities for positive change? Absolutely not. But should we give up our illusions — particularly the notion that we can significantly influence the Arabs’ political future or that we’re in for anything other than a wild ride in a stormy, turbulent, and churning Arab world? Yes.

And most of all, we should hope that the Roman historian Tacitus was wrong when he wrote, "The fairest day after a bad emperor is the first."

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.