The Arab Spring and the Limits of American Power

John Kerry in a meeting with Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, former King of Saudi Arabia
John Kerry in a meeting with Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, former King of Saudi Arabia, September 11, 2014

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Ari Ratner is a Fellow at New America. He formerly served in the Obama Administration State Department from 2009-2012 as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment. Follow him on Twitter: @amratner

In March 2011, I was in Saudi Arabia as part of an American diplomatic mission. Relations between Saudi Arabia and the US government had deteriorated significantly since the start of the then still-young Arab Spring. The Saudi government believed that the Obama Administration was too quick to abandon long-time allies like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They saw the hand of Iran in uprisings across the region, including in neighboring Bahrain, and feared unrest in the Kingdom itself.

Indeed, as we drove from the airport into Riyadh, the radio blared news of King Abdullah’s latest $90 billion in “stimulus” to reward his subjects’ loyalty: all government workers received two months additional salary; all students received two months additional stipend; billions were allocated to the military and religious police; billions more to build homes and mosques; and on and on. Afterwards, Saudis called in to recite poems to the King.

Despite the tension, the agenda with Saudi Arabia remained full and, befitting our strange “special relationship”, contradictory: we were caught off guard by their invasion of Bahrain even as we wanted support for our airstrikes against Gaddafi’s Libya; we wanted them to increase assistance to neighboring countries and output to the global oil market even as they were newly skeptical of our security guarantees.

Yet what has stuck with me most from the trip was a candid aside that a senior Saudi official gave on the problems facing the Kingdom: “we have a leader who wants to implement change but has a difficult time delivering on his promise; we have an opposition that holds a de facto veto over our government; we have high unemployment, especially among the young; we have mounting levels of debt, especially over the long-term; and we have a bureaucracy that is so slow and inefficient that it is difficult to get anything done.”

For a second, I wasn’t sure if he was describing Saudi Arabia or America.

The Pentagon, a linchpin of US Middle East strategy

The reality of Saudi and American politics and society are, of course, vastly different. Nevertheless, the Middle East had the historical misfortune of undergoing a revolutionary moment at the same time that America— and the wider Western world— was marked by its own profound period of political and economic dysfunction.

When long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunis on January 14, 2011, the United States was in its ninth year of post-9/11 warfare. The country was still slogging through the Great Recession unleashed by the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis. Having elected a President who pledged to drawdown the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and focus on “nation-building at home”, the American public had little appetite for renewed engagement in the Middle East. The Obama Administration, moreover, had emphasized the need to “pivot” to the country’s long-term strategic and economic interests in the Pacific.

As uprisings spread in quick succession— Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and beyond— Washington was in its first months of divided government. A new Republican majority in the House promised to constrain the powers and purse of the Obama Presidency. Foreign assistance, while only comprising approximately one percent of the budget, was an appealing target. Meanwhile, the machinery of American foreign policy— the Pentagon, the State Department, USAID, etc.— had long since become ossified by bureaucratic decay. Strategic thinking and implementation was overly reliant on the military, inflexible, and ill-prepared for such a massive upheaval.

As the Arab Spring erupted, Europe was likewise occupied by economic crisis, with Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, and Ireland needing urgent assistance. Beyond them: Italy and Spain, even France and the wider Eurozone, teetered at the economic abyss, as Brussels and Berlin struggled to cope with the fallout. Japan, meanwhile, was soon consumed by the triple disaster— earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis— of April 11, 2011.

In this context, the G8’s initial response to the Arab Spring— the Deauville Partnership announced at their summit in France in May 2011— was as much an exercise in obscuring the G8’s collective lack of resources for the “transitioning countries” than the outpouring of support that it was branded as and hoped for.

Former US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, left, meets with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, right, in Tunis, Tunisia, July 2012
Former US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, left, meets with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, right, in Tunis, Tunisia, July 2012

Yet the G8’s tepid response was merely another manifestation of a wider crisis of confidence in the West: Were the BRICs on the verge of becoming the world’s dominant economic bloc? Was the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism more capable of growth and immune to downturns? Or were these emerging economies themselves waiting for their own crises?

In sum, as the Arab Spring erupted, there was no obvious model for the region to follow— and there were severe constraints on the ability of Washington and the West to influence its course.

The Arab Spring, of course, has since become not just a period of tremendous tumult and bloodshed. It has also seen a crushing defeat of expectations— in the region and in the West. Comparisons to 1989 were rampant. Yet the differences between the Arab Spring and the Velvet Revolutions are more telling than the similarities. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the countries behind the Iron Curtain had been forcibly cut off from their natural home. They had existing memories of democracy from which they could build, and western institutions— NATO and the EU— in which they could integrate. They had leadership— Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Mart Laar, etc.— who had a strategic vision and the ability to carry it out. And their publics were pro-western.

The Arab Spring, in contrast, has been a quagmire of epic proportions— or more accurately stated, a series of epic quagmires. Even if the US government had the “perfect” policies, its ability to influence the outcome would have been limited. The dominant causes and course of events have been set by conditions in the region: autocratic governments that failed to provide a modicum of freedom or opportunity for their citizens; the growing divide between Islamists and traditional authoritarian regimes; the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia; and the region’s failing economic, educational, and social systems— embodied foremost in the systematic marginalization of women, young people, and minorities.

Had the Arab Spring occurred in a different period, the US government might have been in a better

position to assist— as it did with the Marshall Plan following the Second World War or the SEED Act following 1989. The Mideast, similarly, may have seen the West as more of a magnet— perhaps akin to post-Cold War Latin America, where distrust of the West lingered even the region increasingly adopted western norms.

Instead, the Mideast has been left without a model. The western model has seemed weak; while the eastern model has remained distant. The Islamist model has been discredited— just as the secular authoritarian model before it. The region has splintered. Violence has surged. And the underlying challenges— the widespread lack of human dignity, political freedom, and economic growth— remain.

Three Yemeni soldiers for the first armored division
Soldiers in Yemen, a country now in chaos and at the very edge of US influence

Can the region now be turned around?

All is certainly not lost. The Arab Spring has seen some success: in Tunisia, for instance, and in reasonable reforms undertaken by countries like Jordan and Morocco.

Overall, the Arab Spring has played a deeply conflicting role. It brought to the fore a series of challenges that it may have also made more difficult to contend with. Nevertheless, these challenges are now firmly on the agenda. And a new generation— more than half of the Arab world is under the age of 25— is both awakened to them and connected to the wider world in ways not seen, perhaps, since the apex of Arab civilization.

Nevertheless, while the region must rightly retain control over its own fate, there is more that the West can do to help. From the perspective of the US government, the failure to live up to many of our promises— the repeated inability to promptly deliver economic or military assistance, for instance— has weakened our credibility, strained traditional alliances, and limited our ability to influence the situation on the ground.

These failures have not come about only as a result of the difficult regional situation, but also because of Washington’s own shortcomings. Some common critiques of President Obama’s response have merit. In its initial stages, the Administration was rightly respectful of the fact that change was being driven from the region. But President Obama has too often appeared overly cautious or indecisive. Yet the strategic failures also include a Congress that has displayed a penny wise, pound-foolish and needlessly partisan approach to foreign policy.

American economic strategy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring serves as a cautionary tale. The United States initially sought to help stabilize countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia through increased economic aid. This came in response to calls from the countries themselves; Egypt was particularly keen on debt forgiveness. In a highly resource-constrained environment, the Obama Administration attempted to ramp up aid. But Congress endlessly delayed— long before Islamist parties came to power— even when it required only the reallocation of existing funds.

Meanwhile, we relied on funding from others, like the Gulf States, each of whom had their own interests. And so conditions on the ground deteriorated, American credibility weakened, and the moment was lost.

Of course, U.S. taxpayers cannot possibly cover the cost of global crises alone. But when it comes to diplomacy, there is a basic truth: without our own resources on the table, our influence diminishes.

Support for critical investments in American national security were once bipartisan. Aid to Egypt after it left the Soviet camp received widespread support. In today’s Washington, there is often money for military action. But advancing American interests through aid has become an affront to fiscal responsibility— even if it is often far more cost-effective.

America’s military might, meanwhile, has been proven difficult to utilize in a sustained manner. In Libya, the American-led air campaign against Qaddafi was successful. Yet, ensuring stability has proved far more difficult. Libya has turned into an example of the powerlessness of American power— with military means that we are unwilling or unable to bring to bear to solve underlying challenges— a lesson of critical importance as we ramp up the conflict with ISIS.

Syria, for its own part, has become the perfect storm of the Arab Spring— combining (indeed exceeding) the worst aspects of each uprising: the kleptocracy of Egypt, the sectarianism of Bahrain, the chaos of Libya, the poverty of Yemen, all rolled into a brutal proxy war involving major regional and global powers.

Rebel-held area of Aleppo after bombardment by the Syrian government
Rebel-held area of Aleppo after bombardment by the Syrian government

Its fate, likewise, is a microcosm of the Mideast’s troubles. When Syria eventually emerges from its nightmare— a prospect for which there is no obvious path— the country will face a vast array of challenges: establishing security and a functioning government; ending sectarian warfare; rebuilding the country’s infrastructure; and addressing the underlying crises that caused the Revolution in the first place. In short, Syria needs to rebuild a functioning state and society almost from scratch. This will be a long, difficult, and Syrian-led process. But it’s essential that the U.S. remain engaged to safeguard its interests.

Yet American policy on Syria remains predominantly disengaged, perhaps understandably so. Syria is a problem from hell. President Obama’s choice to keep it at arms length has been a reasonable strategic choice. The U.S., moreover, has done its best to mitigate the refugee crisis and support various attempts at a diplomatic solution. It also achieved a victory in the elimination of chemical weapon stockpiles held by the Assad regime.

Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of reasonable reluctance in Syria— as across so much of the region— has appeared more as lack of strategy than strategic choice.

Ultimately, what is still needed from America, from the West, and from the region itself, is a far bolder long-term strategy: a re-imagination of this vital world region to match the measure of this historical moment.

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