Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Who Thought What about the Arab Spring

It’s been more than two years since the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia.

Thus, it seems reasonable to assess the outcome.

No one is better placed than columnist David Goldman. From the onset I have relied on Goldman and he has not disappointed. Nearly everyone else has.

From the New York Times columnists who camped out in Tahrir Square to breathe the air of a new democracy to the neo-conservatives who were cheering on the sidelines, the foreign policy establishment reached a quick consensus on the Arab Spring. They thought it was a good and great historical moment.

Goldman demurred at the time. Today, he believes that the Arab Spring has turned into a catastrophe:

Errors by the party in power can get America into trouble; real catastrophes require consensus.

Rarely have both parties been as unanimous about a development overseas as they have in their shared enthusiasm for the so-called Arab Spring during the first months of 2011. Republicans vied with the Obama Administration in their zeal for the ouster of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak and in championing the subsequent NATO intervention against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Both parties saw themselves as having been vindicated by events. The Obama Administration saw its actions as proof that soft power in pursuit of humanitarian goals offered a new paradigm for foreign-policy success. And the Republican establishment saw a vindication of the Bush freedom agenda.

“Revolutions are sweeping the Middle East and everyone is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda,” Charles Krauthammer observed in February 2011. “Now that revolution has spread from Tunisia to Oman,” Krauthammer added, “the [Obama] administration is rushing to keep up with the new dispensation, repeating the fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine that Arabs are no exception to the universal thirst for dignity and freedom.” And William Kristol exulted, “Helping the Arab Spring through to fruition might contribute to an American Spring, one of renewed pride in our country and confidence in the cause of liberty.”

They were all wrong.

As was expected, here and elsewhere, the Clinton-Obama foreign policy team was not up to the task. And yet, many of those who supported it should have known better.

For its part, the public was happy to be misled by media accounts. After all, the conduct of foreign policy requires a domestic political consensus.

Goldman explains:

The American public fell in love with the young democracy activists who floated across the surface of the Arab revolts like benzene bubbles on the Nile. More precisely, Americans fell in love with their own image, in the persons of hip young Egyptians who reminded them of Americans. Conservatives and liberals alike competed to lionize Google sales manager Wael Ghonim. Caroline Kennedy gave him the JFK Profiles in Courage Award in May 2011. He made Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. 

Americans are a generous people. We believe that everyone can be just like us. We reject the notion that every place is not like America.

Thus, we fail to understand the reality of other countries. In the process we misjudge what has made America.

In Goldman’s words:

The national consensus behind the Arab Spring peaked with the Libyan venture. Elliot Abrams was in a sense right: To intimate that democracy might not apply to Arabs seems to violate America’s first principle, that people of all background have the same opportunity for success—in the United States. It seems un-American to think differently. Isn’t America a multi-ethnic melting pot where all religions and ethnicities have learned to get along? That is a fallacy of composition, to be sure: Americans are brands plucked out of the fire of failed cultures, the few who fled the tragic failings of their own culture to make a fresh start. The only tragic thing about America is the incapacity of Americans to comprehend the tragedy of other peoples. To pronounce judgment on other cultures as unfit for modernity, as Abrams wrote, seems “a mockery of American ideals.”

Those who inhabit a world filled with lofty ideals ignored the economic realities. Goldman has always kept us informed about them:

The toppling of Hosni Mubarak and the uprising against Syria’s Basher Assad occurred after the non-oil-producing Arab countries had lurched into a dangerous economic decline. Egypt, dependent on imports for half its caloric consumption, faced a sharp rise in food prices while the prices of cotton and other exports languished. Asia’s insatiable demand for feed grains had priced the Arab poor out of the market: Chinese pigs were fed before Egyptian peasants, whose labor was practically worthless. Almost half of Egyptians are functionally illiterate, and its university graduates are unqualified for the global market (unlike Tunisians, who staff the help desks of French software firms). Out of cash, Egypt faces chronic food and fuel shortages and presently is on life support through emergency loans from its neighbors. The insoluble economic crisis makes any form of political stabilization unlikely.

Syria’s economic position is, if possible, even worse. Yemen is not only out of money, but nearly out of water. Large portions of the Arab world have languished so long in backwardness that they are beyond repair. After the dust of the popular revolts dissipated, we are left with banana republics, but without the bananas.

The lesson of the foreign policy catastrophe that was the Arab Spring is, Goldman asserts, that America is, in fact, exceptional:

But if large parts of the Muslim world reject what seemed to be an historic opportunity to create democratic governments and instead dissolve into a chaotic regime of permanent warfare, we might conclude that there really is something different about America—that our democracy is the product of a unique set of precedents, the melding of the idea of covenant brought here by radical Protestants, the traditions of Anglo-Saxon democracy, and the far-reaching wisdom of our founders. To present-day Americans, that is an unnerving thought. We do not wish upon ourselves that sort of responsibility. We eschew our debts to deep traditions. We want to reinvent ourselves at will, to shop for new identities, to play at the cultural cutting-edge.

What these events might teach us, rather, is that America really is exceptional and that there is no contradiction in cultivating our democracy at home while acting elsewhere in tough-minded pursuit of our security interests.


Sam L. said...

It's exceptionally hard to develop an opposition party to kings and dictatorships, let alone blood-thirsty theocracies.

Anonymous said...

Sam: Well said. That's what happens when you stand for "fair, immediate elections" and nothing else. Who's minding the polling apparatus?

I think we have to take a look at what we're telling the world about democracy and nation building in 30 minutes, with commercials. Democracy is dangerous without built-in protections. Ask the Coptic Christians in Egypt.