U.S. Foreign Policy and the Arab Spring: Ten Short-Term Lessons Learned

Article excerpt

As the Arab Spring states continue down the long path towards democracy, it is important to reflect upon the previous year of the Arab Spring in order to better understand what actions will help to bring future stability to the region. Originally presented as part of a panel on U.S. foreign policy and the Arab Spring, this article sets forth ten observations about the Arab Spring from two public international law practitioners working with clients in several Arab Spring states, including Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. In particular, these observations seek to contribute to a more complete and balanced understanding of the Arab Spring, to inform the decisions of policymakers and analysts in the months ahead.


For decades, the U.S. has sought to maintain the status quo in the Middle East, (1) particularly in the Arab Spring states, by relying on dictatorships to provide stability in the region. A review of U.S. foreign policy over the last year, however, reveals that in limited circumstances, the U.S. is willing to loosen its traditional attachment to the status quo in favor of democratic change. In nearly all of the Arab Spring states, the U.S. has moved away from long-standing relations--and in some cases, devoted allies--to support pro-democracy movements.

Although Egyptian activists criticized the U.S. government for its tardy condemnation of President Mubarak, in reality, it took only one week for the administration to call for a transition to a representative government. In so doing, President Obama noted that, "the status quo is not sustainable." (2) Mubarak ruled Egypt for three decades, during which time he forged close bonds with many in the administration. A U.S. reversal of policy--however tepid--to abandon support for a ruler described as a "friend" by officials, including Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney, represents a serious and surprising willingness to reevaluate the U.S.'s relationship with states that were once staunch allies. (3)

In Libya, historically tense relations with Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi likely made it easier for the U.S. to abandon its support for the dictatorship. And yet, despite Qadhafi's role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103--which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of U.S. citizens--as well as the regime's notorious intimidation, torture, imprisonment, and murder of Libyan citizens, relations between the U.S. and Libya had in fact begun to warm in recent years. This is largely attributable to the U.S.'s increased reliance on Qadhafi for cooperation in the post-9/11 War on Terror. Despite these improved relations, just fourteen days after the uprising began, President Obama called upon Qadhafi to step down. Another fourteen days later, the U.S. supported, and indeed largely drafted, a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to end Qadhafi's rule. (4)

Notwithstanding the eventual willingness of the U.S. to break from the status quo in Libya and Egypt, its support of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movements has been neither unconditional nor uniform. The response of the U.S. appears in some instances to depend on the likelihood that the ruler's ousting is inevitable. In Syria, for example, over five months passed with the death toll exceeding the tens of thousands before President Obama finally called upon President Bashar al-Assad to step down. (5) Since then, the U.S. has only matched this demand with sanctions and diplomatic slaps on the wrist. Additionally, the response by the U.S. to the violent suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, the strategic headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been notably muted. The U.S. has been critical of the minority-Sunni monarchy's arrest and detention of Shiite prodemocracy movement members, but such criticism has fallen short of support for a democratic transition. …