Arab Spring ... American Fall? Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan

By Sky, Emma | Harvard International Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Arab Spring ... American Fall? Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan


Sky, Emma, Harvard International Review


The year 2011 began with momentous changes across the Middle East as people took to the streets and demanded an end to their regimes. The year will end with a significant reduction of US military forces in the Muslim world. And at the very time that the Arab world is experiencing a surge of hope, the US role in the region is diminishing.

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My own experience of working with the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan has been extremely positive. However, it has made me increasingly aware of the limitations of US power, the over-militarization of US foreign policy, and the reasons for the country's negative reputation in the region.

It is still too early to compare the outcomes of the transitions of countries where the changes were brought about by the people with those countries where transitions were forced by external intervention. While dignity and hope are replacing decades of humiliation and despair, those participating in the revolutions sweeping the Muslim world are likely to soon face the reality that it is easier to pull down a regime than it is to build a new one. These transitions may turn out to be long and messy, but can ultimately help create a region which is more democratic and whose people have greater freedoms. Such an outcome is in our long-term strategic interest. But whether people in the region become closer to us will depend to a large degree on whether we can change our existing paradigm towards them. The time is ripe for us to reassess our foreign policy towards the Middle East, to rethink our national interests, and to realign our practices more closely with our values.

Use and Abuse: United States' Middle East Policy

For years, the United States has continued to support and arm Middle Eastern autocrats so long as they remained pro-West, provided access to oil, and were positively accommodating of our policies towards Israel. These regimes were tolerated and reinforced, as they were regarded as a required buffer against the more extremist and rejectionist elements within the Muslim world.

For decades, communities and families in the Middle East have viewed the United States as supporting Israel, despite its denial of human rights to the Palestinians. The United States has sustained autocratic regimes, despite their abuse of their people. The country has invested in the military capacities and capabilities of Middle Eastern regimes in order to target opponents. Many Middle Easterners further believe that the United States has denied the right of Islamist parties to participate in the political process in these countries, has shown an attitude against Islam, and has collaborated directly in torturing terror suspects.

A broad range of different opposition groups have frequently opposed the regimes, focusing on their corrupt ways and dependence on outside powers. Al Qaeda views the "near enemy" as the corrupt Middle Eastern regimes; the rationale behind Al Qaeda targeting the "far enemy," the United States, is US support for maintaining these regimes. Al Qaeda reasoned that if it could cut off US support, the regimes would crumble.

Across the region, people have regularly expressed their anger towards US policy in the Middle East, while at the same time declaring their respect for US values, culture, and achievements. They want jobs, education, and connections with the world. Repression, censorship, and secret police have kept them isolated. While some Americans may claim that the removal of Saddam Hussein led to the revolutions taking place today in the region, the Arab World remembers the Bush era mainly for the invasion of Iraq and later sectarian war which led to the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqis and the strengthening of Iran's position in Iraq and the region.

Lessons from Interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan

US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have come at tremendous cost in terms of blood and treasure. …

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Arab Spring ... American Fall? Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan
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