The Arab Spring, U.S. Foreign Policy, and the Question of Democracy in the Middle East

By Hashemi, Nader | Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Arab Spring, U.S. Foreign Policy, and the Question of Democracy in the Middle East


Hashemi, Nader, Denver Journal of International Law and Policy


Shortly after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of Haaretz, wrote a column titled "Mubarak's departure thwarted Israeli strike on Iran." (1) His argument was that the Arab Spring had fundamentally transformed the geopolitics of the Middle East ushering "in a new era of uncertainty for the entire region, and for Israel in particular." (2) His observation is an astute one as it both draws attention to linkages between different conflicts in the Middle East as well as highlighting how the spread of democracy has forced a reassessment of national security priorities by countries across the region.

The Arab Spring has also overturned a binary and simplistic view of the political divisions in the Middle East. Long-standing assumptions about a regional order defined by a pro-Western "moderate Arab" and Israeli bloc versus an anti-Western axis comprised of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah/Hamas is analytically distorting today. What the Arab Spring has done is help clarify what Middle East scholars have known for a long time--that the fundamental political chasm in the Middle East that shapes internal politics is not between pro-Western and anti-Western forces nor is it between Shia and Sunni or Arab and Jew, but rather it is the enormous gulf that separates longstanding authoritarian regimes from the people they rule over.

The principle near-term consequence of the Arab Spring, therefore, is that for the first time a new global spotlight is being directed at dictatorial regimes. Those countries that have yet to experience a democratic revolt are now scrambling to buy off popular discontent with salary increases, new state subsidy packages, and promises of political reform. (3) Simultaneously, a new global recognition has been given to democratic movements and the aspirations of millions of Arab and Muslims who seek hurriya (political freedom), adala ijtima'iyya (social justice), and karama (dignity). Prior to the Arab Spring, it was long assumed that the voice of people of the region did not matter in terms of Western policy. (4) There was a tacit and widespread assumption that this voice was too fractured, too politically immature, or too radical to be taken seriously.

Similarly, there was an erroneous assumption that the Arab authoritarian order was there to stay. In the same way that a decade ago longstanding dictators in Jordan, Morocco, and Syria passed on their political thrones to their sons, it was widely thought (and in some political circles hoped) that the same process would follow in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and beyond. This assumption no longer applies, as a new generation of Arabs and Muslims have come of age and are politically asserting themselves. The old political order is gradually receding and a new one is emerging on the horizon where the theme of democracy is now at the center of the politics of the region. Where does U.S. foreign policy fit into this picture?

Like the rest of world, the Obama Administration was caught off guard by the Arab Spring. Its initial reaction toward the Egyptian revolt suggested as much. Secretary of State Clinton claimed in the early days of the protests that "[o]ur assessment is the Egyptian government is stable" (5) while Vice President Biden, echoing a comment by President Obama two years earlier, affirmed that "I would not refer to [Mubarak] as a dictator." (6) Yet two weeks later President Obama, along with most of the world, was hailing the Egyptian revolution and praising the democratic aspirations of the Tahrir Square protesters as a manifestation of longstanding American principles and values. (7)

Praise for the Arab Spring by the Obama Administration has been a consistent theme of his presidency since that moment. This praise has also largely enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. These recent public statements by senior American politicians in support of democracy in Middle East, however, ignore longstanding U. …

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