Paul Pillar

The Arab Spring in American Thought and Strategy

American interpretations of, and responses to, the region-wide but nation-specific uprisings known as the Arab Spring have suffered from multiple handicaps. Some of the chief handicaps have involved the felt need to exorcise old demons or to reinterpret old failures. The not-so-distant history of genocides (most notably and terribly in Rwanda) that in retrospect appear preventable, and the increasing acceptance in the West in recent years of the doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” have led many to view some of the conflicts in Arab states as primarily an issue of humanitarian intervention. A personification of this outlook is Samantha Power, the self-described “genocide chick” who wrote a finger-pointing account of the Western response to the Rwandan episode and later was able to push her concerns from inside the Obama administration. This outlook shaped the rationale for NATO's military intervention in Libya, despite the weakness of the argument that without the intervention there would have been a Rwanda-in-Cyrenaica bloodbath at the hands of the Qaddafi regime.

Then there is the “freedom agenda” of neoconservatives still smarting from the fact that what was by far their biggest initiative ever—a military intervention in an Arab country—did not work out the way they had planned or promised. Some neocons have tried to portray the Arab Spring as having somehow been stimulated by their Iraq project, even though this notion is supported by neither the timing nor the all-too-evident negative regional reactions to the “birth pangs of democracy” in an increasingly authoritarian Iraq. Other neocons have not tried to make this connection but nonetheless have tried to latch on to the uprisings as a sort of vindication of the freedom agenda, while disregarding the major distinction between the self-empowerment that was the dominant theme in Cairo's Tahrir Square a year ago and any attempt to inject democracy through the barrels of Western guns. Some are talking about military intervention yet again, especially in Syria, in a kind of intellectual doubling down, apparently in the hope of somehow offsetting or forgetting about the losses from the Iraq War.

Besides the old demons and failures, there have been other impediments to clear thinking about the upheaval in the Middle East. One is prevailing suspicion of any political Islamist, a suspicion that ignores the major differences among those who couch their objectives in Islamic terms and also overlooks how much political Islam provides a mainstream vocabulary in the Middle East today. Another impediment is the current hysteria over Iran, which has become so strong that it is coloring much else that is said and written about the Middle East. And of course there are all the politicizing influences of a presidential-election year in the United States.

In an op-ed this Sunday, Henry Kissinger offers a useful perspective on the strategically deficient American response to the Arab Spring. Some of his comments deserve challenge, and he brings some baggage and perhaps some thin skin of his own to the topic. He protests too much when he describes an evolving U.S. consensus in favor of aligning with Middle Eastern revolutionary movements as “a kind of compensation for Cold War policies—invariably described as 'misguided'—in which [the United States] cooperated with non-democratic governments in the region for security objectives.” This kind of “compensation” has not been any more in evidence in discourse on the subject than the other kinds I just mentioned. Kissinger also signs on to the fixation on Iran by unconvincingly stating that Iran is the “principal challenge” to core security objectives of achieving a durable Arab-Israeli peace, ensuring the free flow of oil and avoiding a regional hegemon. (Possible responses to the fixation, rather than Iran itself, may endanger the first two objectives and disprove that Iran is the main problem with the third.)

Nonetheless, Kissinger raises more fundamental questions about what he sees as a “redefinition of heretofore prevalent principles of foreign policy.” He asks, “Will democratic reconstruction replace national interest as the lodestar of Middle East policy? Is democratic reconstruction what the Arab Spring in fact represents?” Kissinger is blurring together the concepts of humanitarianism and democracy as drivers of intervention, but that is fair because the prevailing outlook he is criticizing badly blurs them together as well.

Kissinger correctly notes some of the more precise questions that need to be asked but have barely been addressed: