The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East
PublicAffairs, 2017, 284 pp., $16.99
The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East
PublicAffairs, 2013, 288 pp., $15.99
The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World
PublicAffairs, 2016, 262 pp., $26.99
Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring
Cambridge University Press, 2017, 295 pp., $24.99
Americans pondering the aftermath of the 2010–11 Arab uprisings have largely been asking two questions: What went wrong? And how much of it was President Obama’s fault?
An indispensable starting point for answering these questions is The New Arab Wars, Marc Lynch’s compact narrative of the five years that began with the fall of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. It would have been hard to find anyone better credentialed to write this book: Lynch offers deep knowledge of the Middle Eastern political scene, high-level access to the Obama White House, and 15 years’ worth of full-body immersion in the new Arab media that have now done so much to reshape the region. Against the “conventional wisdom” that accuses Obama of weakness or disengagement, Lynch lays out a spirited defense of his handling of the Arab Spring. But in 250 pages of impeccable academic reporting, one finds plenty of evidence for an indictment of the Obama policies that Lynch himself continues to (mostly) defend.
Lynch’s book should be required reading for any U.S. policymaker working on democracy promotion, human rights, or the Middle East. Any pleasure in reading its brutal history can come only from the sparkling prose with which Lynch narrates it. (To Americans searching for the near-oxymoronic “moderate rebels” in Syria, for example, he points out that “insurgencies do insurgency things.”) Lynch offers a single, coherent, and gripping narrative by showing how the respective national stories of the Arab uprisings were each driven by larger regional phenomena. “At almost every important point, external players shaped the capabilities and the strategies of domestic political actors. . . . The Arab uprisings began in transnational diffusion, ended in transnational repression, and birthed transnational proxy wars.” From an Egyptian election that became a playground for the UAE-Qatar rivalry, to Kuwaiti and Saudi charities that raised money for Syrian jihad, to the lessons learned by autocrats and activists alike from their counterparts in neighboring countries, practically every page of The New Arab Wars tells the largely untold story of the causal links among the recent upheavals in the Arab world.
Lynch intends the book as a step toward “rethinking the assumptions and arguments that shaped” his relatively optimistic 2012 book The Arab Uprising. He shows how the Arab Spring produced a “catalog of horrors” in which “almost everything has gone wrong,” so that “the prospects for the Middle East have rarely looked more grim. . . . There will be more rounds of upheaval, more state failures, more sudden regime collapses, more insurgencies, and more proxy wars.” Lynch’s upbeat defense of Obama in 2012, together with his more fervent defense of Obama in 2016, call to mind the joke about the optimist and the pessimist: In 2012 Obama was doing the best job anyone could expect, and in 2016 that unfortunately turned out to be true. Certainly the earlier book remains not only a rich account of the background and early stages of the uprisings, but also a valuable document of the reasoning that led Lynch—along with many other Americans, myself included—to expect a happier outcome to the Arab Spring.
Lynch’s books can profitably be read alongside two recent memoir-cum-policy-manuals from opposite sides of the political aisle. Derek Chollet’s The Long Game mostly rehashes the Obama Administration’s standard defenses of its major foreign-policy decisions. More interestingly, Elliott Abrams’s Realism and Democracy attacks what he sees as Obama’s cynical indifference to democracy promotion in the Middle East, claiming outright that George W. Bush would have handled the Arab Spring better and could perhaps have even steered it toward improved outcomes in some countries.
The countries Abrams discusses do not include Syria, which is quite an exception to carve out from a book subtitled “American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring.” (Lynch spends two out of seven narrative chapters on Syria alone.) Abrams mentions only in passing that Obama spent five years passively “watching as Syria became a charnel house.” Lynch shows considerable irritation at such critiques, which he associates with the new Beltway “conventional wisdom,” and which he attacks for ignoring such basic difficulties as the unfriendliness of Syria’s geography, the fragmentary and often highly anti-American character of its opposition forces, the “grim logic of competitive proxy war” well documented in the political science literature, and the enormous incentives that all parties had to refuse a negotiated settlement both when they were strong (expecting to win on their own anyway) and when they were weak (expecting no mercy from the victors).
Yet Lynch still grants that Obama made serious mistakes on Syria:
By staking out a position that Asad must go, Obama created expectations which shaped political and military behavior on all sides. By failing to restrain allies from arming the opposition early in the crisis, Washington watched seemingly helplessly as the disaster it had predicted unfolded inexorably. By then joining the campaign of arming rebels, it helped to entrench the strategic stalemate without gaining significant leverage over the opposition or defeating the regime. By threatening war in August 2013 and then stepping back at the last minute, it achieved the worst of all worlds. By making public promises for political cover, it raised expectations which were inevitably frustrated at great cost to American credibility and prestige. In almost all instances, the US and the region would have been better served by a more, not less, restrained American policy towards Syria.
These criticisms, for which Lynch’s narrative supplies abundant evidence, would seem to vindicate at least some “conventional wisdom” about the pusillanimity of Obama’s Syria policy. If there really was no way for the United States to intervene helpfully in Syria, then Obama should have kept his mouth shut about Assad’s future and left it to be decided by those for whom it was a matter of life and death. Chollet insists, in Obama’s name, that his empty talk on Assad was necessary to preserve America’s “moral authority.” But this was the authority of a global know-it-all, not the credibility of a great power on whose verbal commitments our allies depend for their security.
And was there no way for the United States to intervene helpfully in Syria? Lynch’s compelling case against merely arming the rebels never mentions the suggestion, made by Eva Bellin and Peter Krause in 2012, of cutting a deal with Russia inducing Putin to sell out Assad in exchange for our recognition of post-Assad Syria as within his sphere of influence. Since Lynch’s despair at the spiraling escalations in Syria’s proxy war appears to take for granted the inevitability of Russia’s crucial intervention to rescue Assad’s depleted forces in September 2015, one is left wondering what some creative great-power diplomacy with Russia could have accomplished earlier (preferably also before the breakdown of governance in Syria had produced ISIS). But such diplomacy would have stood a greater chance of succeeding had there been a more believable threat of American intervention.
Chollet quotes Secretary Clinton complaining that “diplomacy” on Syria would inevitably “run headfirst into a Russian veto,” which would be more understandable if her job description had been identical to Samantha Power’s. Maybe Obama was held back by his assumption, which Lynch appears to endorse, that “Russia, despite the opportunistic adventurism of Vladimir Putin, remained a fading economic power with few allies or assets in” the Middle East. Or maybe, as Obama Administration officials have begun to admit more recently, they feared that any American action in Syria would upset their hoped-for nuclear deal with Iran, which Lynch does say was their “highest strategic priority” in the Middle East.
We will never know whether Lynch is correct to assert that no better outcome in Syria was possible. But he does more or less admit what everyone could sense at the time: Obama, for his own reasons, was not interested in pursuing the full range of options that might have been available to the United States. And Obama’s half-hearted attempts to pretend he took the Syrian catastrophe seriously only made things worse than simple indifference could have.
In Libya, Lynch’s narrative draws an even bigger arrow pointing from Obama’s mistakes to the ensuing disaster. Obama led a UN-authorized intervention in Libya that was the first implementation of the new R2P doctrine (under tortured presidential war-powers reasoning that not even Chollet finds plausible). The NATO intervention immediately overstepped its humanitarian mission by actively helping rebel forces overthrow Qaddafi. This encouraged Syrian rebels to provoke Assad’s overwhelming firepower on the assumption that they, too, would receive Western cover. NATO’s overreach simultaneously made that outcome in Syria impossible by ruling out any future cooperation from the Russians and Chinese, who had now confirmed their suspicion that R2P was a mere cloak for Western-led regime change.
In order to maintain his much-touted international coalition in Libya (he’s not George W. Bush! Really, he’s not!), Obama had to ignore the Saudi crushing of the Bahraini protests even as NATO moved into Libya. This American hypocrisy on Bahrain “fatally crippled the administration’s broader regional stance, especially with the young activists who saw the entire Arab uprisings as a unified narrative.” Coalition maintenance also drained an enormous amount of American diplomatic energy during the crucial middle months of 2011, as Syrian protestors were debating their fatal decision to take up arms and the White House was trying desperately to put together a coherent strategy to manage the dozen fires burning in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the intervention eased up the pressure on the Libyan rebels to win their own war: They began prematurely the descent into bickering and infighting that normally waits at least until a war has been won, and so exacerbated the tensions that soon ripped the country apart, with further calamitous effects on neighboring Egypt, Mali, and even Europe. Most fundamentally, by overthrowing a government without putting a new one in place, Obama’s Libya intervention “opened the door to the proxy wars which would shape the fate of the Arab uprisings.” It was the immediate cause of the regionalization of conflict that is the central and terrible story of Lynch’s new book.
Lynch explains that the Administration intervened in Libya because some of its officials, including at least Power and Rice, did not want the “international community” (or at any rate their fellow consumers of the “watchful…international media”) to associate their own names with the “eternal mark of shame” attached to a Rwanda or a Srebrenica. Chollet adds that “it is hard to see how America’s position would have been enhanced” if we had failed to intervene: Obama himself warned their team that “if Benghazi falls, we’ll get blamed.” This would call to mind Thucydides’ Nicias, who preferred to invite a large disaster rather than be unfairly blamed by his peers for a smaller one. But Nicias suffered the larger disaster in person. He did not inflict it on multiple countries 5,000 miles from his own safe (or even “enhanced”) position, and then wash his hands with Chollet’s deadpan lament that “often the best one can hope for is incremental progress.”
Of course, in what Lynch calls “another world—and the one in which many of us in Washington hoped to live,” Libya would have turned out much better. As his 2012 book gamely asserted, it seemed at the time to present a “historically unique opportunity to establish an effective global norm against impunity in killing civilians,” “to reinforce an international norm on crimes against humanity,” or “to build a global norm against impunity for such violence” that “could ultimately be one of the most durable achievements of the Arab uprisings.” This was especially urgent because the Obama Administration also wanted this insta-norm to somehow shape the behavior of the Egyptian, Tunisian, and Syrian governments in these very same months following the uprisings.
None of this was remotely plausible. Middle East experts like Lynch knew all along that any genuine acceptance of the R2P norm by Arab governments, for whom “state sovereignty” had previously been a “foundational norm of Arab politics,” would have been an “almost unbelievable change.” His new book explains that most Gulf regimes supported the Libya intervention simply because they hated Qaddafi and were happy to distract the West from their own similar repressions in Bahrain. And the enormously influential media gatekeeper Qatar, despite what was in fact the unbridgeable gap between the successful nonviolent protests and the “‘do it yourself’ armed rebellion” of the unhappy Libyans, was delighted to mislead al-Jazeera viewers into thinking that Libya was simply the latest in the wave of successful Arab uprisings, since that wave promised to expand Qatar’s influence in the region vis-à-vis its Gulf rivals.
Once Libya’s frail institutions had been swept aside, all these countries turned its rival armed factions into players on yet another chessboard for their regional power games, while the West predictably lost interest. “These are the fruits of metaphysic declarations wantonly made, and shamefully retracted!” thundered Edmund Burke over the wreckage that ambitious new “global norms” had made of France. It is hard to imagine him changing his mind after Libya.
Next time we should also be more skeptical about the claims made within Arab social media, of which Lynch remains the leading American scholar. He emphasized in 2012 that “the Arab publics who . . . called for international interventions [in Libya] appealed to global norms.” But if such norms are ever to become genuinely “effective,” they will have to rest on more solid foundations than the tweeted views of disempowered young Arabs debating R2P.
The Obama Administration’s belief in the salvific power of global norms also led to a possibly fatal mistake in its Egypt policy. “One of the few clear victories for American diplomacy in Egypt in the post-Tahrir period,” says Lynch, was the successful push on the SCAF to accelerate the timeline for Egyptian presidential elections amid unrest in late 2011. Thanks to this American “victory,” Egypt’s presidential election took place before other parties had organized well enough to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood, and even before a new constitution could be drafted. This early election produced President Mohamed Morsi, who used the ongoing constitution-drafting process as an excuse for a power grab that eventually brought millions of Egyptians back out into the streets, giving popular backing to the military coup that ended the 29-month experiment in Egyptian democracy.
What drove the Obama team to pursue such a diplomatic “victory”? They had been “infuriated,” Lynch says, by “scenes of the American-funded Egyptian military viciously attacking crowds of peaceful protestors . . . with impunity” (killing at least 42): It undermined Obama’s “credibility” in “pushing for new regional standards of legitimacy based on nonviolence in Libya or Syria.” In other words, the SCAF had embarrassed Obama by making his support of R2P look even more hypocritical than his indifference to Bahrain had already done. Angered by their “impunity,” Obama apparently decided to force these perpetrators to accelerate what was already a breathless transition of power, thus proving to the world that he shared the R2P norm’s essential preference for punitive justice over constructive statesmanship.
A month after its coup, the same Egyptian military massacred not 42 but 1,000 peaceful protestors, and “the media devolved into state-controlled regime propaganda, whipping up toxic new forms of nationalism and xenophobia alongside a personality cult for the new president.” But by this point the Obama Administration had regrettably exhausted its supply of fury.
Lynch reports that Obama’s Egypt policy was also driven, starting on at latest the sixth day of the Tahrir Square protests, by his unique “conception of the war of ideas against Al-Qaeda, as articulated in his 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslims of the world.” According to this self-aggrandizing conception of “counterterrorism,” Obama expected Arab Muslims to lose all sympathy for anti-American terrorism once they—or as Obama would also have insisted, the tiny minority who actually support terrorism—came to accept his own “powerful counter-vision” to the “clash of civilizations.”
Chollet seems genuinely surprised that this “use of words to create new narratives” was not “sufficient” to create a “change in policy” among our potential enemies. Lynch, by contrast, recognized that Obama’s vision would be “given substance” only when backed up with deeds. Muslims would become more pro-American once they saw that Americans supported Islamic democracy even when it did not “produce pro-American outcomes.” The logic is a bit hard to follow, but it apparently compelled Obama to support nonviolent Islamist parties whenever they won fair elections, including in Egypt.
Of course, George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda had made equally loud anti-Huntingtonian assertions about the universal human yearning for liberty. And as Abrams details and Lynch admits in passing, Bush backed up these words with plenty of deeds that irritated our nondemocratic Muslim allies, including funding some of the pro-democracy activists who went on to lead the Arab Spring. But Bush’s rejection of the duly elected Hamas government in Gaza, and his second-term passivity in the face of Mubarak’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, suffice for Lynch to dismiss the Bush approach as “cheerful hypocrisy,” which Obama was determined to put behind him.
Yet “of course,” Lynch later explains, Obama had no intention of supporting “any real transition to democracy” in Yemen. The rather more concrete aspects of his counterterrorism policy required the cooperation of the Saleh government, or a similarly nondemocratic successor regime, in American drone strikes. And when President Morsi blundered into al-Sisi’s coup against him, “trusting that Washington’s frequent private and public messages of commitment to the democratic process would protect him and deter his enemies,” Obama once again found himself in no position to object. Does Lynch mean to say that Obama’s hypocrisy was at least uncheerful?
I happen to share Lynch and Abrams’s hopes for a greater incorporation of nonviolent Islamist parties into the Arab political sphere. Abrams makes a powerful case that the democratic process, if successful, will tend either to teach those parties political moderation or to defeat them. But Lynch’s equally powerful warnings about the relative impotence of the United States in the Arab world, along with both authors’ admonition to think of Middle Eastern trends in terms of decades rather than years, prove the folly of Obama’s titanic ambition to “cement the participation of mainstream Islamism in democratic politics” within a six-year period. What Obama intended as a strategy for winning the “war of ideas” has now, we learn from Lynch, made the whole Arab world hate us even more than it already did:
From Egypt and Tunisia to Libya, the public American posture was one of supporting the democratic transition regardless of who won elections. This was an admirable, and, in my view, correct, stance. But it was poorly suited to a networked politics in which every actor wanted a reliable patron, not a neutral referee. In each case, the US ended up hated and publicly lambasted by liberals, Islamists, and regimes. Each side viewed American neutrality as effective alignment with its enemies.
Let us suppose we want to call it “admirable” of Obama to straightjacket himself in a Wilsonian “public posture” until short-term considerations of realpolitik compel him to break his self-imposed bonds (uncheerfully). Even then, how can Lynch call such a policy “correct” when it is so “poorly suited” to the peoples it claims to serve? His narrative shows repeatedly that “most Arab players took a wholly instrumental view of democracy: a fine thing if their own candidates won, unacceptable if their adversaries won. . . . Most saw little sense in supporting ‘democracy’ in the abstract, rather than supporting one’s allies.” As these pages noted in February 2011, the crowds in Tahrir Square were united not by any commitment to the hard work of self-government, but merely by the desire not to be oppressed. As Lynch often observes, too, the wildly diverse crowds in every Arab Spring country after Tunisia could agree on nothing but that the dictator must go.
In addition, the military coup in Egypt was popular. Assad remains as popular as ever among significant sectors of his population. Many Sunni Iraqis welcomed ISIS as their liberators from Shi‘a “occupation.” And within a short four years of the first protests, “democracy [had] been discredited” and “the surviving autocrats in countries such as Egypt enjoyed more active and assertive public support than aging dictators such as Mubarak could have dreamed of commanding.” Neither Lynch nor Abrams explains how, under conditions like these, a responsible actor could adopt democracy as a goal for the foreseeable future.
This does not mean we should despair of any liberalization of corrupt Arab regimes. Lynch shows us three examples of a (so far) relatively happy outcome to the Arab uprisings. One is still-fragile Tunisia, which enjoyed unique advantages: a more educated populace with few ethnic or sectarian divisions and a large middle class; a dictator who had not yet had the chance to learn from neighboring revolutions how his own fate could be avoided; a few truly patriotic and talented politicians in the right place at the right time; and a relative poverty and obscurity that made it an unlikely arena for the regional power plays of its eastern neighbors, at least when those neighbors were soon distracted by much bigger prizes closer to home. The other examples are Morocco and Jordan, two constitutional monarchies that made significant concessions to the protest movements and have since remained stable (even while absorbing, in Jordan’s case, an unfathomable number of Syrian refugees).
Tunisia shows us that under the right circumstances, the kind of Arab democratic revolution that Obama wanted to support might have a fighting chance, even if its success may be parasitic on others’ failure. Morocco and Jordan show the enduring viability and necessity of the model of incremental liberalization for which Lynch derides George W. Bush. Under this model of “reformation without revolution,” Lynch says with unfair scorn, the U.S. government “pushes its friends for marginal increases in public freedom, which could serve as a pressure valve to stabilize—not undermine—their stability.”
Abrams offers an extensive defense of this model’s partial successes during the Bush years and its continued relevance to the region. He argues that Obama, had he adopted it, could have maintained the trust of our autocratic allies and so extracted greater concessions from them during the Arab Spring. “Even a dog can distinguish between being tripped over and being kicked,” writes Abrams, “and Arab regimes and the people who run them can surely distinguish between efforts to overthrow them and efforts to persuade them to open their political systems, slowly, to a wider aperture with the goal of their long-term stability.”
At the same time, as his undiplomatic metaphor already suggests, Abrams’s real “goal” for these Arab regimes is hardly “their long-term stability.” He wants the U.S. government to avoid actions that would “strengthen and deepen the dictatorship”; “our medium- and longer-term interests require that we stop helping the autocrats”; “foreign assistance programs that . . . help sustain dictatorships in power should be reconsidered”; “in theory, gradual change toward democracy would work best, but is often unlikely . . . when the mass of citizens wants change now.” Abrams does then, ultimately, share the same goal that Lynch expresses more bluntly. Since Arab autocrats are the ones to blame for “killing” the hopes of the Arab uprisings, says Lynch, “relying on these Arab regimes to fix what has gone wrong with the Arab uprisings is foolish beyond compare.” If we want to fix the broken henhouse, the first step should apparently be to fire our crew of foxes.
But expecting any U.S. policy to really “fix” the Middle East would be “foolish beyond compare.” What should we do instead?
Lynch prefers that the United States simply “consolidate its retrenchment from the region,” a suggestion that most of the American public obviously finds attractive. Yet he also reminds us that President Obama came to office “determined to reduce the American footprint in the Middle East,” and that even he “could not enduringly reduce America’s military presence” when new conflicts pulled him back in against his will. Obama’s ad hoc quasi-strategy—disengage where we can, engage reluctantly where we think we can no longer avoid it—will need at least some major improvements, either from President Trump or from one of his successors. And could any new Middle Eastern grand strategy avoid relying heavily on, and therefore indeed “strengthening,” autocratic Arab regimes?
Lynch does suggest one alternative. Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, he says, issued from “a grand strategy designed ultimately to reduce America’s” “military and political footprint in the region in order to pivot away from the Middle East.” “Everyone understood” that the JCPOA would “ultimately reshape the regional map.” It “offers the prospect of a more fundamental rewiring of the regional order in which Iran is incorporated into the broader American-structured security architecture,” even as we increasingly abandon our role in maintaining that architecture.
Michael Doran’s warning that the JCPOA was part of a strategic “pivot to Iran” was thus, according to Lynch, overstated but not far from the truth. It is refreshing to see the JCPOA forthrightly defended as part of a fundamental strategic shift, an effort to rehabilitate Iran so that the United States can pull out of the region and cut its alliances with the unsavory Arab regimes it has long supported. Yet as Lynch also documents, our Arab allies saw this change coming a mile away and have reacted with predictable (often counterproductive) desperation. It was their violent reaction to the prospect of “an American realignment . . . towards Tehran” that left the United States unable to prevent the Egyptian coup, stop the ongoing bloodbath in Yemen, or restrain further escalations in the Syrian civil war.
One might have expected something like this, for, Lynch concedes, our allies had been terrified of Iran for many years and so regarded our rapprochement with it as an “existential threat” to themselves. They may have been particularly disturbed to see that the Obama team’s goal in the negotiations, as documented by Chollet, was to get Iran to “prove” something that nobody including Chollet believed to be true: namely, that “its nuclear efforts were for peaceful purposes.”
In any case, Lynch still regards it as a “rather damning indictment” of these allies that they could possibly oppose such “conflict de-escalation and peaceful diplomatic engagement”—that is, the de-escalation of our conflicts through the empowering of our allies’ greatest enemy. Similarly, Lynch often emphasizes that the regimes challenged by the Arab Spring (many of whom were these same allies) “were fighting for their political lives against newly empowered publics whom they suddenly feared,” and that their fears only increased after Obama so quickly shoved aside a tottering Mubarak. Yet Lynch still condemns as “rapacious power-seeking” these autocrats’ decision to fight for their own survival against the protestors who threatened it.
In both cases, Lynch shows surprisingly little sympathy for the self-preservative instincts of Arab autocrats. He does wish that they had followed Obama’s ever-generous “advice to embrace change and commence democratic reforms.” But why should they have trusted that any advice from the White House was actually aimed at ensuring their stability rather than, say, at extricating the United States from the Middle East in deference to American domestic political considerations? And why, after reading either Lynch’s book or Abrams’s, should any Arab autocrat believe that the U.S. government actually cares about his own “long-term stability”? Abrams at least shows real concern for the plight of these autocrats, but I sometimes get the impression that Lynch (and perhaps also Obama) so much despises these “embarrassing,” “morally offensive” allies that he is disinclined to indulge their desire to remain alive. In Abrams’s too-apt metaphor, Lynch would kick the autocrats while Abrams would merely trip over them.
Whatever one may think of this American footwork, we cannot choreograph our strategy as if the Arab autocrats will sit still for it like a bunch of docile puppies. If we empower Iran, they will not go quietly. If we support protest movements that threaten their existence, they will undermine those movements by force and fraud. If we use the Iranian nuclear program as an excuse for a “fundamental rewiring of the regional order,” they will use the Arab uprisings as a “rare opportunity to revise the regional order in their favor.”
This does not prove, in a phrase Lynch adapts from a conversation with a sharp-tongued senior Obama official, that “America has no real allies in the Middle East.” It proves at most that President Obama had no real allies in the Middle East—because he treated our allies’ interests with contempt whenever these conflicted with his own, equally justifiable, interest in retrenchment. As Lynch might have put it, autocracies do autocracy things. A grand strategy incapable of managing the predictable self-interest of Arab autocracies is not a grand strategy for the modern Middle East.
It seems that a workable U.S. strategy will have to maintain alliances with these autocracies and practice the cautious, case-by-case approach to democracy promotion that Lynch and Chollet misleadingly attribute to Obama. One may share Lynch’s relief that Obama set aside his impatient commitment to near-instant democracy in cases where its calamitous results would have been manifest in even less than 29 months. But the fact remains that Obama treated that commitment as a default whenever the opportunity for an election presented itself, abandoning it only in case of visible need. He thus remained trapped within the same one-size-fits-all approach that Lynch and Chollet claim he had escaped. And unaccountably, Abrams still defends that approach whenever “the mass of citizens wants change now,” while Lynch calls it both “admirable” and “correct.”
One may also be glad that Obama tried to “change the mindset that got us into” the Iraq disaster. He had clearly absorbed many lessons about the dangers of U.S.-led urban warfare in the Middle East. He does not seem to have absorbed a bigger lesson about the enormously explosive potential of regime change as such, although he could have found it articulated in political thinkers from Thucydides and Aristotle to Burke and Kennan. That is, Obama seems to have assumed in 2011 that Iraq would have already been in great shape if, in 2002, the Iraqi people had simply risen up in massive protests and Saddam’s army had refused to fire on them.
We have now learned how mistaken this assumption was and is. Lynch’s harrowing account of the Arab Spring should teach us all that the rule of law—even the oppressive legal code of an Arab strongman with all his “networks of corruption and patronage”—is a fragile barrier to chaos, too precious to be thrown away. Lynch, Abrams, and Chollet each flirt with this conclusion. “The uprisings were unable,” says Lynch, “to replace corrupt, autocratic regimes with stable institutions.” The Administration’s “very misleading optimism” about the Arab Spring, says Chollet, was connected to “Obama’s belief in the power of brave individuals to take control of their destinies and to transform a tired, corrupt political order.” “Knowing that an absolute failure to bend means the system may break, and that slow and steady steps . . . will produce more stability,” says Abrams, “we should use our influence to produce” the slower and more stable outcome. Perhaps, then, institution-building is a task accomplished over generations or else not at all; perhaps we should reexamine Obama’s American optimism about the political omnipotence of determined individuals; and perhaps we really do not want to see an autocratic system “break,” even when a very large and angry mob may demand just that.
There is nothing here to celebrate. Every American I know shared these authors’ palpable admiration for the courage of the Arab protestors, and their corresponding distaste for autocrats who would buy them off or mow them down. But as true friends to such courageous activists, we have to help them channel their energy into projects that do not destroy the civic institutions they ought one day to control. When they protest against our allies’ regimes, as they surely will, we will need to offer tough love to autocratic allies and activist friends alike. For activists of this kind (as both Lynch and Abrams show) have an easier time bringing down an old regime than setting up and governing a new one. And cosmopolitan young activists who (as Lynch says) “self-consciously constructed their political struggle as one which transcended national boundaries and rejected the existing rules of politics,” and who could not unite their compatriots behind a single goal other than angry rejection of the status quo, simply lack the political maturity to lead a nation through the trauma of regime change.
In the absence of the rule of law, not only do sub- and transnational identities crowd out civic allegiance, but an abundance of domestic and foreign actors will seek to profit from the ensuing uncertainty, even at the price of chaos. This will happen all the more easily thanks to the new 21st-century media that helped bring about the Arab uprisings. For these media by their nature foster impatience, self-absorption, and deception. They undermine long-term trust and civic friendship even in mature democracies like our own (as Chollet rightly decries), let alone among peoples barely learning to experiment with governing themselves.
The basic problem of the Arab uprisings was that, in countries where the rule of law existed to some extent, millions of protestors tried to overthrow it—and in several cases succeeded. They have sown the wind, and they have reaped the whirlwind. As long as American elites look at such protestors and see only Minutemen or Freedom Riders, we have not learned the real lessons of the Arab Spring.