The American Legion Magazine | 12.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd

Many Americans forget or simply don’t know that the term “Arab Spring”—shorthand for the wave of anti-autocracy revolutions that began in Tunisia in 2010, spread to Egypt, Libya and Yemen in 2011, and devolved into civil war in Syria—traces its roots to Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring.”

During a heady four-month period in 1968, Czechoslovakia openly challenged the totalitarian order of its Soviet masters and launched a daring experiment in political freedom. But Soviet strongman Leonid Brezhnev would have none of it, and deployed thousands of troops and tanks to reassert control. More than two decades would pass before freedom was allowed to bloom again in Prague.

This detour through history is instructive as we try to make sense of what lies ahead in the chaotic Middle East. It’s going to take time for the old order of strongmen and the sword to give way to a new order of political pluralism and economic freedom. Of course, it pays to recall that the old order was not all that orderly:

·         The 1950s saw coups in Iraq, Egypt and Iran; a Franco-Anglo-Israeli invasion of Egypt; and Algeria’s war for independence.

·         The 1960s saw a series of coups and countercoups in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Libya; Israel’s stunning preemptive war against its neighbors; and a civil war in Yemen.

·         The 1970s saw a military coup in Turkey; another Arab-Israeli war; civil war in Lebanon; revolution in Iran; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

·         The 1980s saw civil war in Afghanistan; Lebanon descend into anarchy; government-sponsored massacres in Syria and Iraq; a decade-long war between Iraq and Iran; another military coup in Turkey; another civil war in Yemen; a bloody Palestinian uprising; the assassination of Egypt’s president; and the emergence of al Qaeda.

·         The 1990s saw Iraq invade Kuwait, bomb Israel and Saudi Arabia, and smash internal revolts; the birth of the Taliban; and a rising tide of anti-Western terrorism.

·         The 2000s saw a second Palestinian uprising; the crescendo of al Qaeda’s global guerilla war; U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by bloody insurgencies; and an abortive revolution in Iran—the “Persian Spring,” which predates the Arab Spring.[i]

In short, despite the best recollections of the realists, the Middle East has never been known for stability. As regimes fall, wars rage, nations fracture, and jihadists and moderates vie for Islam’s future, are there any islands of stability left in the region?

Rough Neighborhood

The Middle East was once the cradle of civilization, but today the peoples of the Middle East live in the epicenter of failed states. The Failed States Index reveals that virtually every country in the region is a failed state or “in danger” of becoming one. Even Israel and Turkey are in the “very high/high warning” category.[ii]  The only countries considered “stable” in the region are the UAE and Qatar[iii]—countries that may not be able to export much stability due to their size and peripheral location. On the other hand, countries with the political muscle, geographic placement and/or demographic heft to serve as regional stabilizers are dealing with so much internal instability that they cannot project stability.


Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was a bulwark of stability and dependability—keeping peace with Israel, keeping the Suez open to U.S. warships, keeping extremist elements at bay and keeping problem states like Iraq and Iran on the margins of Mideast politics. Since the toppling of Mubarak, Egypt has been tossed from crisis to crisis, teetering between political paralysis, economic collapse, martial law, low-grade sectarian conflict, full-blown civil war and a destabilizing cycle of re-revolution.

Although the mil-to-mil contacts with Washington remain strong,[iv]  post-Mubarak Egypt has carried out policies that have destabilized its neighborhood and worried its allies. For example, the short-lived government of Mohamed Morsi failed to provide security outside the U.S. embassy, allowed the Sinai to become a nest for jihadists and hosted Iran’s head of state—the first such visit since the 1979 Iranian revolution.[v]

Perhaps the post-Morsi government will prove more effective at addressing these issues, navigating Cairo’s new politics and maintaining the support of the people. But it hasn’t gotten off to a good start. Swept into power by a military coup, the post-Morsi government used brutal tactics to cripple Morsi’s political base and suppress opposition, killing hundreds in the process. Whether Egypt emerges from the wreckage as a stable democratic state, a military dictatorship covered by the veneer of democracy, a Sunni version of Iran or a failed state remains an open question.

Saudi Arabia

Some say the old guard in Saudi Arabia could be a linchpin of stability. For instance, when the Arab Spring threatened the regime in Bahrain (home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet), the Saudis dispatched hundreds of troops and tanks to prop up their neighboring autocrats. Similarly, when Egypt’s army moved against Morsi, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Gulf autocracies in providing political cover and economic assistance to the generals—sending diplomats to lobby Europe and a $12-billion aid package to Cairo.[vi]

But this Arab version of the Brezhnev Doctrine is not durable. First, Freedom House ranks Saudi Arabia among the worst regimes on political rights and civil liberties. That’s not the wave of the future. Second, the operative word in “old guard” is “old.” A series of deaths has exposed a succession crisis in the aging House of Saud.Third, Saudi Arabia is not safe from the storm. What the Carnegie Endowment’s Frederic Wehrey calls “the forgotten uprising” has triggered a “deadly cycle of demonstrations, shootings and detentions” in the oil-rich parts of eastern Saudi Arabia.[vii]


Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies have tilted toward his fellow Shiites, driving Iraqi Sunnis out of the political process and toward radicalization. Some Iraqi Sunnis are even turning back to al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, which has reconstituted since the departure of U.S. forces. Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other at rates not seen since before the U.S. surge.[viii]  Amidst the violence, Iran is using Iraq as a corridor to deliver aid to Syria’s Bashar Assad, and militias are using the Iraq-Syria frontier to launch attacks into Syria.[ix]

All of this explains why so many observers advocated keeping a backstop contingent of U.S. forces in Iraq as an insurance policy. Without such a stabilizing force—to keep Maliki honest, to keep an eye on Iran, to keep a lid on jihadist flare-ups—Iraq appears to breaking into ethno-religious-regional shards. Predictably, Pentagon leaders are mulling sending U.S. military trainers and equipment back to Iraq.[x]

One caveat: Iraq is not broken because America intervened. Rather, America intervened because Iraq was broken. As Gen. Ray Odierno recalls of his early-2003 arrival in Iraq, “What I underestimated when I got there was the societal devastation that was occurring in Iraq.”[xi]  In short, Iraqis have to rebuild their own house before they can help rehabilitate the neighborhood.


“I would not be surprised to see Syria break apart entirely,” concludes former NATO military chief Adm. James Stavridis.[xii]  Just consider the ingredients churning in Syria: Alawites, Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds fighting for territory, with jihadist groups like Hezbollah and al Nusra adding fuel to the fire, all overlaid by a proxy war pitting Iran and Russia on one side against the United States, Europe and Israel on the other. If that’s not scary enough, Assad has reopened the Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare.


Since its birth, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been a metastasis of instability and terror. It is deeply engaged in supporting Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has waged a proxy war against the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. And its ripening nuclear program could force the Saudis and other regional powers to go nuclear, invite preemptive strikes from Israel and/or spark a conflagration enfolding U.S. forces.

United States  

All of this leads some observers to point to the United States as the default stabilizer. To be sure, the United States has the military strength to protect its allies. But Americans have no stomach for another round of large-scale interventions in the Middle East. Washington’s standoff policy on Syria, lead-from-behind approach to Libya, drone war in Pakistan, and rapid drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan provide every indication that U.S. policymakers are eager to shift from boots-on-the-ground nation building to what the realists call “offshore balancing.”

Moreover, because of the evolving global petroleum market—the U.S. will be the world’s largest oil producer by 2017—the Middle East is decreasing in importance to the United States.[xiii]  Would an energy-independent America go to war for regimes that openly flout American values and secretly undermine American interests?

Best Practices
Although there is no perfect role model or sure-fire source of stability in the Middle East, a few countries offer examples of best practices.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II is the most liberalized monarch in the region—and arguably the most legitimate in the eyes of his subjects. Consider how the Arab Spring revolts bypassed Jordan. Although Jordan has work to do on press freedom and balancing executive and legislative powers, it recently elected a new parliament, has opened its doors to regional refugees and is working closely with the U.S. on contingencies in Syria.

“Jordan has never been more important to the United States and to its regional allies than now,” argues Gen. Joseph Hoar, former CENTCOM commander. “Amman’s calm hand has been among the biggest contributors to regional peace and security.”[xiv]

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey expects the U.S. protection force comprised of F-16s, Patriot missile batteries and a thousand troops to remain in Jordan “several years.”[xv]

Speaking of protection, the Kurds of northern Iraq have been under the protective wing of American power since 1991. Enjoying de facto independence as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the Kurdish proto-state has embraced majority rule and is working on minority rights. While the rest of Iraq backslides toward civil war, Syria hemorrhages and Iran staggers under the weight of sanctions, Iraqi Kurdistan is prospering. The KRG is studded with “high-rises and five-star hotels,” booming businesses, new airports, “modern, wide highways” and a new pipeline carrying oil to Turkey, as The Washington Postreports [xvi]  But the most important characteristic of the KRG is what’s absent: suicide bombings, assassinations, political violence. Kurds remain the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. As the rest of Iraq smolders, perhaps that’s about to change.

Boasting the most durable democratic government in the Muslim world, a booming and open economy, global trade ties, civilian control over the military and a seat inside NATO, Turkey is proof that Western-style governance, politics and economics can thrive in a Muslim country. Yet Turkey’s clumsy support for the anti-Assad rebels exposed the limits of Ankara’s ability to influence events in the region.[xvii]  Worse, Ankara’s harsh crackdown against the Taksim Square protests triggered a broad-based backlash across the country—and marred Turkey’s image as a consensus-based democracy.  

The UAE’s commitment to economic freedom has fueled a booming economy. A thousand American companies have offices in the UAE, with 60,000 Americans working there.[xviii]  The UAE participates in a range of U.S.-led security efforts—stability operations in Afghanistan, reconstruction and training efforts in Iraq, sanctions against Iran, missile defense, NATO’s regional partnership, the Container Security Initiative.[xix]  UAE diplomats brokered the transfer of power in Yemen, and UAE pilots enforced the no-fly zone over Libya. However, the UAE’s politics are largely shaped by regime selections rather than popular elections. Highly restrictive sharia law governs much of the public space. And political activity is circumscribed.[xx]

Similarly, neighboring Qatar is a land of contrasts: It boasts high levels of economic freedom; hosts a key U.S. airbase and missile-defense radar; armed rebels in Libya and Syria; and deployed air and ground forces to support NATO’s Libya operations. Yet Qatar is an autocracy that constrains political activity, civil society and individual freedoms. Freedom House describes Qatar as “not free.”[xxi]

Pick and Choose

In short, nobody’s perfect in the region. But there is a piecemeal patchwork here pointing the way toward a healthier, more stable Middle East: Jordan’s calm hand; Turkey’s commitment to free trade, free government and civilian authority; Qatar’s enthusiastic embrace of economic freedom; the KRG’s economic dynamism and diplomatic openness; the UAE’s willingness to partner and trade with America.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 20 years for the peoples of the region to learn from these positive examples—and enjoy a springtime of lasting freedom.





[v]http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/17/us-israel-explosions-idUSBRE93G07220130417; http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/in-egypts-sinai-desert-islamic-militants-gaining-new-foothold/2012/07/13/gJQAlqeZiW_story.html.




[ix] Carlo Munoz, “Iraq Considers US Drone Strikes on Syrian Border,” The Hill, April 3, 2013; http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/19/us-syria-crisis-iran-iraq-idUSBRE88I17B20120919

[x]http://www.militarytimes.com/article/20130626/NEWS08/306260027/U-S-looks-send-training-teams-Lebanon-Iraq ; http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2013/06/26/back-to-iraq-dempsey-floats-idea-of-sending-trainers-as-syrias-war-spills-over/




[xiv] Hoar, “A Friend in Need,” Foreign Policy, April 29, 2013.







[xxi] Freedom in the World 2013, http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FIW%202013%20Booklet%20-%20for%20Web_0.pdf, p.17.