The American Legion Magazine | 12.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd
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.”
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.
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?
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
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
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]
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.
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
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]
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
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]
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 short, Iraqis have to rebuild their own house before they can help rehabilitate
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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.
[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.