Conventional wisdom holds that Washington is one of the big losers in the 2011 upheavals across the Arab world. Two long-time allies, Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak, have fallen, and in their place elections have empowered Islamists, precisely as the deposed dictators had warned for decades. Another important ally, Israel, is nervous about the rise of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and the tumult in Syria. Perhaps worst of all from Washington’s point of view, the Obama administration has appeared largely helpless as the revolts have spread, unable to engineer face-saving “orderly transitions” in Egypt or Yemen, and upstaged in diplomacy by regional players like Turkey and tiny Qatar. All of this transpires as American troops retreat from Iraq and double down in a doomed effort in Afghanistan. The 40-year hegemony of the United States in the Middle East is at low ebb.
And yet, if US strategists are sensible, they will be of good cheer. US hegemony, after all, has been one long, exhausting exercise in crisis management. Washington has balanced its twin prerogatives, securing the supply of Persian Gulf oil and protecting Israel, upon the beam of “stability” in Arab states, which became a third end in itself. But those states’ embrace of Washington — whether the US-sponsored “peace processes” with Israel or the neoliberal economic recommendations — continuously undermined their own stability. The result was a series of brittle police states spending heavily on the means of coercion and neglecting the imperative of popular consent. Radical, even nihilist, strains of political Islam grew in these environments.
In the spring, racing against the pace of events, the White House spun a tale of US interests aligning at last with American values of liberty and justice for all. The Libya intervention was to showcase this new commitment, but it is clear to Arabs and Americans alike that Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi was a target of opportunity and not an example to make other despots quail in fear. It could hardly have been coincidental that UN diplomats passed their resolution of de facto regime change in Libya on the same day that Saudi forces crossed the causeway to crush the pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain.
Rather than win the Obama administration credit, the Arab revolts have instead lent discomfiting clarity to American conversations of Middle East affairs. The Obama administration stood by Ben Ali and Mubarak, and then the Bahraini royal family, so it is plain that US support for democracy is a value honored in the breach. The extent of the US partnership with the most anti-democratic regime in the region, the Saudis, has rarely been more obvious and more clearly damaging. Obama’s rebuff of the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN — symbolically, Palestine’s right of self-determination, like Tunisia’s and Egypt’s — is likewise inexplicable in terms of values, except the Israel lobby’s.
And, though much remains to be decided, the revolts hold out the promise of a revised regional order, one in which successor Arab governments hew more closely to domestic opinion and more stoutly resist US priorities, particularly with regard to the question of Palestine. Such governments would be better friends to the US than the client states of the past.
For more genuinely stable Arab states, coupled with more honest and searching discussion of the Middle East at home, could impose limits on the imperial ambitions of the US national security state. They could encourage the development of counterweights to the Israel, defense industry and oil lobbies, and allow more progressive (and, ultimately, more realistic) ideas about such concepts as “security” into the public domain. Awakened, more assertive Arab populations could be the demand that compels those in power to listen to real policy alternatives.
The 2011 uprisings in the Arab world, though their course is far from determined, have pushed forward new social forces and new possibilities. In a region where stasis spewed forth the likes of al-Qaeda, and where vassals have enabled Washington to embark upon financially and morally ruinous adventures, newness is to be welcomed. Arab revolutionaries may thus have dropped a lump of coal upon purblind promoters of endless US empire, but to all thinking members of the Washington policy apparatus and to ordinary Americans, they have given a very nice present.