The horrific violence in Egypt has triggered another round of “I-told-you-so’s” among American skeptics of the Arab Spring. There is a bit too much eagerness to see the very goal of Arab democracy as a failure, and also to heap blame on President Barack Obama–almost (but not quite) as gleefully as leftists and so-called “realists” blamed George W. Bush for everything that went wrong in the Middle East during his presidency.
The responsibility for what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere is shared–and it begins in the Arab world itself, which has little of the civic culture necessary to sustain democracy, and only weak and opportunistic notions of human rights and individual liberty. The authoritarian regimes to which many critics of the Arab Spring would consign the people of the region were, and are, largely responsible, for the lack of progress.
Political Islam is no better, and in many ways worse. The one virtue it has is popular legitimacy, which has encouraged some western apologists and admirers, President Obama among them, to see it as a potential vehicle for the region’s political future, and to overhype the overlap between political Islam and democratic values. In doing so they betray their lack of insight into the values that (weakly) sustain our own democracy.
Two developments are principally responsible for triggering the region’s recent chaos. One was the U.S.-led toppling of dictatorial regimes, an undertaking that began under President Bill Clinton and that Obama once criticized, but in which he joined enthusiastically (albeit rather selectively) once the Arab Spring was under way. The fall of Saddam Hussein, in particular, encouraged stirrings of revolt as well as sectarian unrest.
The other development was the emergence of new media that could evade official control and censorship. Al Jazeera and other satellite networks often stoked anti-American and anti-Israeli passions, but also raised wider awareness of the corruption and brutality perpetrated by Arab regimes against their citizens. The rise of Facebook and Twitter, plus the revelations of Wikileaks, also helped fuel rebellions across the region.
The U.S. certainly has contributed, both officially and unofficially. If the Bush administration could be faulted for its aggressive intervention, both in using force and preaching democracy; the Obama White House deserves to be mocked for its obsequious vacillation. And while Obama extended parts of the Bush anti-terror apparatus, he has also squandered most of Bush’s hard-won military and even diplomatic gains.
Yet while there is much to dislike about Obama’s (non)policy in the Middle East, he ought not bear all of the blame for what is happening today–and neither should his predecessor. And while much of what is wrong with the Arab world is intractable, that is no reason to retreat. What is needed is a long-overdue correction of a mistake common to Bush and Obama: namely, pressuring Israel while avoiding confrontation with Iran.
Both Bush and (especially) Obama pushed Israel to make concessions to appease the Arab world, while allowing Iran to buy time for its nuclear ambitions with meaningless negotiations. It is clearer than ever that Israel has little to do with the Middle East’s real problems. Regime change in Iran is the one regional change that would bring more stability and freedom, not less, and it is long past time for that to be a U.S. priority.