Arab Spring: Made in Washington?

|

Marc Lynch, a.k.a. Abu Aardvark, offers his two cents on a perpetually popular topic:

[H]ow much credit should Bush, or the invasion of Iraq, get for the positive developments in the region the last few months?

I don't really like framing the question in such partisan terms. It seems obvious that the invasion of Iraq matters for regional politics—how could it not? Both the strategic and the normative environment have radically changed, for better or for worse, and everyone—governments and political activists alike—are responding to this new situation. On the other hand, it seems obvious to anyone who has been following the region over the last decade that the demands for change in the region have their roots in local factors, and that the main credit should go to the Arab intellectuals and activists who have been fighting for reforms for years. When I talk to many of these activists, or read what they write in the Arab press or hear what they say on al-Jazeera, what I hear is a combination of frank recognition that some new opportunites have been created with opposition to American foreign policy and a fierce refusal of any appropriation of their struggle by the United States.

One of the most misleading ideas out there has to do with the supposed novelty of Arab demands for democratic reforms. The conventional wisdom that the invasion of Iraq triggered the first public Arab conversations about democracy is just flat wrong. Arabs have been talking about the need for reform and protesting against the status quo since long before the Iraqi war. Al-Jazeera talk shows were full of heated debates about democracy and the need for reform as far back as the late 1990s. During the run-up to the Iraq war, most Arab governments clamped down hard because they were afraid of what might happen if demonstrations got out of hand (the first big anti-Mubarak protest back in 2003 began as a protest against the invasion of Iraq). After the crisis passed they relaxed a bit, and Arab activists renewed their long-stated criticisms of the status quo. Iraq, and Bush, may have helped to open up some political opportunities (and to foreclose others), but credit for the so-called Arab spring should go to the Arab intellectuals and activists who have long been pushing for change for their own reasons.

The rest of the post looks at the specific cases of Lebanon and Egypt.

NEXT: Sprayer Prayer

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. If that’s his 2 cents, I think he owes us some change.

  2. I don’t know if this helps any, but Irish Spring is made by Colgate. No word yet on Arab Spring.

  3. “[H]ow much credit should Bush, or the invasion of Iraq, get for the positive developments in the region the last few months?”

    It’s a question of magnitude, isn’t it? (…and it’s a good question too!)

    We withdrew from Saudi Arabia; how much of an effect has that had on positive developments in the region? What about the death of Yasser Arafat?

  4. Maybe this will enliven the discussion here, as well as bring it closer to home:
    What kind of “spring” in civil rights in the US does Martin Luther King, Jr. deserve credit for?

  5. I think Abu Advark needs to revise his thesis to both Bush and the intellectuals together created the “Arab Spring.”
    The intellectuals provided the fertile ground of democratic ideas, but they did not come into fruition until Bush pulled out the weed that was Saddam and planted the seed for a potential democratic path.

    Without the intellectuals, Bush would have only setup another strongman and Lebanon would surely still be under Syrian control (Palestine, ?, probably under Hamas). Without Bush, the validity of democratic ideas would still be shat on since seemingly only the strongmen win and the democrats would be crushed under their fists. The spring is not over, and it could turn into a frost rather quickly, but both were necessary.

  6. Wow… they were discussing democracy as far back in the historic past as the late 90’s: That’s ALMOST a HALF A DECADE before 9/11!!!!

    Yeah, democracy was ready to spring up on its own.

    Tell you what, I suspect that the democrats have less to fear from the secret police now that theres a 100,000 American troops breathing down the thug’s backs.

    Just a thought.

    Just a

  7. With a bar of Arab Spring in your hand
    …which they’ll chop if you steal in Saudi Land!

  8. “Tell you what, I suspect that the democrats have less to fear from the secret police now that theres a 100,000 American troops breathing down the thug’s backs.”

    I suppose that’s true to a certain extent, especially in certain areas.

    …Of course, Kurdish areas didn’t have it as bad under the watchful eye of the coalition. …but other democrats don’t have to worry about Saddam and the secret police anymore.

    They do have to worry about insurgents blowin’ ’em up every time they stick their head out of the door, but that’s different.

    I’m not sure how it helps people in Lebanon and elsewhere, but it is different.

  9. Toxic
    Wow… they were discussing democracy as far back in the historic past as the late 90’s: That’s ALMOST a HALF A DECADE before 9/11!!!!

    That’s when they were discussing it on al-Jazeerah and other Pan-Arab satelite channels, which didn’t exist before the mid-90s. It was being discussed in the Middle East before, usually in the privacy of homes because that’s the only place you could be sure that it was safe. The importance of satellite television was to let people know that they weren’t alone and these beliefs weren’t anomalous. Thos discussions on satellite TV didn’t emerge fully formed from Zeus’ skull you know.

  10. Look for future articles where it’s explained that a lot of people were talking about trying to eradicate polio, so Jonas Saulk really doesn’t deserve all that credit he’s been getting.

  11. Wait a minute. First, let’s have an Arab Spring, and then we will fight over who gets the credit.

  12. Look for future articles where it’s explained that a lot of people were talking about trying to eradicate polio, so Jonas Saulk really doesn’t deserve all that credit he’s been getting.

    I already knew that many hawks don’t believe real live Arabs and Muslims have any agency, and that they must rely instead on the totally benevolent great white father in Washington. But comparing them to germs seems a bit much even for that worldview.

    (Thanks to Mo, Ken, and a for elevating the discussion here.)

  13. [H]ow much credit should Bush, or the invasion of Iraq, get for the positive developments in the region the last few months?

    Playing that “credit” game brings you around to the fact that there would have been no invasion without 9/11, so Bin Laden should get the credit. And Bin Laden wouldn’t have an organization of terrorists if it wasn’t for… ah fuck it.

  14. How much credit should Bush get for the fact that the Iranian democratic opposition has been smashed since the beginning of his war? People were comparing Tehran to Berlin in the lat 1990s. Could the mullah’s ability to get away with squashing a popular uprising have anything to do with ” 100,000 American troops breathing down the thug’s backs?”

    How much credit should Bush get for Musharrif’s abrogation of Pakistan’s constitution, and extension of his military dictatorship?

    Or do developments related to democracy only get traced back to George Bush when they are positive, and link between his actions and the outcomes particularly tenuous?

  15. I already knew that many hawks don’t believe real live Arabs and Muslims have any agency, and that they must rely instead on the totally benevolent great white father in Washington. But comparing them to germs seems a bit much even for that worldview.

    What? So some people express the opinion that perhaps the US administration does deserve some credit (something that I agree with), and that translates into the above?

    They all seem to be stating in one way or another that both Arab intellectuals and the end of the Middle East status quo seem to be responsible for the alleged Arab Spring.

    I just don’t get all the hostility, name-calling, and otherwise idiotic rhetoric involved in discussing this war. It fuckin’ drives me nuts, but more and more it seems like it’s completely impossible to have any kind of decent and intellectually honest discussion about the war.

    It’s like trying to discuss whether or not Reagan’s varied military interventions and arms build-up in the 80s was responsible for the USSR’s demise. It seems as if it played a part, but no one thing is totally responsible.

    It takes a village, people! 🙂

  16. By the way, in case I wasn’t clear, I see the rhetoric from BOTH sides in this debate. It’s just draining – and I’m crabby.

    Eek!

  17. So some people express the opinion that perhaps the US administration does deserve some credit (something that I agree with), and that translates into the above?

    Nope. One person compares Bush’s intervention to Jonas Salk creating a vaccine for polio, and that translates into the above.

  18. The first question is whether or not conditions are improving in the Middle East and I’d say yes they are.

    It seems obvious to me that Muslims and Arabs are the prime movers here, for example all of the Iraqi voters who came out to vote, the Lebanese who engaged in protests, Sistani, Hariri, etc.

    Bush and regime change in Iraq helped while Sharon has done a lot of harm with his continued expansion of settlements.

    Abu Aardvark is wrong when he asserts, tentatively: “Iraq, and Bush, may have helped to open up some political opportunities.”

    Not to be a bummer but a lot of coalition soldiers gave up their lives to get rid of Saddam Hussein and help change the equation in the Middle East, which is why the debate can get so heated.

  19. Not to speak for Dave (but I can?t be stopped!), and yeah his comparison might have been a bit simplistic and crass, but I fail to see how that demonstrated his supposed contempt for Middle Eastern agency.

    I don’t know. Like I said, it’s damned-near impossible for people to have this discussion in a civil manner. It?s very frustrating.

    …I think I feel my life force ebbing…

    *poof*

    Yeah, it ebbed.

  20. Not to be a bummer but a lot of coalition soldiers gave up their lives to get rid of Saddam Hussein and help change the equation in the Middle East, which is why the debate can get so heated.

    Yeah, I realize I’m also guilty of getting all bent-out-of-shape when having this discussion. For me and my family, like many others, it really gets a bit personal and too close to home.

    I’m sure it’s the same with everyone.

  21. “The first question is whether or not conditions are improving in the Middle East and I’d say yes they are.”

    I’m not so sure they are. In one hand, we have elections in Iraq, withdrawal of Syrian forces, some signs and promises coming out of Riyadh and Cairo (time will only tell if they are true democractic movements or just politiking by Mubarak and the Sauds). In the other, we have bombs going off in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi.

  22. So let’s see… Bush comes out and says, “The people of the Middle East yearn to be free, and are stopped by the threat of force.”

    He then takes steps to remove that threat of force, and to threaten regimes that would crush the reforms demanded by the people.

    The people then, yearning to be free, begin publically demanding democracies.

    Therefore, since people have wanted democracy for a long time, this all has nothing to do with Bush.

    Is that about it?

    This sounds like the same logic that people used to claim that Khadaffi’s roll-over several days after Saddam was pulled from his hole was totally unconnected to Iraq. Instead, it was the supposedly the culmination of 15 years of intense effort by diplomats that did the trick. Efforts that went nowhere until Khadaffi was given an object lesson in the alternative.

  23. Dan H, your problem is here: “The people then, yearning to be free, begin publically demanding democracies.”

    The people did not THEN begin anything. The people were publically demanding all sorts of things long before George Bush got backed into a rhetorical corner by the collapse of his casus belli. In many places, such as Iran, they were demanding it a lot more BEFORE George Bush’s election than after.

    Did George Bush’s foreign policy cause Ukrainians to take to the streets? Georgians, several years ago?

    Also, keep in mind that there is a lot more going on in American foreign policy than the Iraq War. The Bush administration put out a lot of carrots to regimes that had WMD programs – like Pakistan and Libya – that involved LESS pressure on them to clean up their human rights and democracy problems, in exchange for WMD-related concessions. It’s also a near-certainty that American resources are involved in some of the popular movements, though at what level of follow-the-money, it’s tough to say.

    But of all the things playing in the minds of anti-Syrian Lebanese people in 2000, fear that Saddam Hussein opposes their movement has to be pretty far down the list.

  24. Actually, Joe, that’s only one of the problems with Dan’s comment. Among many others, the passage he’s theoretically replying to never says that “this all has nothing to do with Bush.” Indeed, it says the opposite: “I don’t really like framing the question in such partisan terms. It seems obvious that the invasion of Iraq matters for regional politics — how could it not? Both the strategic and the normative environment have radically changed, for better or for worse, and everyone — governments and political activists alike — are responding to this new situation.”

  25. Mike: Dave’s comment reduced Middle Easterners to germs and coalition soldiers to antibodies. The only purposeful agent left standing was Dr. Bush.

  26. Everyone, feel free to construct an alternative universe to definitively settle this question. For extra credit, this constructed universe should have Jennifer Aniston as my significant other.

  27. How about we wait and verify that this spring is indeed followed by summer? Once that’s verified, those who want to can fight over the credit.

    I’m just hoping that the groundhog doesn’t see his shadow and give the Middle East six more decades of dictatorship.

  28. a: Some people think that political freedom typified by the Bill opf Rights is worth dying for, others seem to think life in any situation is better than sticking your neck out to stand up for your rights. So to some people the new situations you outlined in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and S.A. are worth bombs going off, and for others the consequence of a bomb going off is never worth anything.

    joe: I agree with you that I don’t think Saddam’s position on Lebanese/Syria (and I’m betting he was for his baathist buddies) was uppermost in their minds in 2000.

    However, I think that the facts that 1) Bush has invaded and tyhrown out the rulers of two islamic countries so far; 2) Bush didn’t have a problem with manufactoring evidence to take one of them out and was reelected so has maybe not a mandate but certainly a green light form his citizens for his actions; 3) Bush now has a couple of sweet bases out in the middle of nowhere in west Iraq that are much nicer than what he had in S.A. and he doesn’t have to worry about the host country’s opinion of their use; and 4) Bush gives good press to regimes that do give their countires a little more political freedom (S.A. and Egypt) or rolls over like a good doggie (Lybia) have all influenced the Lebanese in their idea that now was a good time to protest and perhaps influenced Syrian leaders that this moment might not be the best time for a replay of the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

    These are not the only reasons, of course, but only a fool would say they are unimportant.

  29. Jesse: I didn’t take Davey’s comment quite that literally. Although I grant you that the ‘great white father’ remark was funny.

    How about we wait and verify that this spring is indeed followed by summer? Once that’s verified, those who want to can fight over the credit.

    Agreed. Although I imagine we’ll be waiting quite a long while. In the meantime, I shall drink!

  30. Who will join me in the drinking?

  31. Benny 16, the Syrian Baath and Iraqi Baath were not buddies. They loathed each other, and Syria joined the coalition in Operation Desert Storm.

    Your first three causes suggest that the Lebanese drew the the conclusion that Bush would use the American military in support of their efforts. From what I gather, Beirutis are not nearly that stupid – they tend to be a skeptical lot, not terribly prone to believing that the Americans are going to invade and save them.

    Number 4 is more plausible, but seems to be undermined by the facts. Bush wasn’t offering carrots to the Syrians. His reaction to their concilliatory statements and actions, including their willingness to leave Lebanon, was to ratchet up the bellicosity of his statements (right up until the Hizbollah demonstration, but that’s another matter).

  32. His reaction to their concilliatory statements and actions, including their willingness to leave Lebanon, was to ratchet up the bellicosity of his statements. . . .

    Maybe that’s because Bush isn’t interested in a better behaved Baathist dictatorship, its because he is interested in a totally gone Baathist dictatorship.

  33. RC,

    Yes, of course that’s the motivation. But the point I was responding to was an assertion that the Syrians were more willing to pull out because Bush had been making nice with nastry regimes that showed a little “give” – Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia.

    But you are correct, Bush was trying to bootstrap an overthrow of Assad onto the Lebanese independence protests. Nothing Assad did or said would have been good enough. Then the Hizbollah demonstrations happened, and the admin. realized that not even the withdrawal from Lebanon was a sure thing, and they cashed their chips, rather than let them ride on the chance of an overthrow.

    It’s interesting how little remarked-upon that change was. When one of John Kerry’s advisors wrote an editorial in the NYT warning about the dangers of trying to leverage the Lebanese protests to advance other American strategic interests, Michael Young wrote a big nastygram, called the guy a lover of tyranny, an antisemite, yadda yadda yadda. But when the political realities caused the administration to realize that the guy was right…silence.

  34. So to some people the new situations you outlined in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and S.A. are worth bombs going off, and for others the consequence of a bomb going off is never worth anything.

    I agree. But I think the people who are entitled to make that judgment call are those who live near the bombs not the ones living in penthouses in Washington DC.

    and I’m betting he was for his baathist buddies

    Actually, Saddam and Assad were enemies. Syria and Iraq didn’t have diplomatic relations for almost 20 years. Syria only recently restored diplomatic relations with Iraq. One more point, Saddam sponsored Oun, one of the main figures in the current Lebanese Opposition.

  35. little more political freedom (S.A. and Egypt)/I>

    Excuse me, you mean the same Saudi Arabia where LWC (living while Christian) is a crime. As far as Egypt goes, I?ll believe it when I see it. A guy like Mubarak doesn?t stay in power for over two decades by ceding power. My money is still on the fact that his democracy gambit is a vehicle to get Gamel in what appears to be a legitimate way after Hosni steps down. I hope I?m wrong and after Hosni leaves, after his guaranteed reelection of course, we get a liberal democrat. Unfortunately, I don?t see a liberal democrat winning an election any time soon (especially based on my hijab index which has been rising sharply since 2000).

    I don’t deny that our presence and the war in Iraq didn’t have a major effect in the region, but it is only one of many. The Lebanon situation would be much the same if Hariri was still alive (most Arabs don’t like Syria’s presence in Lebanon either). Same goes for Palestine if Arafat is still alive.

    Hawks are just as guilty of ignoring the effect of the pan-Arab media as doves are of dismissing Bush’s effect. All you hear about al-J is how they’re terrorist sympathizers and they’re sole goal is to undermine the war. A better way to think of them is the Fox News of the Middle East, they ARE biased, but they dig up a lot of facts, invoke a lot of discussion in the Arab world and are a GOOD thing on balance. Interestingly, the summer before news of Abu-Ghraib broke in the US, my aunt, who was visiting from Egypt, was telling my dad and me about it and that stories of that sort had been in their news since April. We, neither of us hawks, said that that was mere rumor mongering and the great thing about the US is that those sorts of things come out and are dealt with. 3 months later it came out and except for some low-level soldiers taking the fall for the officers, not much has been done. I was embarrassed to say the least.

    On the plus side, I?m an American apologist and anti-American at the same time, which is pretty cool.

    Yeah, I realize I’m also guilty of getting all bent-out-of-shape when having this discussion. For me and my family, like many others, it really gets a bit personal and too close to home.

    Include me in this group as well. Though on the other side. As someone who’s had relatives imprisoned and tortured for their political beliefs in Egypt, I get pretty pissed off when people start to say that the desire of Arab democracy is a “new” thing. My family came here in 1978, for political freedom, and it wasn?t for the economic opportunity.

  36. FWIW, if Kerry had won, I’m sure that joe would be explaining to all of us right now that Kerry’s multilateral approach is the reason why Syria withdrew from Lebanon and Mubarak is holding “elections”.

  37. I’ve argued that Bush’s multilateral approach (we co-sponsored a UN resolution with the French, doncha know) is part of the reason why Syria is leaving Lebanon, so sure, why not.

  38. I compared Muslims to germs? No, I compared a major problem the world once faced to a major problem the world now faces. Go ahead and compare terrorists to germs all you like, but don’t imply that I am somehow smearing all followers of Islam. As far as what “Hawks” think, THE HAWKS WERE THE ONES WHO MADE THE ARGUMENT THAT DEMOCRACY COULD WORK IN THE MUSLIM WORLD, AND THE “PEACE ACTIVISTS” ARGUED THAT THAT IDEA WAS A FANTASY. Don’t play stupid and act like it was the other way around.

  39. THE HAWKS WERE THE ONES WHO MADE THE ARGUMENT THAT DEMOCRACY COULD WORK IN THE MUSLIM WORLD, AND THE “PEACE ACTIVISTS” ARGUED THAT THAT IDEA WAS A FANTASY

    Attack that straw man all you like Dave. The peace activists argued that democracy from the barrel of a gun in an area that didn’t have prior democratic institutions was a fantasy. They may yet be proven wrong, but those two statements differ greatly.

  40. I agree with Mo. I think that Arabs are perfectly capable and desirous of being responsible citizens in a democracy. And I think it will work much better if democratic institutions are home-grown rather than built by outsiders.

    Now, admittedly, some regime changes will be necessary before those home-grown institutions can, well, grow. But other countries have changed regimes and moved to democracy without our help. Meanwhile, some of our pet democracy projects have failed miserably (e.g. Haiti, where every few decades we have to intervene again).

    Not to mention that the only real Communist countries remaining are North Korea and Cuba, both of which remain foes of the US. China was engaged long ago by Nixon, and is CINO (Communist In Name Only), and Vietnam was engaged in the 1990’s by Clinton and has become much more hospitable to the private sector. No, not hospitable enough, but it’s interesting to me that the places where we’ve adopted the most aggressive stances are the places that remain the most stubbornly Communist.

    Just a coincidence, I’m sure.

  41. “THE HAWKS WERE THE ONES WHO MADE THE ARGUMENT THAT DEMOCRACY COULD WORK IN THE MUSLIM WORLD, AND THE “PEACE ACTIVISTS” ARGUED THAT THAT IDEA WAS A FANTASY.

    The first part of this statement is wrong because by sacrificing the lives of American troops, the Hawks weren’t saying that democracy could work in the “Muslim World”, the Hawks were saying that democracy would work. Who would admit to arguing that the lives of American soldiers should be squandered on something that might work?

    …of course, this all assumes that Hawks made the case for invading Iraq on the basis of spreading democracy, but that isn’t so. They made the case for invading Iraq on the basis of protecting the American public from terrorism and WMD.

    The second part of the statement is wrong because doves were arguing that invading Iraq for the sake of democracy was a risky gamble at best, not that democracy in Iraq was a “fantasy” per se. The doves also thought that Reverse Domino Theory was too risky to squander the lives of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians on too.

    …Indeed, it still isn’t clear that democracy will prevail in Iraq. I sure hope it does, but will you concede that the invasion of Iraq was an enormous mistake if it doesn’t?

  42. The “Peace Activists” were arguing for democracy in the Arab world when Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were telling Saddam where to aim his gas bombs.

  43. Yeah, they just changed their minds as soon as a Republican was the one bringing the Democracy.

  44. Dan H., that’s actually very close to my opinion. Though not because Bush was a Republican, just because he was Bush, and I knew the way he operated.

    I considered the question of invading Iraq to be a close call, based on the humanitarian, democratization angle (I always knew the WMDs and Al Qaeda cooperation arguments were bullshit). What ultimately convinced me to oppose the war was the dishonest, irresponsible behavior of the administration in the runup to the war, which led me to conclude that their prosection of the war and administration of Iraq would be similarly dishonest and irresponsible, making the lofty goals articulated by, say, Lawrence Kaplan unachievable.

    Had John Kerry, Dick Lugar, John McCain, or even Colin Powell been president, I might have ended up supporting the war. But then, the runup to the war would have been quite different, and might not have ended up with an invasion, but with the enforceable inspections regime and regime-threatening humiliation of Saddam that we could have had instead.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.