The Middle East Is Changing, But Is U.S. Policy?

The (second) Arab spring—one of the most remarkable outpourings of democratic sentiment in history—was not supposed to happen. Arab regimes, if nothing else, were good at repression.

By Shadi Hamid

Tagged DemocracyMiddle East

The (second) Arab spring—one of the most remarkable outpourings of democratic sentiment in history—was not supposed to happen. Arab regimes, if nothing else, were good at repression. They had no recognizable ideology beyond self-perpetuation. It seemed to work. Occasionally, they delivered impressive economic growth (but seemed almost entirely unconcerned with redistribution). They chugged along, coming up with a curious blend of brutality and, if necessary, insincere democratic openings.

This led to an odd phenomenon in Washington, D.C. Everyone knew the regimes would fall—eventually—but few seemed particularly interested in doing much about it. They’d last at least ten or 15 years or maybe 50. But this was precisely the problem with autocratic regimes. It was only a matter of time. Autocracies, by definition, are temporary. It’s difficult to recall it now, but the Bush Administration seemed, even if for a short while, to be making precisely that argument. The status quo was “untenable,” Bush officials were fond of saying. Well, the status quo was untenable.

The “stability paradigm”—exchanging ideals for interests in the Middle East—has proven foolhardy and, perhaps worse, naïve. Instead of hard-nosed realpolitik, foreign-policy realists, in particular, put their heads in the stand, unwilling to look at, much less understand, the shifting dynamics of a region in turmoil.

And so we find ourselves in a difficult situation, torn between the authoritarian Arab world we helped create, and the one Arabs are intent on creating for themselves.

Never before has the gap between Arab reality and American policy seemed so vast. The Arab reality is clear—Arabs want democracy and will accept nothing less. Put differently, every authoritarian regime now lives in fear of the next revolt. And the next revolt will come. This does not sound particularly conducive to securing American interests in either the short or long run. We can engage in counter-factuals, although we probably shouldn’t. What if we (and the French) had stood by Algerian democracy in 1991? What if what was, up until then, the most promising democratic experiment actually succeeded? What if we had pushed King Hussein of Jordan to continue with the “democratic transition” he initiated in 1989? (Jordan in 1992 had the distinction of having the best-ever Freedom House ratings of any Arab country). Instead, the Arab world sputtered through two lost decades.

But we are where we are, behind the curve. Contrary to what some have suggested, the United States under Barack Obama has not realigned its policies in the Middle East. It is easy to support the winners after they’ve already won, as in Egypt or Tunisia. But in strategically vital countries such as Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, the Obama Administration has reassured nervous monarchs of its continued support. It was little surprise, then, that a thousand people protested in front of the U.S. embassy in Bahrain, calling on America to get serious and put pressure on the ruling family. A political officer came down, met with the protesters, and gave them doughnuts.

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Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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