We must not dismiss the role that western intervention played in the democratic awakening across the Middle East.
Adm. Eric Olson, former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, recently noted that “al-Qaeda Version 1.0 is nearing its end.” The reason? In his view, the takedown of Osama bin Laden and the anti-autocracy revolutions of the Arab Spring combined for a staggering one-two punch. To extend Olson’s tech-related metaphor, it seems fair to say that the Middle East is no longer firewalled from freedom. This, too, is partly a function of the global campaign against terrorist groups and terrorist states, which began on Oct. 7, 2001 with the U.S.-led strikes on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Ten Octobers ago, the dominant – and seemingly unchangeable, unchallengeable – form of government across the Greater Middle East was dictatorship. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq represented the horrific end of the spectrum, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt the merely objectionable end. The only alternatives seemed to be the violent fundamentalisms of the Taliban, bin Laden, and Iran. The reformers, if there were any, kept quiet.
Ten years later, the reformers are shouting. And they aren’t chanting “Death to America” or “Long live bin Laden.” Most are demanding freedom, opportunity, justice, and an end to government corruption. In Libya, they are even embracing the American flag.
In other words, the changes rocking the Middle East are nothing short of … well, revolutionary. Consider the following: Afghanistan is no longer run by terrorists; Iraq is no longer ruled by a tyrant; Egypt and Tunisia have ousted their autocrats; Libyans, with the help of a NATO air armada, have dethroned Gadhafi; and despots are under pressure in Iran and Syria.
Check out Part 1 of The Mark’s three-part series on the outcomes and legacy of the Afghan war.
To be sure, much change is still needed: There have been setbacks in places like Lebanon and proto-Palestine; the West simply failed to support Iran’s Twitter Revolution; Afghanistan’s ability to stand on its own is an open question; and the world is anxiously monitoring the emerging struggle between liberals and Islamists in Libya and Egypt. (Indeed, there are legitimate worries about an Islamist counter-revolution.) And the Arab Spring has yet to arrive in most of the Arabian Peninsula.
But there is a sense, finally, that freedom has a fighting chance in the Middle East.
Without question, the revolutions of 2011 wouldn’t have happened without freedom-minded reformers from all walks of life standing up and speaking out. Social-media technology deserves credit for spurring and connecting the reformers. But, as Adm. Olson’s comments suggest, the post-9/11 military effort – what might be called a campaign of campaigns – was also a factor in this transformation. After all, when coalition forces swept into Afghanistan and Iraq, they not only toppled two horrific regimes, but also pulled the plug on the old order that relied on strongmen to deliver stability, and then midwifed the birth of two democratic governments, showing the Arab and Persian neighbours of Iraq and Afghanistan that self-government was possible.
Whether the lesson was worth 7,500 coalition troops, thousands of civilian lives, and hundreds of billions of dollars is open to debate. In this regard, the words of the eminent diplomat George Kennan come to mind. Writing after the Second World War, he observed that the American democracy is something like a dinosaur blithely frolicking in the mud:
He is slow to wrath – in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed. But once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.
That said, whether the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns had an impact on the region’s political landscape is less debatable. Long before there was an Arab Spring, Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami gazed at post-Hussein Iraq and announced “the autumn of autocrats.” The post-9/11 effort, he concluded, had “helped usher in this unprecedented moment.”
Likewise, as Lebanon’s Walid Jumblatt famously said, “I was cynical about Iraq, but when I saw the Iraqi people voting … it was the start of a new Arab world.”
The old Arab world was based on a cold, calculating bargain between local strongmen and the western governments that kept them in power. But, as then-president George W. Bush argued in 2003, “Stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty … Sixty years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.”
Glimpsing what he called the “stirrings of Middle Eastern democracy,” Bush argued that those stirrings carried “the promise of greater change to come,” and declared that the United States would “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.”
“When you stand for your liberty,” Bush vowed, “we will stand with you.” Even during Iraq’s grimmest days, he predicted: “A free Iraq will show millions across the Middle East that a future of liberty is possible.”
Is Obama’s foreign policy all that different from the Bush administration’s? Read one expert’s opinion here.
Comments like these drew their share of criticism, but the Arab Spring invites us to consider them in a new light. And it seems even one of Bush’s most ardent critics is doing just that: As the autocrats continue to fall and the Arab Spring gives way to an Arab Autumn, U.S. President Barack Obama has begun to sound a lot like his predecessor. (Former Bush administration aide Marc Thiessen details some of the parallels here.) For instance, despite the fact that he expunged the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism” phraseology in the early months of his presidency, Obama used the word “war” eight times during his speech announcing the strike on bin Laden.
Obama, like Bush before him, points to a democratic Iraq as an example for the rest of the Middle East. “In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy,” he argued in May 2011. “Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress.” Echoing Bush, Obama vowed: “If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.” Speaking of a Middle East mired in one-party rule and hereditary dictatorships, Obama further stated that “The status quo is not sustainable.”
And even though Obama was initially reticent about democracy building in the Middle East, he now vows “to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” Toward that end, Obama modelled his Afghan surge after the successful surge in Iraq, committed U.S. forces to NATO military intervention in Libya, and recently created a Middle East Transitions Office to support Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other countries as they embrace political pluralism.
In other words, the similarities are more than rhetorical. As during the Cold War, when administrations of both political parties in the U.S. followed the same roadmap, there is a growing amount of continuity between Bush and Obama in terms of their perspectives on the Middle East. The struggle to overturn the status quo, which began under Bush on Oct. 7, 2001, continues under Obama a decade later.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.