Few speak of the Arab Spring with much hope these days. What went wrong?
Imagine a Battle of Lexington leading to a War of Independence that went horribly, horribly wrong. That wouldn't be hard if you could conceive of a leadership that decided to "lead from behind". Sohrab Ahmari, writing in the Wall Street Journal, says that when the old order collapsed an Islamism waiting in the wings came out to fill the vacuum left by a distant Barack Obama. "Good Guys" who were without guns found themselves abandoned by Western governments to bloodthirsty Mustache Petes in the cynical belief that it was easier to make a deal with political Islam or dictators than build a region on new democratic principles.
This was for some reason regarded as smart. Ahmari argues that by the time [the] West found they could not negotiate with bad guys it was too late to reverse the damage:
How did dreams turn into nightmares? ...Washington favored all actors equally, as though Egypt were Luxembourg and the Muslim Brotherhood just another center-right party. ... In Libya, the U.S. removed Moammar Gadhafi under a legal abstraction—the responsibility to protect—then swiftly abandoned a country with few viable institutions to its tribal furies. In Syria, President Obama declared that Bashar Assad “must go,” and then watched impassively as the Iran-backed tyrant continued to kill and gas his own people, triggering a refugee crisis that has overwhelmed Europe.
Going from autocracy and an Islamist opposition to democracy and rule of law was always going to be a hard path to follow. We did not try to bend events to put these countries on the right side of history.
Before Mubarak was overthrown, I called for us to take a hand in teaching Arabs how to elect good men:
One of the problems is that the protesters want opportunity and freedom from Mubarak and the old order; but that getting democracy is only one path in the negative common objective of removing Mubarak and the old order. Yes, some protesters--the members of the Twittering Class that we identify with--want something called "democracy." Others don't want that. Those anti-democratic protesters simply want Mubarak out and we have no obligation to include these people in the new order that is being created before our eyes in the mistaken notion that freedom requires all opposition forces to replace the existing government. Indeed, we have an obligation to keep those proto-thugs out of the new government[.] ...
And even for those who want democracy, not having lived under it they may have no idea what that aspiration really means as a practical matter. Or anti-democratic forces that take part in elections to get their foot in the door could simply take power by undemocratic means--as Hitler did in Germany and as Hamas did in Gaza (UPDATE: And as Hezbollah is in the process of doing now in Lebanon, I should add.).
Which means our role is to direct the clear but unfocused yearning for freedom on the streets of Egypt and allow them the opportunity to elect democratic men by strengthening the institutions that will allow for future elections rather than setting up a winner-take-all plebiscite on who gets to be the next dictator and ruling class.
I retain hope for the hopes that led to the Arab Spring. Arabs marched for an alternative to autocracy or Islamist rule that had been their fate in life so far. The marchers may not have fully grasped what democracy means, with the rule of law ascendant over clan, tribe, and religion, but they knew that it offered a better path to the future.
Later in the year, I lamented the growing call from the left (and that has spread to the right) that Arabs weren't ready for democracy:
So when did "progressives" decide that Arabs are unable to appreciate or handle freedom and democracy? They're seriously one step away from calling them "wogs" and putting on a pith helmet.
Iraq and the Arab Spring have shown us that Arabs do indeed want freedom and democracy. Syrians are only the latest example of people willing to fight and die for it.
Western critics of democracy in Arab countries confuse the clear aspiration for freedom that Arabs show with the long process of achieving democracy with all it assumes (rule of law in all its aspects). Are we to condemn Arabs to despotism because they have no direct experience with democracy and liberty and have few clues how to really achieve them when they get the chance?
That's where we come in. Arabs want something better than autocracy and poverty. They know there are better ways to achieve it. They have lived in autocracy and they have seen the bankruptcy of Islamism. They have seen Iraqis fight through the worst that autocracies and jihadis could throw at them and start to build something better. We in the West who live in real democracy must help them build real democracy. That means more than elections that validate a dictatorship or simply change the cast of looters through legal methods. They need rule of law.
But we did not help them exclude from democracy those who had contempt for rule of law and who simply wanted a vote to get them power.
And so here we are, with even Iraq shaky from our lack of involvement in crucial years and now ISIL reviving the appeal of Islamism as a solution to what ails the Arab Moslem world:
If we can re-win in Iraq, reduce Iranian influence there, and restore our efforts to build a functioning democracy in Iraq, we can yet help the Arab Moslem world escape the dismal traditional alternatives of autocracy or Islamism for governance and exploit the earnest if vague yearnings for democracy that the Arab Spring revealed.
I am not demoralized by the failure of the Arab Spring in 2011 to inspire immediate progress for democracy (and the necessary rule of law). I am encouraged that people expressed a desire for democracy even if they had a weak understanding of what that requires. At least these protesters did not call for religious dictatorship as an alternative to autocrats.
Not demoralized. But disappointed. We could have tried to shape events to exploit the opportunity of the Arab Spring. Instead we let those who aspired to freedom fail against the autocrats and Islamists who were strong enough and ruthless enough to win.
As we did with Iran in 2009, when we abandoned the Green Movement to cut deals with the mullahs. How's that so-called nuclear deal working out?
And as we did in Syria where we called on Assad to go when his people stood in defiance against his bombs, thugs, and poison gas, but did nothing to achieve that. And several hundred thousand dead and the rise of ISIL later which spilled over to destabilize Iraq, here we are siding with Russia and Iran to save the Assad regime.
Perhaps the tides of the right side of history will take the Arab world to democracy (and rule of law) regardless of what we do or don't do.
But we surely had an effect on the timing.
Our failures to help plant democracy in the Arab world to build on the yearnings of the Arab Spring have put off that day when Arabs can look forward to something other than soul-crushing submission to autocrats or mullahs, and the bloody struggle between them that just gets them killed and impoverished.
Have a super sparkly day.
UPDATE: There is hope:
When a group of Islamic jihadist attackers stormed a bus in Kenya on Monday, a group of Kenyan Muslims moved to protect the Christian passengers on board, the BBC reported. According to the outlet, the gunmen ambushed the bus, attempting to divide those on board based on the passengers' religious affiliations. However, the Muslim passengers reportedly refused to split. At least two people were killed.
These people need our help to kill, defeat, and reject the jihad in order to build an Islam that stands up to the jihadi strains.
UPDATE: And really, if we don't help Moslems achieve democracy and rule of law, there is no long-term security in backing autocrats because the Islamists grow in that environment:
The Taliban’s growing momentum in Afghanistan is beginning to threaten the fragile former Soviet republics of Central Asia just to the north, where some officials already fret they may live through the troubles of the 1990s all over again.
You may think autocrats keep the lid on the jihadi impulse. But the pressure builds up inside that pressure cooker as people recognize that the autocrats crush them down. And if democracy isn't the alternative as the Arab Spring cried out for, Islamism will be seen as the alternative.