August 25, 2011 | National Review Online Symposium

Long, Hot Arab Summer

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

Commentary on the Arab Spring is much like the famous parable of the blind men learning about an elephant by touching it: Most observers glimpse limited aspects of a complex phenomenon, but have trouble comprehending the whole. It is difficult not to sympathize with those who have joined the uprisings, as they stand against despotic regimes that have deprived them of so much. But we shouldn’t let our sympathies interfere with our ability to understand how our enemies — al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups — understand the Arab Spring, and how they hope to capitalize on the changes it brings.

From al-Qaeda’s perspective, waiting out the Arab Spring and exploiting popular discontent may well be a winning strategy. Many commentators think the Arab Spring was devastating to al-Qaeda because jihadism was marginal to these protests. As the journalist Peter Bergen put it in an interview I conducted with him for my forthcoming book: “Have you seen a single person carrying a placard with Osama bin Laden’s face on it? Has anybody been mouthing al-Qaeda’s talking points? Have you seen a single American flag burning? It’s an ideological catastrophe for them.” But this seems to misconceptualize the nature of al-Qaeda, which is a vanguard movement rather than a mass movement. This is not to say that al-Qaeda doesn’t want to be a mass movement, but the fact that it hasn’t become one over the past decade does not demonstrate that the group is dead.

To al-Qaeda, one lesson of the Arab Spring is the limitations of U.S. power. As American allies in the region fell, the U.S. was relegated to the sidelines, wringing its hands about whether to throw in its lot with the people on the street.

In the short term, these events have created a more permissive operating environment for jihadis. Violent Islamists were released from prison in Egypt and Libya without al-Qaeda lifting a finger. A senior U.S. military intelligence analyst who has followed regional developments told me, “A significant talent pool that was previously incarcerated is now back on the streets.” Jailbreaks equaling the magnitude of these releases would have been near-impossible during the Mubarak years. Meanwhile al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, smuggled weapons out of Libya during the chaos. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch, captured territory in Abyan province while the government was preoccupied with the spread of protests to its territory.

We haven’t seen Islamic law implemented or a caliphate established as a result of the Arab Spring, of course, but al-Qaeda probably foresees a more fertile recruiting environment. The Arab Spring is not just about the desire for democracy. It is also about unemployment and skyrocketing food prices. Will material needs be met? Unemployment in Egypt has increased rather than decreased since Mubarak was overthrown. Historically when sky-high expectations (as you’ve had with the Arab Spring) go unfulfilled, extreme ideologies can take hold.

This is not to deny any of the positive developments that have come of the Arab Spring. But the violent non-state actors we have been fighting for the past decade almost certainly do not view the regional unrest as devastating to their cause; and they will be keenly watching how they might capitalize.

— Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011), and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Michael Ledeen

Nobody knows how the “Spring” will turn out (it’s not just “Arab,” since the initial insurrection — which inspired the others — was in Iran, which is not very Arab). On the one hand, Americans should cheer whenever a tyrant falls. On the other hand, most revolutions fail, and sometimes things get even worse than they were before. Time will tell. I’d be more optimistic if our leaders supported democratic revolutionaries, but no president since Reagan has seriously attempted that.

— NRO contributing editor Michael Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West.

Clifford D. May

Here’s what we know: The Muslim world is in the throes of a major transformation. Here’s what we don’t know: whether it will end in cheers or tears.

Whenever a despot falls, especially one with American blood on his hands, I raise a glass and offer a toast. I do not, however, hang out a banner saying “Mission Accomplished” — not because that would be untrue, but because it’s wise to remember that the most challenging missions lie ahead.

Qaddafi was a tin-pot dictator, but he had oil wells. He was a buffoon, but he provided no amusement to those — such as Libyan freedom-fighter Fathi Eljahmi — who suffered in his torture chambers and died in his dungeons.

Qaddafi’s fall will provide an opportunity for freedom’s advance — but no guarantee. Indeed, history teaches that most revolutions fail. The shah of Iran was followed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Russia went from the Tsars to the commissars. And now there is Putin and Medvedev. I’m reminded of the old saying that sometimes progress means teaching a cannibal to eat with a knife and fork.

American intervention in Libya was primarily humanitarian in intent. Qaddafi threatened to turn Benghazi into a slaughterhouse. To stand silently by while that happened, as we did when genocide was carried out in Rwanda, seemed like the worst of a number of bad choices.

Libya’s rebels should be grateful for American and European assistance but we know — not least from our experience in Afghanistan, where we supported indigenous efforts to oust Soviet oppressors — that gratitude is not an emotion jihadis experience.

There are Libyans who do not want Taliban types telling them how to live and what it means to be a Muslim. There are many who would be very pleased to see Libya’s oil wealth shared with them — not spent by others for causes far from Libya’s shores. The trick is to strengthen these people and to weaken their enemies who also are our enemies.

Syria is a different situation. It is a major strategic concern. As scholar Michael Doran recently wrote, what is at stake in Syria today“is nothing less than the future of the Iranian regional security system.”

We don’t know who or what will follow Assad. We do know that the geo-political map will look different and that Iran and Hezbollah are unlikely to be pleased with what they see. We need to do what we can to speed Assad’s fall (some suggestions are here) and help shape the events and institutions that follow.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and political Islam.

Emanuele Ottolenghi

The Arab Spring’s provisional score card is not encouraging. It has only gathered pace in five countries out of the Arab League’s 22 members. In Syria, the tyrant stands and so does his machine of repression. Elsewhere, the tyrant was toppled, but what comes next is another story.

A tyrant’s fall is no guarantee that democracy follows — Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad overthrew dictators; and the delirious crowds who literally ripped the late Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Said apart on the streets of Baghdad in 1958 did not get rid of a Hashemite king to install democracy. Neither was that Nasser’s goal when he ousted King Farouk. The fall of a tyrant does not translate into “Spring,” if by spring we wish to evoke a parallel with Prague in 1968 or Central and Eastern Europe in 1989.

Another word of caution — in the history of revolutions, those who initiate the convulsed journey of radical and sometimes violent change are not necessarily the ones who lead by the time the revolution is over. The Bastille begat terror — and then Napoleon; the Mensheviks were swept away by Lenin; Iran’s rainbow opposition took down the shah — then, Khomeini took them apart.

Even in the best-case scenario — something rare in the region’s history — it is not clear that citizens of Arab countries, once they are given the chance to choose their leaders, will embrace democracy and support democrats. There are alluring alternatives on offer.

In 1989, Eastern European nations sought to free themselves from the yoke of Soviet and Communist oppression and looked to democracy as the only viable political alternative to their predicament. The ideology behind the regimes they sought to topple was a spent force and had lost any of the appeal it may have had in the past. Transition to democracy was never in question, and the switch from the Warsaw Pact to NATO, from Communist dictatorships to liberal democracies, did not encounter robust domestic opposition, save maybe from the old Communists, whose views were largely discredited.

In 1989, democracy had no serious alternative in Eastern Europe. In 2011, democracy finds in Islamism — the ideology of the opposition in much of the Arab world — a fierce competitor.

2011 may thus turn out to be a big disappointment for democracy promoters in the Arab world and their Western supporters.

— Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Claudia Rosett

Where stands the Arab Spring? It may be more illuminating to regard it as the Arab Eruption, ripping fissures in the tyrannical bedrock of the Middle East and North Africa and releasing pressures that are right now enormously volatile. Nor is it strictly the Arabs who are involved. Uprisings have rocked the region, from the city streets of Iran to the tribal areas of North Africa. It is hugely compelling to sympathize with oppressed people risking their lives to dethrone their despots. It is also deeply dangerous, because the region is rife with terror-linked Islamist forces seeking to co-opt these uprisings — from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the Iranian-backed terrorists of Hezbollah who have already hijacked Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution.

In landscapes such as this, what usually matters is the man with a plan and the resources to back him — whether a Vladimir Lenin, Ayatollah Khomeini, or George Washington. There are Islamists with plans galore, from the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, to the mullahs of Iran, to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and its terrorist brethren, such as Hamas. The democratic forces are unentrenched and far less well-organized. This is where American policy matters. So far, it has been volatile, with the U.S. abandoning Iran’s protesters in 2009; leading from behind to provide genocide-prevention services in Libya; and taking much longer to call for the resignation of Syria’s terror-sponsoring, bloody-handed Bashar al-Assad than that of Egypt’s now-deposed and relatively pro-U.S. Hosni Mubarak. Much now depends on whether the U.S. provides leadership in the Middle East — by promoting the interests of the free world, including those of its beleaguered democratic ally, Israel — or alternately stands by watching and following the crowd.

— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.

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Issues:

Egypt Iran Libya Syria Tunisia