January 22, 2019

The Arab Spring’s missed opportunity

Walid Phares, born and educated in Lebanon, is an experienced observer of events in what he calls “the Greater Middle East.” But perhaps his most telling credentials are found in the fact that he served as a foreign affairs advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 and appears as a terrorism expert on Fox News. So we should not be surprised to discover that the principal villain in his latest book, “The Lost Spring: U.S. Policy in the Middle East and Catastrophes to Avoid” (Palgrave Macmillan: $27), is Barack Obama.

The title of “The Lost Spring” refers to that shimmering moment in recent history when totalitarian governments across the Middle East began to topple and fall and the Assad regime in Syria seemed to teeter.  At that moment, Phares argues, the United States could have and should have acted decisively to support what he calls “the region’s nascent democratic movements” but failed to do so, and instead “engaged” with Hezbollah, the Taliban, and other Islamists, all with lamentable consequences for the region and the world.

“The irony of the Arab Spring was its mutation from blooming popular movements in the first month of 2011 to a full Islamic winter in 2013,” he writes.  “[W]e see a transfigured region, with fewer secular dictators but with new authoritarian powers that are more totalitarian in nature, reminding us of the transition from empires to fascist states in the Europe of the 1930s.”  The real beneficiaries, he insists, are the Islamic hard-liners rather than the democratic activists whose demonstrations caught the imagination of the West.

As Phares surveys the complex and highly nuanced points of conflict across the Middle East, he emphasizes what happened when young Egyptians rallied to Tahrir Square with their cellphones and protest signs.  Once the Muslim Brotherhood realized that the U.S. had prevailed upon Mubarak to resign, its members joined the liberal and left-wing demonstrators, whom they greatly outnumbered.  “The liberal youth – the initiators of the revolution – were marginalized and divided, isolated from the political game,” he insists. “By staying almost neutral between the dictator and the liberal youth, the White House slowed international support for the revolution and gave the Brotherhood enough time to join forces.”

All of these developments, Phares insists, are concerning, not only for the people of the countries in turmoil but for the United States (and, of course, Israel).  “The true catastrophe has been that, in the face of genuine (and long overdue) civil society uprisings,” he writes, “Western democracies have intervened late (if at all) and with the wrong partners,” he writes. “While the U.S. administration brags about its role in inspiring the youth in Arab countries to protest for change, these same youth regard it as a collaborator with the new authoritarians, the Islamists.”

Phares does not overlook the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, which he regards as yet more evidence that the Obama administration was unable “to understand the threat, identify the force behind the attack, and take action against it afterward.” What the administration missed, he insists, is the role that Jihadists played in the Libyan version of the Arab Spring: “The Jihadists partnered with the secular Libyan rebels until the fall of the dictator,” and then they moved “to ensure the domination of the Islamist militias after the revolt was over.”

Israel is not much mentioned in “The Lost Spring”. 

In fact, he accuses the United States of abandoning and undermining our natural allies in the Middle East by taking an overly delicate attitude toward the Islamists.  “A criticism of the actions of Islamist regimes abroad does not constitute the targeting of entire Muslim communities in the West,” he explains. “Ironically, the Islamist ideology was ripped to pieces by Muslim liberals and seculars and by moderate clerics, particularly during the second year of the Arab Spring…. Unfortunately, U.S. and European political cultures were hijacked by the apologists for the extremists. 

The United States, he concludes, would fare better under the approach that Phares recommends — and Romney embraced — than under the policy of the Obama administration, that is, an alliance with what Phares calls “the secular democracy forces” throughout the Middle East, including Lebanon, Iran and Syria.  He confidently predicts “a second Arab Spring” that can usher in a messianic era in the Middle East if only we do not make the same mistake twice. 

 “If the United States and the West help Egypt now against the Jihadi terror and Brotherhood violence,” he prophesies, “the international community will witness the rise of a powerful Arab democracy along the Nile with the potential to lead the struggle against Al Qaeda and its Jihadi ilk across North Africa and the Arab world.”

As it happens, Phares does not have much to say about Israel, whose interests are even more urgent and consequential than our own. He seems to concede, at least in passing, that the “central themes” of Arab leadership include the ongoing struggle “against the Zionists and for the liberation of Palestine.” He criticizes the Obama administration for performing a kind of political sleight of hand with Jewish voters by attempting to disconnect the Arab-Israeli conflict from

the process of political engagement with the Iranian regime, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Phares characterizes the subtext of Obama’s policy in the most damning terms: “Unlike Nazism, fascism and Bolshevism, they could be handled and eventually trusted.”

“The Lost Spring” exerts a certain undeniable appeal.  Phares wants us to see the policy he advocates as rooted in both American idealism and a worldly-wise realpolitik. After all, our core values prompt us to seek out precisely those “secular democrats” and “civil society forces” and “youth”  whom he urges us to find and befriend.  I fear that his solution, however attractive, is not as practical as advertised, and I kept asking myself: What are their names and addresses? 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).