THE LOST SPRING: U.S. POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND CATASTROPHES TO AVOID
By Walid Phares
Palgrave Macmillan, $27, 248 pages
For many months before the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor triggered the Arab Spring, Walid Phares had been predicting widespread uprisings in the Middle East to American and European audiences. He said the youth of countries in the region, along with women, religious minorities and civil libertarians would soon burst forth in search of democratic reforms and that the West had an opportunity to help these movements and see them succeed.
In “The Lost Spring,” he says the Arab Spring was preceded by two revolutionary movements — the 2005 anti-Hezbollah Cedars Revolution in Lebanon and the 2009 Green Revolution protesting Iran’s rigged elections — “[that] could have weakened global terror and defeated Jihadi ideologies … . Unfortunately, Western policies, U.S. attitudes in particular, failed this rendezvous with history and assisted, directly or indirectly, the rise of Islamists, the spread of Jihadists.”
Born in Lebanon and schooled there and in Europe, Mr. Phares holds degrees in political science and law. He has taught global strategies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., and has testified before Congress, the U.N. Security Council and the European Parliament. He is surely one of the most astute observers of Middle Eastern affairs that we have.
In the book, Mr. Phares details the course of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, as well as the unrest and, ultimately, civil war in Syria. He traces the coordinated efforts by Islamists in the United States to make the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood appear to be the only viable unifying force for the opposition in Middle Eastern countries. He shows how petrodollars were used to fund Middle Eastern Studies programs in a number of universities, whose scholars, sympathetic to Islamists, spread the word that the Brotherhood could be trusted.
These efforts preceded the Arab Spring and laid the groundwork for the Obama administration’s shift in policy toward the region — away from the “Forward Democracy” policy of the Bush administration and for several years earlier.
The author writes that when the uprisings occurred, Western embassies “confused the Arab Spring with the best-organized force on the ground … the Islamists.” Founded in 1927 in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood held back as the protests grew, then stepped in to appear to join forces with the protesters, but actually to steer their direction and assert leadership. In Tunisia, their party formed the new government (though it shared power with other elements).
In Libya, it controlled some of the armed militia that controlled territory (especially in and around Benghazi) after the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s forces.
While forces for change were building in the region, the new Obama administration in early 2009 signaled a sharp change in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. We would dispense with the “war on terrorism” and treat terrorist events on our soil as matters for the criminal justice system to deal with. We would withdraw from Iraq, thus jeopardizing a hard-won victory over separatists elements and al Qaeda allies.
On June 4, 2009, President Obama gave a speech at Cairo University titled “A New Beginning.” He declared that the United States had been wrong and had sometimes acted arrogantly toward the region. His remarks hinted at a working partnership with Islamists. Later that month, he said his administration would not takes sides in uprisings. U.S. media, for the most part, went along with this position. Spokesmen for various U.S. Islamist groups made themselves available to the media to tout their group’s “moderation” and to attack any critics as being “Islamophobes.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama ignored the Green Revolution in Iran, not giving even moral support or using the various “soft” tools at its disposal to help the protesters. The movement was crushed brutally, giving the Khomeinist regime free rein to pursue its expansionist aims.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood stood in the wings until the protests reached critical mass. It then put its political party forward in the first new election. Their candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won the presidency. Step by step, he changed laws to gradually turn Egypt into an Islamist state with Shariah law. Tensions built until, last summer, 22 million citizens signed petitions to recall Mr. Morsi. That was 10 million more signatures than the vote that had brought him to office.
Finally, the army stepped in, replaced Mr. Morsi with an interim president and arrested him.
Various bombings and violent protests landed many of his supporters in jail. As the author points out, the battle between the “secularists” and the Muslim Brotherhood is far from over. He says, however, “The liberals must undergo ideological revolution to cut off the Jihadi ideology at its roots.” He adds that “hopes are higher than ever before that a true civil society will emerge.”
Peter Hannaford is a board member of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats” (Threshold).