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Friday, July 15, 2011

Musings on Regime Change

In light of the recent recognition of the Libyan transitional government by the United States and others, we are presented with an excellent opportunity to reflect on the Arab Spring and United States policy towards the Middle East-Northern Africa region. The last six months have seen perhaps the most widespread and significant political change in the entire Middle East-Northern Africa region since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The world has seen successful, non-violent democratic movements take hold in Egypt and Tunisia, popular uprisings in Libya and Syria, and protests of various sorts all across the region from Algeria to Bahrain to even Jordan.

What many do not realize, however, is that these events are a vindication of those who opposed former President Bush’s attempts to impose democracy by force.  That the Arab Spring was a success is due in large part to those that took part in it.  But it also owes some credit to American soft power, as President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton correctly judged.  While hard power is still an option, as demonstrated by Operation Unified Protector, it is no longer the centerpiece of American foreign policy, and the promotion of democratization in the region has benefited from this approach.

It is worth noting that with the sole exception of Libya, the Arab Spring’s successes have been achieved with minimal outside assistance.  In Tunisia, ex-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was gone almost just as soon as the rest of the world realized that a popular movement against him was beginning.  In Egypt, it took longer, but again with minimal direct outside involvement.  But while the genesis, people, and ideas backing these movements were local, the tools they used - Twitter and Facebook for example - were wholly Western.  The people that executed them, many of them students, have been exposed to Western values and culture almost since birth, even as, at the same time, they have been exposed to those of their own culture. 

Libya, Iran, Syria and others have experienced a similar situation.  The primary difference is only that these states have governments much more willing to use overwhelming force against their own citizens.  Iran has experienced over a year of a slow burn of anti-Ahmadinejad, anti-Khamenei sentiment, not unlike the last Iranian Revolution.  The Syrian government has engaged in massive crackdowns, and the Libyan protests have grown into an outright civil war with the goal of Moammar Qaddafi’s capture and removal from power.  It is important to note that the United States was asked to help by parties on the ground; and that the involvement of outside powers has not been focused on outside ownership of the campaign, but rather facilitating the rebels’ requests, seeing to their needs, and making up for elements missing from the anti-Qaddafi arsenal.  This was not a military action imposed solely at the will of the United States, it was truly done via coalition and with respect for institutions such as the United Nations and the African Union, and also avoided boots on the ground.

Again, though, these movements did not occur because of American direct intervention.  In fact, prior interventions may have harmed the image of pro-Western, pro-democracy movements, especially in Iran.  American non-interference seems to be paying dividends, and at least for Syria and Iran, American policy is typified by Secretary of State Clinton’s comment that "President Assad is not indispensable and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.”  While avoiding direct intervention wherever possible, our wishes are known.  Combined with other soft power and cultural influences, the entire framework seems to be working overall.  As such, the Arab Spring reminds the American people that democracy is more apt to take hold in a region if the people who live there initiate it.

Given the concrete national identity and popular ownership of their democratic movements, it seems more likely that nations such as Egypt and Tunisia will succeed in forming functioning, responsive, democratic governments more quickly than Iraq and Afghanistan. As we can see in Iraq, and to a worse extent in Afghanistan, there are multiple internal and external actors, sects, and tribes vying violently for control. In Iraq, Shia elements remaining from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army or Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), are jockeying for control against the Sunni Ba’athist and Former Regime Loyalists (FRL), not to mention the Kurds in Northern Iraq and others. With many of these elements evolving over the course of the war from violent insurgency groups to legitimate political organizations, tensions in the fledgling Iraqi government remain high, with many threatening to return to violence as a means of achieving their political goals.  In Afghanistan, the situation is significantly more splintered and complex. It is incredibly difficult to bring the people of Afghanistan together under one national banner while control of the nation remains largely in the hands of local warlords and municipalities. The problem is worsened prodigiously by corruption in Kabul which spreads the seeds of mistrust amongst the people of Afghanistan.

Iraq and Afghanistan may yet still achieve successful democratic rule but they face a much tougher road.  It has been nearly ten years since the invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, and over eight years since the invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein.  Or to find his weapons of mass destruction, we can’t quite remember.  The flaw with the Bush Doctrine was that it did not take into account the unique cultural and social history of individual nations and did not utilize a multi-pronged approach. President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and the current U.S. foreign policy team have avoided the one-size fits all mistake.  The responses to each uprising within the region since the beginning of the Obama administration have each been handled with alternate measured approaches.  The pro-democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa are showing us that there are alternative mechanisms to decades long wars that can be used to bring about regime change. Military invasion and occupation by outside forces has never been emblematic of forming new democracies.  The true answer lies in allowing local democratic movements to grow, aid them as we can, and intervene only as a last resort - as the Obama Administration has shown.

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