Arab Spring or Arab Winter? A Lack of Leadership

The final months of 2014 mark two of the most transformational events of our time -- the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the fourth year of the Arab Spring. With the exception of Vladimir Putin, the world will celebrate the 1989 casting off of Soviet domination. But we are deeply disappointed in the failure of the Arab world to constructively seize its moment. A recent day's headlines -- "Five Bombs Explode in Baghdad," "U.S. Drone Kills Militants in Pakistan," "Hamas Fighters Slip through Tunnels" and "Attack Kills at least 21 Egyptian Soldiers in Western Desert" -- all too clearly demonstrate that seventh century attitudes married to 21st-century weapons are a lethal combination.

Having served as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary during the 1990s, when a legitimate Hungarian government replaced its Soviet oppressors, I had a front row view of how leadership contributed to the liberation and democratization of former Warsaw Pact nations. Romania aside, Soviet domination in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany evaporated peacefully. Shortly after the Arab Spring, I wrote, "The opening of the border between Hungary and Austria in 1989 resulted in Gorbachev's recognizing that, short of employing overwhelming force, the pre-Soviet Warsaw Pact nations could no longer be held captive. This transformation was peaceful, in large part due to the presence of world class leaders like Lech Walesa in Poland, VáclavHavel in Czechoslovakia, ÁrpádGonz in Hungary, and Kurt Masur in East Germany. The respect they enjoyed and their ability to forge broad consensus in their respective countries paralleled the statesmanship of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. As a result, each of these newly liberated countries enjoyed populations which rallied around their admired leaders."

Unfortunately, no such respected and admired figures have emerged in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Coups triggered, in part, by centuries old arguments among sects and tribal adversaries have led to violence, corruption, failure of their central governments, many fatalities, widespread destruction and the calamity of millions of refugees fleeing violence.

Of course, this lack of world-class leadership is not the sole explanation for the failure of the Arab Spring. Unlike the former Warsaw Pact Europeans who quickly re-established democratic societies after shedding years of Soviet domination, the Arab world did not enjoy hundreds of years of independence, self-rule, a general sharing of values. And most importantly, a willingness to compromise. They simply lack a tradition of self-government and democratic development, and their political cultures and unwillingness to separate the roles of church and state are incomprehensible to much of the Western world. Only time and patience may permit the conditions essential for non-violent, democratic, rule to emerge. Leadership must play its part. The United States and its European friends should continue to encourage the political leaders and peoples of the Arab Spring to identify and support leaders of vision and probity, whom they, and we, can rally around.