Five years ago, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in the provincial Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire. His protest against arbitrary state harassment, lack of opportunity, and denial of basic human dignity ignited a tidal wave of protests across the Arab region which fractured the authoritarian state system that had been in place for decades. It also triggered the Obama administration's greatest foreign policy challenge.
It would be hard to claim that the U.S. government successfully responded to the popular uprisings that came to be known as the Arab Spring. It is clear that President Obama will be handing over a tangled knot of unresolved problems in the Middle East to his successor in 2017.
With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to identify some of the fundamental mistakes made by the United States. These mistakes must be corrected if the United States is to have better outcomes in its dealings with region, both in terms of U.S. national interests and those of the people of the region.
- The greatest failure of the past five years has been the inability of the U.S. government and its allies to devise and implement adequate programs to enable and promote post-authoritarian and post-conflict reconstruction. This failing is all the more disappointing because ever since the misadventures of the Bush administration in Iraq, U.S. policymakers have uniformly understood that removing a dictator is very much the easy part of any transition from authoritarianism, while rebuilding alternative governance structures is extremely hard.
- A reluctance to learn from mistakes has led U.S. officials to revert to familiar patterns of supporting authoritarian leaders who seem able to deliver short term stability, regardless of the longer term harm they inflict on their societies and the broader region. Thus, in Egypt, the United States went from decades of largely uncritical support of the Mubarak government to unwisely close embrace of successive flawed regimes, from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces through the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi presidency to the crude authoritarianism of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. A steadily deteriorating situation under Mubarak has become a mounting crisis with the economy in steep decline, basic freedoms of expression and assembly under attack, and incidents of political violence on the increase.
- The people of the Middle East are being subjected to the types of mass trauma perhaps not seen since World War II. The statistics from Syria, where more than half the pre-conflict population has been forced to flee from their homes, tell a devastating story of human misery that is yet to evoke a proportionate reaction from Washington, leaving the perception that the United States is indifferent to their plight. Escalating conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Yemen mean that over 100 million Arabs are forced to endure lives in active conflict zones with no end in sight.
- The Obama administration has suffered a loss of confidence in its capacity to back up its words with strategies and actions sufficient to achieve its desired ends. Since 2011 the administration has declared that President Assad must leave office in order to facilitate an end to the devastating conflict, but almost five years later the lack of a practical plan to remove Syria's murderous dictator is all too clear. Such fecklessness emboldens America's adversaries and saps the confidence of its allies and potential allies. The administration has repeatedly stressed the importance of local forces taking the lead in upholding national and regional security. This may well be a desirable goal, but the absence of a backup plan for when local forces -- even those trained by the U.S. government, like the Iraqi army -- prove inadequate has contributed to the political vacuum in which ISIL has established its stronghold.
- U.S. strategy to counter the threat from violent Islamist extremism, like that of ISIL, has been weakened by inconsistency. The administration has rightly identified political repression and incitement of sectarian divisions as drivers of the grievances on which violent extremism feeds, yet its major regional allies in the fight against violent extremism, like Saudi Arabia, are repressive at home and major instigators of sectarian conflict on a regional level. U.S. officials have likewise stressed the importance of independent civil society in the struggle against violent extremism even as independent civil society organizations, especially human rights organizations, face mounting repression from many supposed allies in this fight.
If the United States is going to help people of the Middle East fulfill the dreams and expectations of the remarkable spring of 2011, a new approach towards the region is needed. It should focus on rebuilding and stabilizing devastated countries, sustained commitment to promoting democratic institutions, respect for human rights and the rule of law, urgent, multilateral action to end conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, closer alignment of aspirational rhetoric with policy, and consistent implementation of comprehensive measures designed to prevent violent extremism.
This is a tall order, to be sure, but the current approach is failing, and the stakes are enormous.