The Internationalist

How wrong we were

Five surprising lessons from the Middle East upheaval

By Thanassis Cambanis
February 27, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

The popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and beyond have seized the world imagination like no events since the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Regimes are teetering, dictators have fallen, and unexpected coalitions have managed to conjure street-level power seemingly out of thin air. Tunisians took credit for Egypt’s revolution; Egyptian demonstrators in turn claim they inspired people in Wisconsin and Bahrain.

Much remains uncertain, and even the most experienced observers have no idea who will hold power in the aftermath of these uprisings. But already we’ve learned more in a few short months than we gleaned from decades of careful study about the real power base of Moammar Khadafy and Hosni Mubarak, about the balance among armies and tribes, about the relative power of secular and Islamist activists. We’re seeing the true measure of oil money and the Muslim Brotherhood, of popular anger about corruption, and of the real interest in economic liberalization.

But perhaps the most surprising lessons emerging from all the unrest are even bigger ones — insights that extend well beyond the Middle East, and are forcing thinkers and policy makers to reconsider some basic assumptions that have long guided America’s foreign policy. How much impact can America really have on world events? How do our alliances function at crucial moments? Who really has the potential to initiate and control massive change in modern societies? The surprising answers suggested by the Arab revolts might create new options in the minds of American policy makers looking to advance not only US security and economic goals, but also the causes of human rights, transparency, and democratic governance.

It will take months or even years to fully grasp the implications of what is happening right now in the Middle East, but here are some of the lessons it has already taught us. Some of them are game-changers, and some simply humbling reminders that we can’t always rely on the status quo as a guide for the future.

Surprise #1: Military aid might be the best way to promote democracy.

In the long effort to encourage more democratic governance overseas, advocates on both the right and left have invested nearly all their hopes in civil society. Some emphasize elections, while others prefer to focus on civic groups and a free press, but the most basic assumption of nearly all efforts to promote democracy is that stronger civilian institutions are the key to a freer, more liberal and Western-style political system. A common critique of American policy is that we undermine rights and freedom by dedicating most of our foreign aid budget to military assistance, putting power in the hands of generals at the expense of civilian institutions and ultimately, of liberty.

Then came the Egyptian revolt. With the population rising against a president increasingly caricatured as a pharaoh, America’s most important leverage came not from having provided aid to activists, or from its three-decade collaboration with Mubarak himself. What mattered most was its long and financially close relationship with the Egyptian military. Indeed, the entire top brass of Egypt was visiting the Pentagon for routine annual meetings when the revolution broke out. When communication channels between the White House and Mubarak went silent, Pentagon officials could continue their dialogue with Egyptian officers and help ensure the kind of transition America hoped for. Egypt’s revolutionaries believe that relationship is in no small part responsible for the Egyptian military’s restraint toward demonstrators.

In other Arab countries, the Pentagon provides a more direct defense umbrella, which paradoxically seems to give America less leverage. Such monarchies as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, which depend on the US military to protect against foreign threats, run domestic police states through repressive interior ministries that have few direct ties to America, and which we appear powerless to nudge.

The closer the Pentagon’s ties to a foreign military, it appears, the more leverage Washington has when there’s a power struggle. (A similar dynamic played out in Indonesia, when Suharto’s rule collapsed in 1998.) It turns out that we might be wiser to strengthen an established military than provide protection ourselves — and that despite the human rights questions involved, America might consider building deeper relations with police forces as well as militaries.

Surprise #2: Our allies don’t listen to us. (And they might not listen to other governments, either.)

Cynical as it may sound, influence-peddling forms the very foundation of foreign aid. Give money to a foreign government, the thinking goes, and at important points they’ll do your bidding. Frustratingly, it is the leaders in whom America invests the most heavily who have proved the least likely to make compromises on our behalf. Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Mubarak in Egypt — whose countries are the top two recipients of American largesse in the world — routinely ignore American requests in times of crisis with little consequence. Israel (along with another close American friend, Saudi Arabia), actively campaigned against America’s decision to let Mubarak fall. Mubarak ignored demands from Washington to refrain from killing unarmed demonstrators.

In the region currently experiencing tumult, America’s influence over the last decade seems inversely proportional to the amount of money and political capital expended. It was the blacklisted Libya that abandoned its WMD program, while Washington’s friends—from Jordan to Saudi Arabia, Morocco to Lebanon — have avoided even minimal reforms.

Perhaps one lesson is to think less emotionally about our “allies.” Even serious American policy analysts discuss Washington’s relationship with Israel or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan as if it were a friendship —a question of loyalty rather than national interest. America might have more room to maneuver if it treated the relationships more like business, and if even our closest allies knew that a deal could end as quickly as it began.

There’s another key corollary to this lesson: just as we might overestimate America’s leverage over allies, it’s likely that we overestimate that of our rivals. From afar it seems that Iran, Turkey, China, Russia, and other regional powers are extending their influence by building similar overseas alliances. But when the time comes, it’s unclear whether they could actually get any more of what they want than America does.

Surprise #3: Israel doesn’t hold US foreign policy hostage, and neither does Saudi Arabia.

There’s a significant strain of foreign policy thinking that holds that America subordinates its own interests in the Middle East to Israel’s needs. While it’s true that Israel’s views factor disproportionately in US policy making, Washington’s embrace of Arab revolutionaries in the past weeks, over the objections of a very anxious Israel, make clear that at crucial junctures Washington sets it own agenda.

Saudi Arabia is also widely seen to have leverage over the United States, but since the beginning of this year, when Tunisia erupted, the United States has largely ignored Saudi pressure to go slow and support the old order. In the end, the United States has (appropriately) told its regional allies that when push comes to shove, every nation will pursue its own interests above those of its friends.

America’s decisions in the past two months have made Tel Aviv and Riyadh uncomfortable in part because such departures have been rare in recent decades — it’s usually the Israelis and the Saudis testing America’s patience, and not vice versa.

Surprise #4: Islam isn’t the only political game in town. Neither is autocracy.

For decades, politics in much of the Islamic world have swung between two unpalatable alternatives: corrupt, static autocratic state power, or militant Islamist resistance. Now there’s another option: people power driven by national pride and a yearning for reform.

Moribund for nearly a half-century, this nationalist, secular spirit has returned to animate the recent drastic upheavals in the modern Middle East. Even more shockingly, many Islamists chose to join secular political revolutionaries, rather than struggle under the banner of Islamism. (Egyptians famously replaced the old slogan “Islam is the solution” with “Tunisia is the solution.”) It wasn’t a religious vision that proved the big threat to the autocrats: it was the dream of authentic Arab democracy.

The implications for global politics are stark. We can’t assume that popular reform movements will be able to effectively challenge authoritarian regimes everywhere. On the other hand, we can take heart that constructive, secular reform movements — whether in Burma, or China, or elsewhere — really can pose a threat to police states.

Surprise #5: The information revolution is real.

A fierce debate has been raging lately over the impact of the Internet on world politics. Techno-evangelists proclaim that Facebook and Twitter can unleash bold new democratic forces, while skeptics say the wired world favors oppressive surveillance states and creates only the illusion of empowered new communities.

It now seems clear that communication innovations can and do create parallel open societies within closed dictatorships. People living under oppressive regimes today have access not only to social networking sites and the Internet, but to satellite television and perhaps most importantly cellphones that connect them to friends and family in-country and abroad. This infrastructure can be monitored and censored by authorities, but not fully controlled in the manner of state media.

But what kind of societies are they creating? That is proving harder to understand. Scholars of dictatorship and revolution believe that public opinion tends to shift in sudden cascades, when large groups of people begin imitating one another and perhaps recalculate the cost of challenging a regime. It seems clear that access to free sources of information and communication can create this kind of broad shift in consensus within totalitarian societies. It may be impossible to predict these swings in sentiment, but once they occur we at least can begin to map the mysterious mechanisms that brought them about.

Thanassis Cambanis is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at He is an Ideas columnist.