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Kissinger: It’s Complicated with the Arab Spring

Regular Via Meadia readers know that the Arab Spring has been a lot messier than the starry-eyed press portrayals that accompanied its advent. From repression of minorities, to marginalization of liberals, to disempowerment of women, to an alarming rise in the political power of Islamists and anti-semites, the revolutions sweeping the Arab world have not proved to be the promised portent of freedom, democracy and world peace. In most cases, the jury is still out–as Henry Kissinger reminds us in The Washington Post:

The Arab Spring is widely presented as a regional, youth-led revolution on behalf of liberal democratic principles. Yet Libya is not ruled by such forces; it hardly continues as a state. Neither is Egypt, whose electoral majority (possibly permanent) is overwhelmingly Islamist. Nor do democrats seem to predominate in the Syrian opposition. The Arab League consensus on Syria is not shaped by countries previously distinguished by the practice or advocacy of democracy. Rather, it largely reflects the millennium-old conflict between Shiite and Sunni and an attempt to reclaim Sunni dominance from a Shiite minority. It is also precisely why so many minority groups, such as Druzes, Kurds and Christians, are uneasy about regime change in Syria.

The confluence of many disparate grievances avowing general slogans is not yet a democratic outcome… The more fragmented a society grows, the greater the temptation to foster unity by appeals to a vision of a merged nationalism and Islamism targeting Western values.

The people of each of the countries involved are slowly figuring out how to chart their new course, and we in the US will not always be enamored of their choices. In the end, as Kissinger rightly notes, “The revolution will have to be judged by its destination, not its origin; its outcome, not its proclamations.” That is a sobering but necessary insight for any future US foreign policy in the region.

It would be a lovely world if America’s foreign policy problems were dissolved in waves of good feeling as democrats everywhere threw off their chains and embraced American ideas and values as their own. For the time being, however, we probably should make foreign policy on the assumption that this won’t be happening anytime soon.

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  • Anthony

    Foreign policy outcomes in Middle East or else where without recognition of “real sentiment” of influential actors as Secretary Kissinger intimates will continue to be sobering to United States interests.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    When your culture is as backward as the Islamic Cultures, any change is a step forward.

  • Sometimes I feel sorry for Israel for being plunked down in the middle of that world.

  • Some very good and timely reminders of the REAL social forces that had, for 3 decades, been simmering beneath a very thin layer of pro-American (liberalized? marketized? Westernized? – frankly I’m at a loss for adjectives) economic and foreign policy. In Egypt anyway; arguably also in Pakistan. 30 years of intensive Salafication of Islamic life, and in particular of its public dimension. And now we come to wondering why, at the end of it all, the great masses of people in both countries distrust us at best, and hate us at worst. And why Wahhabi/Salafi ideologies and agendas in turn have spread like wildfire throughout the Sunni Muslim world.

    There may be a few of us able to discern the outlines of a post-Blue Middle East, or even of a post-Blue greater Eurasia. But very few, if any, of us are going to be able to predict the moral upshot (or fallout?) of either one, precisely because these are the results most dependent on the moral and cultural choices we all make right now. And I do mean all of us – including us “powerless” or “declining” Americans. These choices will be in turn – inevitably – shaped, colored, textured by the way we Yanks choose to look at the past 80 years in both our own country and the world. A period whose beginning coincides – quite appropriately, IMO – with the onset of US commercial oil relations with Saudi Arabia.

    Right now it’s great fun in some quarters to ridicule, stereotype, even demonize the assumptions and agendas that underlay the politics of the FIRST 40 of those 80 years. But right now we’re also in a tunnel with many turnings, and it’s not clear from which end of any of them the light is glimmering most brightly. Or closest at hand. Now personally I doubt we’re going to see much of any clear, unmistakable light, until we start looking more critically at the assumptions and agendas peculiar to the SECOND 40 of those 80 years. Critically – in other words, in the most unflinching, unromantic, un-utopian and (dare I even suggest it?) unglobalist way we can. That may mean a little more criticism of both our (Saudi- and Paki-fueled) demonization of Russia, and of our (Saudi- and Paki-accommodating) romanticization of Islam. Of which habits at least the latter carried well into the 1990s, if not the 2000s (Graham Fuller anyone? Cf.

    Above all, I think we need to examine more critically the whole Trilateralist project, as Professor Mead has so ably sketched and questioned its premises (, since c. 1970. Personally, again, I have little doubt these learned and influential gentlemen THOUGHT they were minimizing the risk of symmetrical warfare among great and medium-size powers, by maximizing the depth of global economic interdependence among both big and small, diversified and resource-dependent economies. As well as upgrading considerably the amount of US leverage needed to shape events and policies throughout the Euro-Asian landmass. What they actually succeeded in doing to Eurasia may only be clear a decade or two from now. And even then, I suspect, only if present intellectual trends (prejudices?) continue. Assuming they do, I fear these elite gentlemen will be remembered as having irreversibly secured the preponderant leverage of Germany within Europe, of Saudi Arabia within the Middle East, and of China within East and South Asia. With what degree of remaining Eurasian advantage, leverage or even input from the US – much less other “Oceanians” – I can only leave my readers to imagine.

    I hope I’m being alarmist.

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