international analysis and commentary

The demise of the Arab Spring: one of five global risks awaiting the White House


Given the surprising – but undoubtedly politically beneficial – withdrawal of Ambassador Susan Rice from consideration for the position as Secretary of State, a new, more moderate, Obama foreign policy team seems to be taking shape. Senator John Kerry, the all but putative nominee to be the country’s top diplomat, is well versed on foreign policy issues, well liked by Senate colleagues of both parties (where he chairs the Foreign Relations Committee), and, if he is unlikely to prove to be the reincarnation of talented and creative Dean Acheson, is also unlikely to scare the horses, either. His confirmation hearing should be a breeze, sparing the administration an endless (and damaging) further discussion of what went wrong in Benghazi.

Even more to the good, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel looks like the front-runner to be the new Secretary of Defense. Hagel made his name in the Senate as the realist scourge of the neoconservatives, early and loudly proclaiming his opposition to the Iraq war, a position that led him to finding common cause with Barack Obama. As close to being the direct heir to Robert Gates as is possible, Hagel is the last Roman, the final exemplar of the Bush I/Eisenhower worldview, and would be an inspired choice. Politically, his elevation would play directly into exacerbating present Republican divisions over foreign policy, with many realists in the GOP finding themselves in line to broadly support administration policy, to the fury of the neoconservative remnant.

But if the quite good news is that the newly assembled foreign policy decision-makers seem likely to be more moderate, more bipartisan and more realist than appeared likely, the bad news remains the same: the world this more flexible foreign policy team is likely to confront will prove confounding, bewildering, and will require that hardest of talents to attain; a genuine change in the general American mindset as we drift ever more decisively into the age of multipolarity, leaving definitively behind us the period of American dominance.

So here, in short form, is the opening bullet-like briefing Secretaries Kerry and Hagel are likely to receive, immediately upon their swearing-in ceremonies coming to an end. Suffice it to say, this is one of the key issues (five, in my assessment) that will dominate the coming four years, whose management will do much to determine nothing less than the nature of the new age we find ourselves in.

Number 1: The Arab Spring The naĂŻve days of CNN commentators breathlessly swooning before Egyptian college kids blogging are blessedly at an end, as a more realistic, darker assessment of what is going on in the Arab world is at last permeating the skulls of those who think every revolution will effortlessly replicate the American version.

Instead, an iron law of history is being painfully rediscovered: the most organized group always comes to dominate revolutions. While the Jacobins in France, the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Maoists in China, and the Communists in Vietnam never had majority support, their superior discipline laid the groundwork for their triumph, detrimental as it was in each case to humanity at large.

In the central case of Egypt – still potentially the most important country in the Arab world – it should come as little surprise that a nascent alliance between the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood increasingly holds sway, rather than power settling on the fractious, naĂŻve, and unfocused democrats and their student supporters in the streets. For it is the army and the Brothers that have the discipline and the coherence to dominate the other, (to Western eyes) more appealing alternatives.

An outcome to the Egyptian revolution, wherein the Muslim Brotherhood and the army come out on top, will create an immediate test for the newly formed White House foreign policy team. President Obama staked significant political capital on supporting the street over long-time American ally (and tyrant) Hosni Mubarak. He ignored the dirty little geostrategic secret at the heart of the Arab Spring: the more pro-democratic an immediate outcome, the less pro-American and pro-Western that result is likely to be.

If the end game of the Egyptian revolt (as appears increasingly likely) is that the far less pro-American Muslim Brotherhood has cemented a position of dominance, lazy Wilsonian thinking that the Arab Spring is straightforwardly a moment of great hope and opportunity for the US will be exposed as little more than wishful thinking.

But the hangover only begins here. As the denouement to the Israeli-Hamas war made perfectly clear, President Morsi of Egypt may be far more difficult to work with than American lackey Hosni Mubarak, but his heft in the region – as the key broker of the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire – is unquestionable.

To his credit, President Obama himself seemed to sense this coming Copernican change for American diplomacy, where it is no longer possible for the United States to cease to talk to leaders with whom it disagrees. When asked if Morsi were an ally or an enemy, the President responded truthfully, “Neither.” This shades of gray approach (in contrast to the black and white Cold War) perfectly encapsulates where American foreign policy thinking must head about the vast majority of countries the US must deal with in an era of few permanent allies and few permanent enemies. To put it mildly, this will require – more than anything else – American foreign policy analysts and practitioners to think entirely out of the ever-so-comfortable Cold War foreign policy box of clear allies and enemies, of good and evil.

Beyond the surprising and challenging morphing of the Arab Spring into something rather different, four other major challenges confront the second Obama term:  accommodating and managing the rise of China and the Indian Ocean Rim; the ever-festering eurozone crisis, the coming Iran showdown, and America’s own profound (and vastly underreported as a foreign policy issue) fiscal and debt problems.

The great problem for the new, rather supple, Obama foreign policy team is that they must deal with each of these issues on the fly, while at the same time connecting the dots, never losing sight of the broader multipolar world that is coming into being, whether they like it or not. On second thought, a reincarnation of Dean Acheson, famously successfully “present at the creation” at the last such hinge point in history after World War II, is precisely what is called for.