Review of Foreign Policy Association’s ‘After the Arab Spring’

I had the opportunity to watch, After the Arab Spring, a joint project between Foreign Policy Association and PBS, before it airs next month on PBS stations. It’s available on YouTube if you have some free time.

After the Arab Spring begins with a perfunctory introduction of how the status quo in Arab and North African states was “upended” by the largely peaceful Arab Spring, which has stagnated among promises of elections and reforms. A discussion hosted by Ralph Begleiter of the University of Delaware included two analysts, Shadi Hamid, Director of Research of the Brookings Doha Center, and Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American journalist. The discussion focused on what impact the Arab Spring will have on American foreign policy.

While largely sympathetic to the Obama administration, Shadi’s and Mona’s criticisms were not particularly illuminating in that they argued that the U.S. was slow to respond to the Arab Spring as it unfolded in North Africa and the Middle East, choosing instead to support the status quo.

In discussing the impact on U.S. foreign policy, Shadi Hamid’s argument is that the U.S. will not be able to proactively support democracy in the region, essentially failing to “get ahead of the curve” and “proactively support democracy in the region.” Instead, the U.S. will choose to seek stability over democracy, which could have a destabilizing affect.

The discussion then segwayed into what the region has experienced for the past 30 plus years. With this, After the Arab Spring included views and analysis which were pre-recorded with regional experts including, Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami and Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs.

After the Arab Spring also includes analysis by former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, Stephen Hadley, former National Security Advisor in the administration of George W. Bush and Gen. Michael Hayden, former Director of both the NSA and CIA in the George W. Bush administration.

My take away from watching this nearly twenty-seven minute episode is that criticisms of how the Arab Awakening was dealt with by the Obama administration tended to be more strident in the analysis of Hamid and Eltahawy, choosing to place the onus on the failure or success of the movement largely in the hands of Obama and his administration. The more experienced hands in U.S. foreign policy, having dealt with these issues for decades, acknowledged that the U.S. has a role to play in whether the Arab Spring proves successful, but ultimately, should it fail, it will be because Arabs and North Africans failed to pressure their governments.

Where Mona Eltahawy’s analysis ultimately proves to be incorrect is that she emphasizes that the U.S. finally realizes that it placed for too long an emphasis on stability versus “human rights violations” committed by regional dictators. Ultimately, she stresses that the U.S. is “scrambling” to catch up in the region. In reality, the U.S. and its allies have considered human rights and democracy promotion to be important, but due to fact that the U.S. lacked the necessary influence, the U.S. chose to pursue realist calculations over democracy promotion and the pursuit of encouraging fair and just Arab and North African regimes.

After the Arab Spring did provide some analysis that could prove useful for those not familiar with the Arab Spring and how the movement began when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire in mid-December 2010, providing the catalyst for Tunisia’s upheavals which led to the toppling of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Col. Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.