Home/Daniel Larison/What Is Happening to the “Arab Spring”?

What Is Happening to the “Arab Spring”?

Fouad Ajami has a new op-ed expanding on the two recurring, tedious memes about Obama administration foreign policy: Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism, and Obama has “failed” to support the Arab Spring with sufficient enthusiasm (via Duss). Ajami and Ambassador Charles Hill previewed this silly argument in a conversation with National Review‘s Peter Robinson last week. According to Hill:

It’s going to hell. Because primarily, frankly, the United States has stepped back from its support of freedom and democracy…

It is debatable that the U.S. has “stepped back” at all. Arguably, the U.S. has been too much of the wrong thing (i.e., bombing Libya), but the idea that it has “stepped back” is misleading. What is clearly untenable is the claim that this is the primary reason why the so-called Arab Spring is “going to hell.” A much more plausible explanation is that the so-called Arab Spring is faltering because of the inherent weaknesses of the protest movements, the staying power of entrenched interests, and the deterioration of some of the protests into violent conflicts.

Ajami weaves Hill’s nonsense together with the more well-established lie that Republicans have circulated for the last two years:

Asked whether he believed in the school of “American exceptionalism” that sees America as “uniquely qualified to lead the world,” he gave a lawyerly answer: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” We were not always going to be right, he added, “all have to compromise and that includes us.”

Events would supply evidence of Mr. Obama’s break with the history of America’s faith in liberty in distant lands. The herald of change was at heart a man who doubted the ability of political freedom to skip borders, and to bring about the emancipation of peoples subjected to brutal tyrannies. The great upheaval in Iran in the first summer of his presidency exposed the flaws and contradictions of the Obama diplomacy.

A people had risen against their tyrannical rulers, but Mr. Obama was out to conciliate these rulers. America’s support wouldn’t have altered that cruel balance of force on the ground [bold mine-DL]. But henceforth it would become part of the narrative of liberty that when Iran rose in rebellion, the pre-eminent liberal power sat out a seminal moment in Middle Eastern history.

Ajami only quoted the first part of Obama’s answer, since the rest of the answer would demonstrate how dishonest Ajami is being in his representation. Obama went on to say this:

I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.

As for Iran, the protests in 2009 and afterwards weren’t a rebellion aimed at toppling the regime, and the protest movement didn’t want U.S. help. It is unusual that Ajami acknowledges that U.S. support would have made no difference. Most critics of Obama’s response to the Iranian protests in 2009 promote the fiction that the Iranian government might have been overthrown or seriously destabilized if only the administration had thrown its rhetorical support fully behind the protesters, but Ajami has conceded that this was not going to happen. So there isn’t much reason to credit the idea that the fortunes of the so-called Arab Spring depend on the extent of U.S. backing for protest movements.

If it is possible, the rest of Ajami’s argument is even harder to take seriously. Duss put it well when he said:

It should be obvious that the idea that Ambassador Ford’s warm reception by embattled Syrian protesters disproves American unpopularity in the region is ridiculous on its face. Opinions may vary on how, exactly, the U.S. should proceed with regard to the Arab uprisings, but that there is widespread hostility among Arabs to American intervention and interference in the Middle East is simply not a matter of serious dispute.

Hawkish democratists such as Ajami inevitably put too much faith in the importance of U.S. signals of support for dissidents and protest movements, because they cannot believe that U.S. support could be seen as anything other than desirable and welcome. The reality that a vast majority of Syrians views the U.S. unfavorably must be inconceivable. That the vast majority of Syrians views the U.S. this way because of many of the policies that Ajami and his fellow hawks endorse is even harder to accept, and so they are reduced to concocting fantasies about a pessimistic Obama who rejects American exceptionalism as a catch-all explanation.

P.S. We might wish for a pessimistic Obama who appreciates the limits of American power, but there has so far been no sign of him.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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