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The Arab Spring: Implications for US Policy and Interests

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The political uprisings in the Arab world during 2011 undeniably transformed the Middle East and the North of Africa (MENA) (Dalacoura, 2012: 63). An explosive mix of deepening political grievances and a series of socio-economic problems, such as: high unemployment, especially among youth, corruption, internal regional and social inequalities, and the deterioration of economic conditions were the common causal factor behind all the uprisings (ibid: 66-67).

Internationally, these uprisings have had profound consequences for the pursuit of long-standing United States (U.

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S.) policy goals and interests in the region, with regard to: regional security, energy supplies, military access, bilateral trade and investment, counter-proliferation, counterterrorism, and the promotion of human rights (Arieff et al. 2012). The profound changes in the region may alter the framework in which these goals are pursued and challenge the basic assumptions that have long guided U.S. policies in the international system (Keiswetter, 2012: 1). Regionally, the contagious nature of the uprisings, which started in Tunisia in December 2010 and later on spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain or Syria (Dalacoura, 2012: 63), led either to the overthrow of dictators or to internal fracturing (ibid: 66). While Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia underwent troubled transitions away from authoritarian regimes, in Jordan, Morocco, and Oman, modest protests produced tentative steps toward reform (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 41).

In view of such differences, policy makers in the U.S. have adopted case-by-case (and highly unequal) approaches, which range from tacit support to outright military intervention (Shore, 2012). For instance, in countries such as Yemen or Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has turned a blind eye to governmental corruption and human rights violations. In non-allied countries, however, like Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, the U.S. has condemned dictatorial practices, issued sanctions and even wars in the name of democracy (Shore, 2012).

It could be argued, thus, that the U.S.’ response to the events of the Arab Spring has been cautious and contradictory at the same time. On the one hand, Obama’s Administration has been criticized for its apparent lack of a coherent approach, and its willingness to talk of democratic ideals while protecting national interests. On the other hand, supporters have praised both the pragmatism and principle as a smart approach to international affairs (Kitchen, 2012: 53).

Within this framework, this paper will assess the impact of the so-called Arab Spring on the US objectives regarding political and economic reform prospects for the Middle East peace negotiations, energy issues, and security concerns. The main hypothesis of this paper is, thus, that as part of the current international system, where the concept of security acquires multiple and more complex dimensions that go beyond military terms, the U.S.’ policies in the Middle East are extremely “shy” and cautious. This paper argues that this obvious “cautiousness” and what many call a contradictory foreign policy of the U.S. is the result of a series of economic interests to maintain oil-flows and global security concerns that cannot be forgotten in the political international arena. The U.S., thus, faces the difficult position of supporting its ideal of democracy and values on the one hand, and its long-term interests and security concerns on the other.

This essay, thus, is divided in two main sections. On the one hand, a brief theoretical background on International Relations (IR) theories will serve as a basis to understand the motivations and approaches of the U.S. foreign policy in the region. On the other hand, an analysis of the old and current U.S.’ interests and policies in the Middle East will reveal the contradictions and concerns of the current U.S. Administration and the possible outcomes.

Foreign Policy through the Lenses of International Relations

In order to understand the U.S. foreign policy in the international system and more specifically in the Middle East, with its wide encompassing spectrum of foreign policy decisions, this paper shall approach the issue from the theoretical framework of International Relations (IR) (Vale, 2012: 6).

The International System

The international system, driven mainly by states, power, and anarchy, has had a profound effect on the United States since its inception (Vale, 2012: 8).

It could be said that there are three main different forms of the international system: the multipolar, the bipolar and the unipolar system. Tin the multipolar system, there are several great powers influencing international politics and competing for dominance (Vale, 2012: 10). Bipolar systems, could be described as a battle of titans of sorts –as it happened between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War-, namely, where two major powers oppose one another for dominance in the system. Finally, the unipolar system, is when there is one superpower and no other major powers in the international system –such as the Roman Empire or the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union until arguably the beginning of the 2003 War in Iraq (ibid: 10).

It can be said that contemporary international politics does not fit any of these models. Nevertheless, during the last decade a new structure seems to have appeared: the uni-multipolar system. This system has a single world superpower but with several major powers around it in the system which constrains the superpower so that it cannot act as if it were within a unipolar international system (Vale, 2012: 10). Some authors, like Huntington, argue that this scenario is closest one to the current international system; where the settlement of international issues requires action by the single superpower, the United States, but always with some combination of other major states (1999).

Indeed, 21st century scholarship within IR moves away from the primacy of the state and second order analyses towards the relationship that individuals have within the international system. This intellectual movement reflects experiences in international history that diminish the role of the state and reinforce the humans and humanity into the heart of a discipline whose origins lie in the motivation for action. This change is a 21st century phenomenon with experiential roots in the terror attacks of 9/11, the Global Financial Crisis, the Arab Spring uprisings, and the rise of hacktivism. These global, historical experiences are fostering the rise of cutting-edge and revolutionary IR theory that embraces complexity and multidisciplinarity (Oprisko, 2013). In other words, “the trend within IR theory is mirroring the shared experiences of the 21st century: renewed emphasis on terror, revolutions against inequality and social-immobility, and the success of hacktivism” (ibid.).

According to the Neoclassical Realism theory of IR, the international system determines how states act and behave towards each other because the international system is anarchic and states compete for status quo power (Rose, 1998:146). In other words, “the scope and ambition of a country’s foreign policy is driven first and fore most by its place in the international system and specifically by its relative material power capabilities” (ibid.). The 21st Century, however, is marked not with the political maneuvering of great states with competing visions, but with the elite few accumulating power, on the one hand, and the general public, rejecting such elitism, on the other. The first movement toward a revision of the status quo interpretation of the international system was the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The reaction against this “new kind of enemy” and the “war on terrorism” exemplified “an important reengagement with the social contract; the state, the sovereign authority of the people, was no longer the only independent actor in the international political arena” (Oprisko, 2013).

Closely related to the emergence of the above-mentioned “new enemies” there is the change of the security concept during the last decades. Authors such as Ole Waever or Barry Buzan were some of the most predominant constructivists who define security after the Cold War, which included non-traditional elements such as human rights (Layman, 2012: 4).

The place of human rights in security is widely debated. Although before the Cold War security was traditionally defined in military terms, since Realism was the main school of thought, Constructivism argued for different perspectives, permitting the most thorough definition for security and national interests due to its ability to allow for change in the perception of what defines threats (Layman, 2012: 6).

Indeed, as Barry Buzan argues, social norms and cultural phenomena dictate what is a security threat (Layman, 2012: 6). Waever and Buzan define security “as perceived threats to anything such as the traditional view of a state to non-traditional views of threats” (Buzan et al. 1998: 7) which include society, the environment, and economic laws. Threats are, thus, divided into different sectors: the military sector, concerned with the armed capabilities of a state; the political sector, concerned with the stability of a state; the economic sector, concerned with the accessibility to resources and the market; the societal sector, concerned with the security and sustainability of culture; and the environmental sector, concerned with the security of resources (Layman, 2012: 8).

Thus, the Financial Crisis in 2008 and the subsequent austerity endured by common citizens hit a breaking-point with the suicide of Tarek al-Tayeb Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia in 2010. “Dignity-filled rage erupted across four continents as the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and North Africa and Occupy protests engulfed Europe and North America” (Oprisko, 2013). As we progress from the competing idealist traditions of the 20th Century, the emphasis from structural impositions are waning (ibid.). “Human social agents and social structures are mutually constitutive, and social change can proceed causally in both directions [simultaneously] from agents to structures and from structures to agents” (Bennett, 2003: 489)

U.S. Contradictory Approach to the Middle East

Bearing in mind the previously described theoretical framework, the core American national interests at stake in the Middle East over decades should not come as a surprise; namely: protecting the U.S. homeland from the threats international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction; ensuring the free flow of oil, vital to the U.S., regional, and global economies; ensuring the security of Israel (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 48); discouraging interstate conflict that can threaten allies and other interests; ensuring transit and access to facilities to support U.S. military operations; countering terrorism; and stemming the proliferation of weapons (Arieff et al., 2012: 1).

Over the years, these interests have resulted a series of U.S. policy objectives – advancing Arab—Israeli peace, protecting key oil-producing states, limiting the spread of regional conflicts, or ensuring U.S. military access and freedom of action within the region. Consequently, to ensure these objectives, the US has usually behaved as a status quo power in the Middle East, prioritizing the regional balance of power and a certain order over backing political change (ibid).

During the past 50 years, “the U.S. has played two dueling roles in the Middle East, that of a promoter of liberal ideals, willing to wage war to build democracy, and that of a supporter of dictators who adhere to American interests and ensure stability” (Shore, 2012). It can be said, thus, that the U.S. reaction to the Arab Spring uprisings has exemplified these two opposing policies. While the US was quick to defend the peaceful protesters in Egypt and oppressed citizens of Libya, taking any necessary measures to prevent gross humanitarian crimes, the U.S. has issued little more than formal warnings to the fact that Syrians are being killed under Assad’s rule, Bahrain is cracking down on protestors, and Yemen is moving towards disaster (ibid.).

However, the U.S.’ commitment to stability and the status quo partly sustained the regional stagnant economic, political and social systems, leading to the rise of Islamism and Salafism. After failing to overthrow the authoritarian regimes of the region, from the 1990s, terrorism came to focus. Thus, and particularly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the hegemonic interest in the Saudi monarchy -as the largest oil producer- came into conflict with American national security priorities (Kitchen, 2012: 54).

However, after 9-11 the U.S.’ determined that the region’s authoritarian regimes were actually the root of the terrorist problem, prescribing, thus, democracy as the solution to the Middle East’s socio-economic issues (Kitchen, 2012: 54). Thus, in 2003, the Bush Administration launched the ‘Freedom Agenda’, asserting that stability could not be purchased at the expense of liberty, emphasizing that promoting democracy was not just about promoting American values, but was in the American national interest, since oppressive regimes created the conditions for radicalization and terrorism (ibid).

However, the “Freedom Agenda” as part of the wider “war on terror” had obvious contradictions. While on the one hand the US was seeking short-term counter-terrorism measures through the security apparatus of allied authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, it was prioritizing the long-term emancipation of Middle Eastern societies to address the deeper roots of marginalization and underdevelopment (Kitchen, 2012: 54).

It could be argued that these contradictions were the background to the US’ response to the events of the Arab Spring (Kitchen, 2012: 55).

The Obama Administration and the U.S. Strategy In The Middle East

Even though the uprisings and political change in the Arab world have challenged many of the assumptions that have long informed U.S. policy makers, it can be said that many long-standing U.S. goals in the region endure (Arieff et al. 2012: 1).

The Bush administration’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, overturned this preference for the status quo. The invasion of Iraq created a power vacuum in the Gulf that Iran tried to fill. The war exhausted the U.S. military, spread sectarianism and refugees throughout the region, and unleashed a civil war. The ‘‘Global War on Terror’’ also brought the US into far more collaboration with Arab security services (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 48). The Bush administration failed to match its rhetoric on democracy with meaningful support for democratic change (ibid).

The legacies of Obama’s predecessor’s war on terror had to be addressed, in order improve the US’ credibility and standing in the MENA region (Kitchen, 2012: 55). Thus, during President Obama’s first term, the U.S. announced its desire for a fresh start with the Muslim world, which started by withdrawing the U.S. military presence from Iraq and scaling down the worst excesses of the War on Terror, while maintaining a lower-key counter-terrorism campaign. While the administration has not managed to resolve the Iranian nuclear challenge, it has assembled an international consensus and rigorous sanctions to pressure Tehran. Obama also made the peace process a top priority, although his efforts proved no more successful than his predecessor’s. Then the Arab Spring erupted, reshaping the regional agenda (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 49).

It has been said that the events of the Arab Spring took Obama’s Administration by surprise and underprepared (Kitchen, 2012: 55). While the political reform was in the overarching interests of the US, and was both sustainable in the region and compatible with America’s other priorities (ibid: 56), the White House, however, was worried that over-enthusiastic American support could undermine the revolutions’ authenticity. Thus, Obama’s rhetoric in public was cautious, as he sought to balance competing interests in the context of uncertain events, while at the same time the administration used its long-developed relationships in the region to try to shape developments (ibid.).

Egypt constitutes a clear example of this delicate situation. While the clear win for the Muslim Brotherhood did not fall within the U.S. ‘s “expectations” and interests in that country in particular, the following military coup, although morally questionable (at least in the 21st Century), has hardly been challenged. Indeed, having a military regime that wants to maintain the peace with Israel, is probably the most comfortable option for the U.S. in a region where nothing is settled so far.

Despite the massive changes across the Middle East ever since 2011, there are still several rapidly evolving dynamics that any viable U.S. strategy must account for. First, the so-called Arab Spring has altered key regional dynamics, regime perceptions of internal and external threats, and the role of different political actors, whereby a mobilized public opinion has an unprecedented role in regional politics. Second, Iranian nuclear and hegemonic ambitions continue to worry its neighbors, Israel, and the West. Third, while al-Qaeda has suffered organizational and political setbacks, its affiliates have adapted in disconcerting ways. Fourth, the Israeli—Palestinian issue continues to be a core element of regional instability and a source of potential violence (Khal and Lynch, 2013: 41).

The Arab Spring and the US Interests; Challenges and Opportunites

In response to the Arab uprisings, the Obama Administration has taken a reactive approach, trying to adjust U.S. regional policies while coping with multiple ongoing crises (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 49).

In 2011, when addressing the impact of the Arab Spring on U.S. interests, Obama admitted the unsustainability of the status quo and advocated relations based not only on mutual interests and mutual respect but also on a set of principles, including: opposition to the use of violence and repression; support for “a set of universal rights; and support for political and economic reform in the MENA region that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region (Keiswetter, 2012: 4).

However, contradictions were again inevitable. Although the administration recognized the importance of seeking to change in Egypt and across the region, it was quickly pulled up at the prospect of confrontation with Saudi Arabia over a possible political transformation in Bahrain (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 49). Similarly, while the administration recognized the need for democratic change in the region, allowing, thus, the democratic process to develop even when elections produced Islamist victors (as it happened in Tunisia and Egypt), it always resisted calls for a more costly and risky intervention in Syria (ibid.).

Despite the Administration embracing democratic reform and public engagement, a workable strategy to implement these principles has yet to be put in place (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 49). Indeed, even when sensible policies were pursued, they have frequently not been communicated strategically, which transmits uncertainty about American priorities in the region.

Given the current environment in the Middle East, any attempt to draw a more coherent approach must consider five strategic dilemmas:

First, maintaining the free flow of oil may require robust security ties with Gulf regimes, which would increase the U.S. dependence on the least democratic and iron-fist ruling governments in the region. This dependence would undermine the U.S. soft power with the Arab public and may contribute to the emerging Sunni—Shiite Cold War in the region (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 51). The Saudis, among others, have been able to compensate for the disruptions caused by the Libyan events. Thus, a strong US commitment to the security of the Gulf will be vital to oil market stability in the future (Keiswetter, 2012: 2). It could be said, thus, that the main challenge for the U.S. here will be being able to maintain traditional allies while supporting the democratic values it has been forever defending.

Second, while a U.S. presence throughout the region and close cooperation with partner governments’ security services may be necessary for combating terrorism, this American military presence in the Arab world will continue to provide extremists with propaganda and recruitment opportunities (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 51). The Arab Spring uprisings, based on universal values and rooted in the demand for jobs, justice and dignity, highlight the bankruptcy of Islamic extremism sanctioning violence as the only way to obtain societal changes (Keiswetter, 2012: 2). While none of the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East was led by Islamist movements or had an Islamist agenda (Dalacoura, 2012: 74), Islamist movements have proved to benefit from them politically (ibid: 75). Indeed, the upheavals provide opportunities, as it happened in Yemen, for Islamic extremists to gain ground (Keiswetter, 2012: 2). As exemplified before with the case of Egypt, the U.S. faces the challenge of having Islamist regimes freely elected in stagnant countries, whereby radical movements are like to mushroom, or take an active role in the future political direction of the region, which will probably lead to international criticism.

Third, tilting toward Israel in the Palestinian conflict may be essential to reassure Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 50). However, Israeli leaders argue that the wave of unrest in the Arab world is endangering Israel’s security by potentially replacing relatively friendly neighboring governments with Islamist and potentially hostile governments (Arieff et al., 2012: 3).

Fourth, a forceful military U.S. intervention in Syria could hasten the demise of Assad’s regime, reduce humanitarian suffering, demonstrate leadership, and weaken Iran. However, such intervention would also require a major investment of military resources, returning the US to the protracted commitment that it just escaped in Iraq, and consuming resources necessary to deal with Iran and other global contingencies (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 50).

Fifth, the unclear prospects for democratic change. The consensus in Washington from the 1990s has been that democratization will lead to the emergence in the Middle East of regimes which are supportive of the U.S. (Dalacoura, 2012: 78). However, the Middle East has been described as immune to the waves of democratization which have transformed other regions. Moreover, focusing attention on democracy in the Middle East has been criticized for reflecting the priorities of western and in particular American political science (ibid: 71). On political and economic reform, the nature of the democratic political systems in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya remains to be seen (Keiswetter, 2012: 2). Indeed, one of the U.S.’ greatest fears is credibility in what “new” Middle East will emerge from the current turmoil (Shore, 2012).

Sixth, it can be said that Iran’s nuclear and regional hegemonic aspirations are one of the major ‘‘pre-Arab Spring’’ concerns for the US. It is feared that “a nuclear-armed Tehran would increase its support for militancy, terrorism, and subversion in the Levant, Iraq, and the Gulf, which would further destabilize the region” (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 43). Thus, Iran’s nuclear program could have a decisive impact on regional politics (ibid.).

Seventh, the Arab Spring has shown the limits of American power in the Middle East. Both the U.S. and Europe are missing the necessary financial resources to shape prospects in the Arab Spring countries. Thus, investment will also have to come from countries, such as the Gulf states or China, who do not share to the same extent the Western interest in reinforcement of democratic values (Keiswetter, 2012: 2).

In any case, the ultimate strategic effects of these changes are not clear. “Many fear the emerging power of Islamist movements, elected or violent” (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 43). The anti-American protests in September 2012 in response to a YouTube video, and the uneven governmental responses to the crisis were a clear sign of the underlying turbulence which might complicate future U.S. policy in the region. In other words, the emerging regional order combines a complex array of contradictory new trends (ibid.).

In light of the Arab uprisings, it is highly important to prioritize political and economic reform. However, pushing reform complicates ties with key autocratic partners, may cause a nationalist backlash in some democratizing states, and may also risk empowering Islamist groups less inclined to cooperate with the US (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 51).


A major question that remains to be answered is whether the uprisings will eventually lead to the democratization of the Middle East and the end of the authoritarianism that has undermined its political life (Dalacoura, 2012: 79).

On the one hand, the most immediate prospects for the Arab Spring are: continuing instabilities as states try to solve their political and economic situations, as well as their relations with other countries; rising influence for those countries with the necessary resources to back up their policies; and the continuation of a visible but attenuated role for the U.S. (Keiswetter, 2012: 2). The long-term prospect, on the other hand, includes also the possibility Middle East with a much higher degree of freedom, more democratic, prosperous and accountable, less abusive of human rights, and thus a net positive outcome for U.S. interests (ibid.). With the dramatic rise in popular activism empowered by the new technologies, it is clear that long-term stability in the region will require meaningful steps by all governments towards a genuine political and economic reform (Kahl and Lynch, 2013: 42). The U.S. has had to tread a fine line between support for its values and long-term interests – represented by political reform in the region-, and the protection of its core regional interests (Kitchen, 2012: 57).

If the U.S. is serious about turning off its Middle detour, then in the Middle East and North Africa the US needs to prioritize long-term trends over short-term concerns, which may not always mean pushing for revolutionary change in support of democratic values in the region (Kitchen, 2012: 58).

The recent revolutions pose an opportunity to establish a new status quo in the Middle East, free an oppressed and jobless youth, increase economic standing and trade, and give democracy a chance to flourish. While the U.S. remains limited in the impact it can have in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it has an opportunity to change its negative standing in the Middle East; an opportunity to change a stoic, ineffective foreign policy (Shore, 2012).


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