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On Point

Arab Spring and the Paradox of American Leadership


by Austin Bay
October 11, 2011

Militant Islamist extremists murdering Egyptian Christians offer one criminal version of change amidst the Arab Spring 2011 revolutions. Islamist extremists, many linked to Iran or al-Qaida, are using assassination and violence to intimidate and kill moderates committed to peaceful, democratic modernization.

The Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran certainly offers a model for changing culturally Islamic societies. After three decades, the Iranian regime is a clerical dystopia. Moreover, the Islamist revolutionaries established a new tyranny. Al-Qaida's Muslim future lies in recovering lost glory. Restoring the caliphate, this time on a global basis, is part of al-Qaida's model.

Al-Qaida also preaches the virtues of violence in societies scarred by endemic violence. Issues of cultural and political identity, as well as unique local conditions, move and influence 2011's revolutions, but pragmatic demands for jobs, education and individual rights -- demands for the fruits of modernity -- are also driving energies.

In a world where economies inter-penetrate, in a world connected by digital media, where people know less violent, more prosperous options exist, these pragmatic demands may ultimately be the decisive demands. Al-Qaida has little to say about jobs, education, and how to expand and sustain a society's material well-being.

But how can the pragmatic modernizers defeat the murderers? So far, Tunisia's military has provided reasonable security. NATO may wield enough influence in Libya to thwart the extremists. The Egyptian military's weak responses to the provocative attack on the Israeli embassy and this past week's sectarian violence were appallingly inadequate.

Turkey has tried to encourage Egypt's ruling military council and its emerging political parties. Last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Arab Spring Egyptians to establish a secular state and encouraged revolutionary leaders to remain "united for Egypt" in their pursuit of a better political future. "Do not be wary of secularism," Erdogan said.

Many Egyptian leaders are touting contemporary Turkey as a model for modernizing a culturally Islamic nation. Turkey 2011 is the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. Erdogan hasn't explicitly offered Internationalist Kemalism as a counter-narrative to extremist propaganda, but then Turkey 2011 speaks for itself. Compared to Iran, Turkey is a cultural, political and economic success.

Iraq is also a model for democratic modernization. That idea lay behind U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546 of June 2004. The resolution provided an outline for creating a free Iraq, and much of it has been implemented.

A few liberals like Shadi Hamdi of the Brookings Institution and Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post are noticing, albeit belatedly. In an article published last week, Hamdi wrote: "It is worth noting that Bush's short-lived embrace of Mideast democratic reform ... did not appear to hurt the Arab reform movement, and, if anything, did the opposite. This is something that reformers themselves reluctantly admit." A "Bush nostalgia" has appeared "in Arab opposition circles."

Diehl confesses that in his Washington echo chamber, Iraq is regarded as a waste or "folly." However, Iraq "looks a lot like what Syria, and much of the rest of the Arab Middle East, might hope to be." No dictator, no sectarian minority repressing the majority. Diehl concludes, "The Arab Spring ... is making the invasion of Iraq look more worthy -- and necessary -- than it did a year ago."

Defeating the militants and fostering democratic modernization requires U.S. involvement. Yet Hamdi quotes Arab sources as saying democracy is "15th" on Barack Obama's list of concerns. Hamdi argues that there is a bitter paradox liberals just don't get: "The Arab revolutions ... make clear that there is no replacement for American leadership, even from the perspective of those thought to be the most anti-American." 

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