Arab Winter? Unrest sparks debate on US policy

Sep 14, 2012, 7:42 PM

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – Has the Arab Winter arrived?

It’s a question analysts in Washington are asking as angry demonstrations spread across North Africa and the Middle East to protest a video ridiculing the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Those skeptical of promoting democracy in Muslim countries and those who fear a rapid decline in American influence may see their suspicions validated. Even among those who’ve championed the end of Middle Eastern autocracies, the level of anti-American rage wrought by the film has been ominous.

U.S. embassies and consulates have been breached this week in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia _ the same four countries to rid themselves of decades-long dictatorships in what became known as the Arab Spring of revolutions last year. In Libya, the only place the U.S. used its military to ensure regime change, the violence was the worst, claiming the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other embassy staffers.

“This will be a Rorschach test,” said Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department specialist on the region. “Those who say we need to be more involved in the Middle East will point to the outpouring of sympathy for the United States. You’ll have others who are more cautious who might say that this is a mess and we need to hunker down and reduce our footprint there.”

The unrest from Morocco to India is rekindling a debate that has been ever-present within the U.S. government and has raged in U.S. foreign policy circles since a Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire and set off the Arab Spring of protests in January 2011: Is the new reality of greater freedom alongside greater instability good for the Muslim world? Is it good for American interests?

“The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a repatriation ceremony Friday for the remains of the Libya consulate victims.

By and large, the Arab Spring governments have responded to the ongoing crisis well. The presidents of Libya and Yemen apologized to President Barack Obama. Egypt’s new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi held back initially from condemning the embassy siege, but after a call from Obama, demanded respect for diplomatic missions and denounced Tuesday’s deadly attack in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi during a seven-minute address Friday on state television.

But with the exception of Libya under dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the U.S. could long rely on cooperation from these governments. What changed in the unprecedented wave of pro-democracy demonstrations last year, and what was foreshadowed in Obama’s speech in Cairo after becoming president, was the new American appeal to the Arab streets, the commitment to working with ordinary citizens long suppressed by their own national authorities and long frustrated by the friendly relations their governments enjoyed with the United States.

“This president’s approach to what has been called the Arab Spring, to this unrest, has been to lay out a set of principles and support for human rights, and to make clear that we support a process of nonviolent political and economic change and reform in the region,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday.

He said cooperation with Arab countries in transition was advancing U.S. national security interests.

The record has been mixed, however.

U.S. relations with Egypt have dived dramatically since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, so much so that Obama said this week he doesn’t necessarily consider the two countries allies. In Yemen, al-Qaida took advantage of a year of internal fighting to make inroads across the country. After defeating Gadhafi, Libyans sent pro-American moderates to power but are still struggling amid a wash of weaponry and militias that remain unchecked.

The ensuing instability since the ouster of Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the death of Gadhafi and the power transfer deal ending the reign of Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh has led some foreign policy experts _ particularly conservatives and former Bush administration officials _ to question whether Washington acted unwisely by siding with the protesters. Such language has even crept into the presidential campaign, with Republican Mitt Romney vowing to “strive to ensure that the Arab Spring is not followed by an Arab Winter.”

After 20 months, the Arab Spring continues to polarize even conservatives, dividing those who see in it the triumph of freedom from those who criticize Obama for abandoning traditional friendships with leaders like Mubarak and say he helped usher in instability and the rise of political Islam.

Administration officials say they aren’t looking at the current crisis through the prism of the Arab Spring, and note that demonstrations have occurred in stable and instable countries, and those with governments both friendly and hostile to the United States.

The protests are occuring for a variety of reasons, analysts cautioned, including domestic anger with governments still unable to deliver good jobs and better living conditions.

“Look at Egypt: Who are these guys?” asked Haim Malka, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They are young men, unemployed men, angry about the lack of change in their societies.”

Still, he said regime changes from Tunis to Sanaa “have released violent anti-American forces that the previous regimes largely kept in check.” The violence at U.S. diplomatic installations “raises questions about the ability and the willingness of the new governments in the Middle East to impose order, and also to cooperate with the U.S. on a whole range of activities.”

Andrew Tabler at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the attackers are fringe extremists, but in places such as Libya they are armed and dangerous, and can take advantage of a new political order with greater freedom and authorities less likely to use brute force.

“There are constraints on these new governments. They are not as authoritarian and are more accountable,” he said. For the U.S., he said, “the people are a factor in these countries now, and it’s harder to deal with than talking to the dictator.” He called for even greater engagement to figure out who can be good U.S. partners in the region.

Danin said he didn’t see this week’s ongoing violence leading toward consensus on the question of greater or less American engagement with the Arab world’s new democracies.

“This won’t resolve any debates,” he said. “It will only fuel them.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

Associated Press

Judge allows anonymous jury for Trump rape lawsuit trial

NEW YORK (AP) — Jurors’ names will be kept secret at the upcoming civil trial in a writer’s rape lawsuit against former President Donald Trump, a judge ruled Thursday, citing “a very strong risk” they would otherwise face harassment and more. Anonymous juries are unusual, particularly outside criminal cases. The Associated Press and the Daily […]
16 hours ago
Associated Press

Court weighs release of records in Sanford child porn probe

BROOKINGS, S.D. (AP) — Attorneys took their fight over whether to unseal more documents in the 2019 child pornography investigation of billionaire banker and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford to the South Dakota Supreme Court on Thursday. Sanford is seeking to bar the release of affidavits used to issue search warrants in the case. But the […]
16 hours ago
Associated Press

Jamaican cleric sentenced to 18 years in NY terrorism case

NEW YORK (AP) — A cleric arrested in his native Jamaica and extradited to New York to face state terrorism charges on accusations of recruiting support for the Islamic State group was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison. Abdullah el-Faisal was convicted in January in state Supreme Court in Manhattan on counts including soliciting […]
16 hours ago
Dozens of protesters chanted for and against a bill that would make Minnesota a trans refuge state,...
Associated Press

Minnesota moves to strengthen status as ‘trans refuge state’

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota House was moving Thursday toward strengthening the state’s protections for children and their families who come for gender-affirming care by making Minnesota a “trans refuge state,” bucking a national backlash against transgender rights. Democratic Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order two weeks ago to protect the rights […]
16 hours ago
Teaches and supporters picket outside Cesar Chavez Learning Academy in San Fernando, Calif., Thursd...
Associated Press

Los Angeles school strike set to end, but no deal announced

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A three-day strike by workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District was scheduled to wrap up Thursday, but it wasn’t immediately clear if any progress was made in negotiations for higher pay for teachers’ aides, bus drivers, custodians and other support staff in the nation’s second-largest school system. Teachers joined […]
16 hours ago
FILE - Florida House Representative Michele Rayner, left, hugs her spouse, Bianca Goolsby, during a...
Associated Press

Other states are copying Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” efforts

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Florida’s the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The prohibition presidential run soon, is being copied by GOP lawmakers pushing for similar limits on what can be taught in public schools. DeSantis and other supporters of the prohibitions portray them as ways to protect children from being taught about inappropriate material. But […]
16 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Photo by Michael Matthey/picture alliance via Getty Images)...
Cox Communications

Valley Boys & Girls Club uses esports to help kids make healthy choices

KTAR’s Community Spotlight focuses on the Boys & Girls Club of the Valley and the work to incorporate esports into children's lives.
(Pexels Photo)...

Sports gambling can be fun for adults, but it’s a dangerous game for children

While adults may find that sports gambling is a way to enhance the experience with more than just fandom on the line, it can be a dangerous proposition if children get involved in the activity.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Prep the plumbing in your home just in time for the holidays

With the holidays approaching, it's important to know when your home is in need of heating and plumbing updates before more guests start to come around.
Arab Winter? Unrest sparks debate on US policy