3 years on, should we be depressed about the 'Arab Spring'?
December 28th, 2013
08:45 AM ET

3 years on, should we be depressed about the 'Arab Spring'?

By Jane Harman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jane Harman is director, president and chief executive officer of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She was a nine-term congresswoman from California and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee from 2002 to 2006. The views expressed are her own.

Following the third anniversary earlier this month of the beginning of the “Arab “Spring,” it is easy to be depressed.  More like an earthquake, the tectonic plates have shifted and there may be no way to “restore” stability to many governments in the region.

In hindsight, the “revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square and elsewhere were better at toppling governments than building new ones. Only in Tunisia – where Islamist and founder of the Ennahda party Rachid Ghannouchi has been prepared to cede power to build a stable pluralist government – do we see a glimmer of sunshine. Ghannouchi may turn out to be the new Mandela – a man who uses decades in prison as a ploughshare not a sword.

But many countries are becoming failing states: think Libya, which has become the arms bazaar for the MENA region. What must U.S. policy be? As former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil and now Counselor to Secretary John Kerry, Tom Shannon, says, we need “long diplomacy” to follow the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One of the most important elements of long diplomacy is a well-defined whole government effort to counter the vacuum of power across much of the region. In the absence of functioning governments, splinter terror groups like al-Mulathameen (once part of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar al Sharia and others are now taking advantage. In many cases, these groups are stepping in to provide basic services where their governments cannot. We do not need more terror safe havens.

A carefully coordinated package of humanitarian relief, civil society training, and security force advice and assistance – implemented with our allies – can have a significant impact on the stability of many of these countries.  Formation of public-private partnerships and support for NGOs is also important.

At least one member of the U.S. Congress – Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith – is especially vocal about this. Earlier this year at the Wilson Center, he said, “There is no better capacity building out there than a strong economy and a strong private sector doing business that people see opportunity in.”

Positive efforts are occurring – particularly sensitive missions, like those led by Admiral Bill McRaven of the Special Forces, which are now requested more routinely by host governments because we offer advice and assistance rather than carrying out missions alone. But it will take more than a few “wins” to shift the pendulum back from chaos. Sustaining focus in a dozen countries won’t be a piece of cake.

Yet the alternative is chilling. In Yemen, Ansar al Sharia is allegedly providing water, electricity and security to communities in the south. Despite the group’s extreme values (the name means “supporters of Sharia law”), they remain successful because they provide resources when the government can’t.

In Syria, al Nusra is providing food, water and medical care to locals to increase support and gain influence – and they are the only game in town.  Why would the average Syrian, caught in the middle of a bloody war, refuse the shelter and “friendship” of such a group? The North Africa version of Ansar al Sharia is encouraging its members to integrate into society, as opposed to heading for secluded training camps.

How we use our smart power will affect outcomes. Three years into the Arab earthquake, it would clearly be farcical to declare “mission accomplished.” But it is way too early to label this “mission failed.”

The big question is whether we will have something to celebrate when the fourth anniversary comes around.

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Topics: Arab Spring

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    No, we shouldn't! We need to keep our noses out of this and let things in the Middle East take their course and allow for self determination for the people living there. Democracy as we know it proved to be a very dismal failure!

    December 28, 2013 at 10:40 am | Reply
  2. JAL

    The Arab Spring just needs global economic growth, at this point, and it is on the way.

    December 28, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  3. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    It is greatly to the USA's advantage to continue its leadership in all parts of the world.
    President Obama has done a wonderful job of preserving our example, and he has done so with minimal commitment of military forces.

    December 29, 2013 at 7:58 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Good grief Joey, when did you join the Tea Party Movement? You just posted like one above. Anyone with half a brain knows how much damage we Americans did around the world and you propose that we do more! You should feel ashamed! In short, we need to adopt a laissez-faire foreign policy and soon!

      December 29, 2013 at 11:26 am | Reply
      • Marine5484

        Great post, Joseph. People like that bozo Joey above say to most stupid things here. It's ignorance like this that will bring this country to it's very knees one day! Like you say, we need to just mind our own business and let the Middle East take care of itself!

        December 29, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

        I am not a member of the Tea Party Movement, but not everything that they say is wrong. For example, Robin Hood economics does not, at the end of its course, help the poor: it hurts them.
        @Joseph, you may think that I should feel ashamed for thinking that my country should continue to lead the world, but I certainly do not.
        I congratulate you, however, on your reference to "laissez-faire policy.." I think that it should be our ultimate goal regarding relative levels of income, with necessary aid to the poor as a series of steps toward achieving that goal.

        December 30, 2013 at 9:13 am |
  4. oh no

    I am depressed arabs are still here. Deport them all

    December 29, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Posted like another true, hateful Tea Partying nitwit. Thank you, oh no.

      December 29, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  5. chrissy

    Ive read your posts @ oh no. Someone needs to deport you to the dump with the rest of the garbage. Your mother must be so proud of your nasty mouth huh?

    December 29, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Reply
  6. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    I do not agree with the post of @oh no just above.
    However, we do not deport those who exercise freedom of speech
    @Joseph McCarthy is free to associate me with the Tea Party Movement, and I am free to write that Senator McCarthy acted with the best patriotic intentions.

    December 30, 2013 at 9:36 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    The reason why ordinary people across the Middle East become disenchanted with their leaders is that they are corrupt and incompetent. They fail to provide for the impoverished and the unemployed. In many areas, public services are either inadequate or non-existent.
    Since the Muslim Brotherhood is classified as a terrorist group, many poor Egyptians suddenly feel the gap that the Brotherhood left behind. What the Egyptian authorities offer is a far cry from what the Brotherhood had done.

    December 30, 2013 at 10:21 am | Reply
  8. chrissy

    Ahhhh now i get it @ Joey! The rich NEED "the poor as necessary steps to achieve levels"....levels of WHAT exactly? Superiority???

    December 30, 2013 at 10:48 am | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      @chrissy, I said nothing like that.
      Progressive steps would lead to to the elimination of all, or most, extreme poverty.
      Is a billionaire more successful than I am?
      Yes.
      Does that mean that he is kinder and more loving to other persons than I am?
      No.
      However, he is still more successful than I.

      December 30, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  9. chrissy

    Thats very sad if thats how ppl determine their self worth. Personnally im glad we are ALL judged equal in the afterlife. Kinda levels the playing field ya know. Plus those that have used every dirty trick in the book to acquire that wealth and have never worked an honest day in their lives might be judged properly! See...eventually there WILL be justice for all! Amen.

    December 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  10. chrissy

    I see that NOW @ Joey, as THAT post has since been deleted. I am sorry i didnt recognise that it was that nasty little troll/jacker before. My sincere apology to you.

    December 30, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      @chrissy,
      I missed the post in question altogether.
      You have known me a long time. You know that I advocate giving out fishing poles rather than fish.

      December 31, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  11. chrissy

    And ive already apologised to you @ Joey!

    December 31, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  12. chrissy

    And you are right. When i say that our homeless vets want a fair shake and getting their own jobs and need a hand UP and do NOT want a hand OUT its basically the same principle as a "fishing pole and not a fish" as im sure you now understand!

    December 31, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  13. Bob

    The "Arab Spring" didn't just begin three years ago, The seeds were sown when the US determined that "might makes right" in going after Saddam Hussein with all the trumped up evidence. In no case was there any consideration given to "what's next." Ms. Harman was one of those that supported that war in Iraq, despite her very close access to the real information.

    Thus, it was us who opened the Pandora's Box we are now faced with. At the same time, and. probably as a result of our blunders, we are disjointed in our presentation of what we believe in. Does democracy mean that we should accept what the people in a particular country decide is right for them? Do we really want democracy or just our version of it?

    January 3, 2014 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  14. joe anon 1

    we should be angry that jane-the-israeli harmon is not a prisoner at guantanamo.

    January 4, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Reply

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