September 27th, 2012
12:14 PM ET

Will U.S. benefit from the Arab Spring?

By Robert D. Kaplan, Stratfor

Robert D. Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor, a global intelligence company, and author of the bestselling new book ‘The Revenge of Geography.’ You can read his regular column on global affairs here. The views expressed are his own.

The easy part of the Arab Spring – the part that brought instant gratification to Western elites – is over. That part was about the overthrow of tyrannical regimes in some places and the weakening of them in others. Because the object was only humbling the dictator, it was essentially a liberal affair, an attack on the overcentralization of power. The United States and Israel were not relevant to this initial phase.

The second phase now upon us is about who gets to rule in the streets and in the palace. It is about defining society from the ground up. This part is about political values, and because Islamism is somewhat shaped by views toward the United States and Israel, the United States has been the object of mob fury. Israel is, for the moment, spared. That is only because the anti-Islamic video happened to have originated in the United States. Sooner or later, the mob will vent its anger against Israel directly. After all, frustration with the United States is, in significant measure, due to its support for Israel and Israel's refusal to stop settlement building.

This internal struggle for power will go on for years. Because it involves societies afflicted with severe economic woes, which have little experience with free governance, the new regimes will be preoccupied with merely maintaining power in the face of tumultuous domestic politics. Such weak, preoccupied regimes will have limited capacity to wage war. This is the opposite of the situation in Asia, where governments have consolidated military and governing institutions through decades of economic growth and can now project power outward – leading to territorial disputes in the maritime sphere.

The fact that Arab regimes are inhibited from waging interstate wars is offset by the fact that they have difficulty controlling their own borders and the militant elements within their societies. Thus, the Sinai Peninsula has become more insecure after decades of relative quiescence, and armed groups unconnected to the elected government roam Libya, where geographic distance and tribal identities bedevil central control. Libya is an apt metaphor for the region: It has an elected government but little governance.

Indeed, the Middle East has evolved in stages from organized interstate warfare during the Cold War decades (1956, 1967 and 1973) to the relative anarchy of the Cold War's aftermath. The possibility of interstate warfare remains, though, because of one non-Arab state, Iran – even as major Arab states such as Iraq, Syria and Libya have in varying degrees weakened or dissolved while Islamic militants run amok and intercommunal tensions flare.

Jihadism will also flourish in this power vacuum created by the replacement of strong central authority with weak democratic rule. But rather than a transnational jihadism focused on planning attacks against the United States, we are more likely to see homegrown jihadism preoccupied with political power struggles within each society. After all, some of the pro-western governments al-Qaeda sought to topple have already fallen, thus al Qaeda as a force with a pan-Islamic raison d’etre has been somewhat superseded.

Everywhere from the Maghreb to the Iranian Plateau, political structures are crumbling, while the possibility of a sectarian bloodbath increases in Syria the longer the fighting there grinds on. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has no possibility to reconstitute his regime; rather, he might emerge as the most powerful warlord among many in Syria, with the Lebanonization of the country being a likely scenario.

The state of anarchy flows naturally from the lack of institutions hidden for decades under the carapace of authoritarian rule. With that rule gone or weakened, feeble or nonexistent bureaucracies must try to cope with mayhem in the streets and in the tribal desert reaches. The Israelis well understand this sobering reality. So far, Israel has only made peace with strong authoritarians. Frightened and besieged democrats do not have the political space to take risks. Likewise, there is no Palestinian leader who is not paranoid and who is not constantly looking over his shoulder. The peace process is in disarray: Israel may, thus, continue to enlarge settlements and then, perhaps at some propitious moment, stage a unilateral, strategic withdrawal from the major West Bank cities and contiguous areas it chooses not to occupy.

The toppling of authoritarian regimes may have been unavoidable, but it has unleashed a whirlwind because stable democracy can take decades to develop. Moreover, in a world of overcrowded megacities beset with bad infrastructure, at a time when media travels at virtually the speed of light, the appearance of mobs because of this or that suspected outrage is the new normal. Middle East geography in such a circumstance has not been negated; it has only become more claustrophobic and more precious.

In this anarchic new Middle East, Egypt is no longer the political anchor for the West that it was until recently. Since the 1970s, beginning with dictator Anwar Sadat and continuing with Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's geographical centrality and demographic heft were a force for regional stability against radical forces. But the new Islamic regime in Cairo must assuage its radical elements, even as internal politics give it little energy for seriously projecting power beyond its borders. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is politically infirm with aging, Brezhnevite rulers grasping for dear life onto the status quo, while nascent youth dissatisfaction fed by the toxic combination of social media and unemployment hovers around them. As for Iran, Marg bar Amrika (“Death to America”) is the bumper sticker of the revolution that must be maintained in the face of new economic woes coarsening the society – since revolutionary discipline is now especially required to keep the regime intact.

The key insight to be had from all of this is how little leverage the United States has. The United States cannot nation-build across the Middle East. It can have limited arrangements with local security services in this country and that for the sake of protecting American embassies and other equities. It can encourage moderate forces with aid and use its leverage to influence the Egyptian government on some issues and the Saudi government on others. But the United States cannot, for example, make Libya a strong, well-governed state without an extraordinary effort that would rob Washington of bandwidth elsewhere in the region and around the world.

The Arab Spring, in other words, is about the limiting of American power through the breakdown of authority on which Washington once depended to exert its influence. The fact that the Middle East is more democratic than it once was does not necessarily benefit the United States. This is because democracies are themselves value-neutral: They need not always represent liberal orders, especially if they are frail and unstable.


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Topics: Israel • Middle East • United States

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Marine5484

    Will the U.S. and the West gain from this so-called "Arab Spring"? Probably only if the West can put more of it's stooges in power in those countries and produce more pseudo-democracies over there. Otherwise, with the exception of Egypt and Tunisia, the Arab Spring appears to be becoming a dismal failure especially if the West has it's way!

    September 27, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Isaac

      You must be the most ignorant fool on this site.

      September 27, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
      • Lyndsie Graham

        Quite the contrary Isaac, this Marine5484 appears to be one of most educated people posting here on this web page and so far, I agree with evrything he says!

        September 28, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Lyndsie Graham

      Now yours is one of the most sensible posts I've seen here yet. Thank you, Marine5484.

      September 28, 2012 at 10:13 am |
      • Isaac

        I just realized that Lyndsie Graham and Marine5484, you are the same guy.
        Gee whiz are you narcissistic much?

        September 28, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Instead of asking the question, how much leverage the US has in the Middle East, one should also reconsider how important the Middle East is to the US. Perhaps Israel is the reason, why the US wants to play a role there. Oil from the Middle East can now be replaced by other sources elsewhere. Of course the wider region – not least Europe – will have to bear the brunt of an unstable Middle East. Yet we in Europe have also learnt in history how tortuous the road to democracy could be.

    September 28, 2012 at 6:38 am |
  3. Jason Telly

    We had one window operation with Middle Eastern countries now operating as new democracies. So picking up the phone and calling our humble servant "Dictator in chief" is no longer an option. People in those countries will not forget overnight Unlce Sam's support to these dictators. Therefore US cannot expect benefits anytime soon – tough luck.

    September 28, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  4. Victoria

    The author of this article is an idiot. The USA is not the only democracy in the world. And there is more to foreign policy than invading countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. The USA supports dictatorships as well. Look at the Iran-Contra Scandal. Good people and bad people will exist in every country. The Middle East has its own unique people and history.

    September 28, 2012 at 2:40 pm |

    The US will harvest the yields of its " ME Spring" but in decades!


    September 28, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  6. Jackthegeek

    What are we getting of radical muslims?? We should stop wasting our money borrowed from China to give on these barbaric muslim countries.. They already killed our ambassador and three other Americans...

    September 28, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • Ray Hanson

      To JacktheGeek: you seem to be simple minded (I thought in the US; Geek implies that you are smart!)
      There are radicals in every society and every country and yes they are capable of killing. Look at the vents that occured 11 years ago. It appeared simple, but subseuqent analyses by experts in each field have demonstrated that things are not as simple as they appear. e.g. when the media suggest that a building was hit by a plane, when in fact there is no plane! Try and think in depth (it does invovle using your brain): why resources are poured in these countries; some of the answers are in the responses of others on this page. I suggest that you remain open minded and research each issue; the answers you get may enlighten your brain!

      September 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  7. Jeff Blankfort

    As far as US relations for the foreseeable future, this statement of Kaplan's is key: "After all, frustration with the United States is, in significant measure, due to its support for Israel and Israel's refusal to stop settlement building." As analysts from Anthony Cordesman to Steven Walt and John Mearssheimer have pointed out, Israel is more of a liability to the US than an asset and growing ever more so every time Netanyahu moves his lips. Were it not for the power of the Jewish establishment aka The Lobby with its stable of think tanks and media stooges, the US would have cut Israel loose long ago as did France in 1967. That, and the observable fact that the US Congress is Israel's most important occupied territory without which its whole edifice would collapse..

    September 28, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  8. RLTJ's

    Will U.S. benefit or will it not? Chances are the next question will be what should U.S. do and what it should not, pushing things for its own interests. Some call it intervention.

    I think the question is: what is Arab Spring and how to go along with it less the push and pulls. People will need people, that's for sure. War is actually needless. Lesson fron Vietnam.

    September 29, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  9. krm1007 ©™

    The one most successful aspect of recent American foreign policy has been the conquest of India without firing a bullet. That is the beauty of capitalism used as a Trojan Horse! Economic victory! Give them a taste of steak and they will never settle for hamburgers again. USA now owns India Inc. not only economically but also militarily as economic subjugation ultimately leads to military domination. The recent win for US multinationals has been pressuring the Indian Govt to open up majority ownership of domestic companies by foreign investors. US will now be virtually able to control the government policies in India via remote control in Wash D.C.

    The take away is that US needs to find a similar mechanism Middle East/North Africa/South Asia to control events without having to depend on military dictatorships to do the biding. Economic subjugation appears to be the way out but what may be applicable to Hindus may not work in case of Muslims. That poses the dilemma that we are struggling with. Israel may have to be the sacrificial goat to make this happen, I am afraid.

    September 29, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  10. Ed M.

    The mythical "Spring" is actually a Koranic Winter with theocratic crazies securing power in order to install themselves as the totalitarian despots of a global Islamic gulag.

    Islam can not produce a "Spring" since that implies f4reshness, rebirth, joy and life.

    Islam is a retrograde, intolerant, frozen ideology.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  11. Tahir

    The US control in Libya is a clear benefit. Libya will now do what US wants.Only a mad man cannot see the benefits.This Spring is triggered by US for US interests. Why US don"t like democracy for Saudia, Bahrain, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar.These are US friends and so people in these countries will never enjoy democracy. Democracy is only for countries where US enemies are ruling.Why US request its arab friends to give democracy to their people. Why USA is not doing an easy job through its arab friends.Why only getting democracy with blood is liked in US.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  12. MuckFohammad

    The Arab Winter, which began with that infamous sand prophet, was of no benefit to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

    October 2, 2012 at 1:37 am |
  13. julio


    October 2, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  14. lolzlitsentothis101

    Why not Zoidberg?

    October 21, 2013 at 3:43 pm |

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