Note to Washington: Hands Off the ‘New’ Arab Spring
American meddling has a way of making things worse, everywhere and all the time. So, as Algeria and Sudan now undergo coups and government transitions, here’s a thought for the U.S. empire: Leave well enough alone! It’s only been a couple weeks, but optimistic liberal interventionists have already dubbed the instability in Algeria and Sudan a “new” Arab Spring—a reference to the pro-democracy protests and attempted, or actual, government overthrows in 2011 and 2012 in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. Back then, boy, Washington, with its newly minted idealist President Barack Obama, was just sure that those revolts augured a fresh democratic wave in the notoriously autocratic Mideast. Some even averred that George W. Bush and company had been vindicated—were, in fact, right about the fertility of Arab soil for Jeffersonian democracy.
This wasn’t the case, of course. For a number of complex reasons—one of which was American interventionism—all but Tunisia collapsed into chaos, civil war or renewed dictatorship. That Tunisia held out may, at least in part, have to do with the relatively limited U.S. influence and activity in that North African backwater. For his part, Obama didn’t know what to do with the Arab Spring. He’d campaigned on an (allegedly) anti-interventionist platform—except in Afghanistan, of course—but the truth is that he and his neoliberal Cabinet team, which included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, could hardly contain its excitement. Obama didn’t want to be seen as being on the wrong side of history, but he also didn’t want a new American crusade in the region, so he hedged. The results were unhappy and, in many cases, disastrous.
In Syria, Obama waffled, then eventually called for President Bashar Assad’s removal. Ignoring evidence that the disorganized rebels were becoming more and more Islamist, the U.S. got sucked in—with Washington eventually finding itself in the absurd position of tacitly backing and arming the rebel al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaida franchise in Syria. This increasingly radical rebellion, thanks in part to U.S., Saudi and United Arab Emirates assistance, eventually helped grow (if not exactly gave birth to) the transborder terror group known as the Islamic State group. The rest, as they say, was history: Russia and Iran intervened on behalf of Assad, Turkey invaded from the north and Uncle Sam sent troops—but not “combat soldiers,” Obama assured us—into the cauldron of yet another Arab civil war. Assad seems to have all but won now, Syria is destroyed, hundreds of thousands are dead, and the U.S. achieved not a single foreign policy objective in the country.
In Bahrain, a mostly Shiite nation ruled by a Sunni royal minority, the U.S. took the opposite path. Instead of genuinely backing the majoritarian demands of the protesters, Washington looked the other way as the Saudi Army intervened and shut down the uprising. There were no consequences for Riyadh. Similarly, in Yemen, though Obama encouraged the removal of longtime strongman President Ali Abdullah Saleh, once a civil war broke out with the Houthi Shiites of the country’s northwest, the U.S. let Saudi Arabia run wild. The U.S. military, in fact, provided in-flight refueling, intelligence and munitions sales that allowed the Saudis to terror-bomb innocent civilians. Some 85,000 Yemeni children have starved to death thus far, and the country is perhaps the world’s worst ongoing disaster area.
Obama wasn’t sure what to do with the crown jewel of Arab Spring protests, in Egypt. The U.S. military, which maintains a close bilateral relationship with the Egyptian army, wanted him to stay silent and back President-for-life Hosni Mubarak. Still, Obama eventually flipped and encouraged Mubarak to step down. Then, after all the cheering in the squares was done and the Egyptian military allowed elections, well, the Muslim Brotherhood won. Washington didn’t like that much, so a couple of years later, when the Egyptian army took over, deposed the elected government and slaughtered thousands of demonstrators in the streets, Obama did little to stop it. Egypt is still ruled by a general, one who has just been re-elected and has altered the constitution so that he may stay in power until 2030. These days, President Trump hosts Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in the White House, praises him and continues to dole out America’s second largest (after Israel) military aid package to Cairo.
Libya, as Obama himself later admitted, was the absolute “shit-show” of the bunch. There he let Madame Clinton—who has been wrong about every foreign policy venture for the last 25 years—talk him into a NATO military intervention, providing close air support for the fractious rebels. When President Muammar al-Qaddafi was captured by militiamen, sodomized with a bayonet and shot to death, Secretary Clinton, without a hint of regret, simply boasted that “we came, we saw, he died!” About a year later, one Islamist militia overran the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. So how’s old Libya doing now? Well, it hardly exists as a coherent state. Jihadi factions, almost unknown in Libya before 2011, have run rampant, the transitional government barely holds the capital and a warlord owns much of the country. U.S. allies can’t even decide who to support, with Italy backing the “official” government, and France supporting the general-cum-warlord attempting to topple it. Washington has no answers and mostly ignores the problem.
So what of Algeria and Sudan? It’s famously difficult to predict how such rebellions will shake out, but there’s reason for pessimism. Both countries were led by strongmen who cobbled together power through various agencies and militias, rather than maintaining central rule. No one is quite certain what the militaries—which in Libya conducted a coup—will now do, or if they’ll listen to the African Union and hand over power to civilian transitional governments. Area experts smell a rat and worry that new military dictators will simply hold on to power in one or both locales. One Sudanese activist worried that “[t]here are so many militias, so many armed groups, it’s very scary.” As one analyst predicted, “It’s only a matter of time before Sudan falls again to military rule.” Let’s hope that’s not the case, but we should be realistic and accept 1) that it’s probable; and 2) that any serious military or CIA super-sleuth intervention is unlikely to change the outcome (at least, not for the better).
The only conclusion that leaps forth is this: America has a poor track record when it comes to meddling and intervening in Arab (or other) uprisings. Washington is at turns naive, cynical, brutal and inconsistent. The U.S. certainly does little good when it sticks its big, fat, interventionist head into other people’s revolutions. This “second” Arab Spring must run its own course. I, for one, am not optimistic; military tours in the failed Iraqi and Afghan interventions have made me thus, but who knows? One way or the other, any outcome will be Arab, as will any solutions. And so, for the love of God, America, sit this one out! Here’s some sage advice: Do less.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, HuffPost, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig and TomDispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.Wait, before you go…
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