On Political Books

May/June 2011 Arab Springboard

American democracy promotion didn’t spark the Arab uprisings, but a shared hatred of our Middle East policies sure helped them spread.

By Keach Hagey

Indeed, the case of Bahrain was useful in showing the world exactly where Obama’s uplifting talk of standing “squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights” ended and realpolitik began. President Obama may have mentioned Bahrain in his May 19th speech on the regional turmoil, but his administration did nothing to keep its ally Saudi Arabia from rolling in tanks to crush the protests there. The U.S. had a military base in Bahrain, an important ally in Saudi Arabia, and shared interests in pushing back against Iran, making it impossible for the Obama administration to call for the Bahraini monarchy to step aside as it had for other beleaguered rulers in the region. In Lynch’s view, the lack of response made Bahrain the “graveyard of American credibility in the Arab uprisings” in the mind of the Arab public.

One little-remarked-upon aspect of all this turmoil, Lynch notes, is how it has made losers of the “resistance” axis of Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria—who all might have been expected to benefit from the popular toppling of Western-backed regimes like Egypt and Tunisia. Lynch argues that, despite Washington’s obsession with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Iran is actually a receding political force in the region, its influence having peaked under George W. Bush. The uprising in Syria, which had thought it-self immune, put Hezbollah in an “iron vise, unable to reconcile its attempts to align with the broad Arab public with its strategic dependence on Syrian support.”

But the biggest loser from the last year’s worth of changes in the Middle East is Israel. For decades, Arab states from Egypt to the Gulf aligned with Israel against the will of their own people. Now the despots doing those backroom deals are gone or imperiled, and Israel is understandably worried. Lynch argues that this shift will require the U.S. to rethink its relationship with Israel, no matter how politically difficult that may be domestically. “A vast industry has been devoted to convincing American policy makers that there is no real relationship between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wider strategic issues in the region,” he writes. “This is poppycock.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never stopped mattering to the Arab public, and the recent changes make that public more powerful than ever before. So long as the conflict continues without a serious peace process, the U.S. will have a credibility problem in the region.

Lynch has written a clear-eyed, highly readable guide to the forces in the region that gave rise to the Arab uprisings and the very real challenges they present for the U.S. Indispensably, he presents the material in a way that is neither excessively romantic about democracy’s chances nor excessively fearful about the greater role Islamists will no doubt play in a newly empowered Arab public square.

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Keach Hagey is media reporter for the Wall Street Journal.