Thinking Aloud: Friedman on Arab Spring

Nov. 19, 2014 by Darius 

Thomas Friedman’s column in today’s New York Times contained so many interesting and important points that I thought it worth reproducing a discussing some of them here.

“Ever since the Arab awakening in late 2010, America has lurched from one policy response to another. We tried decapitation without invasion in Libya; it failed. We tried abdication in Syria; it failed. We tried democratization in Egypt, endorsing the election of the Muslim Brotherhood; it failed. We tried invasion, occupation, abdication and now re-intervention in Iraq and, although the jury is still out, only a fool would be optimistic.”

This is a clever and succinct description of recent trial-and-error approach to US policy in the Middle East.  At least we’ve tried something different than simply supporting the strongmen who agree to our leadership, which summarizes most of America’s post-WWII approach to the Middle East.  Friedman’s description also shows the Obama administration’s willingness to try to learn from mistakes real-time.  That’s easier said than done, though, in a region in which every country has geographies and subgroups with their own unique backstories and grievances, many of which we didn’t bother learning in advance.  It also shows that the US seems to be caught in a damned-if-we-do-damned-if-we-don’t paradox, with the people of the Middle East resenting us no matter what approach we try.  Of course, it also makes for a parlor game in which everyone, from politicians to pundits to guys in the barber shop, have opinions about what the Obama administration *should* have done instead.

Instead of indulging in the parlor game, Friedman continues with something constructive and sensible:

“So if the Middle East is a region we can neither fix nor ignore, what’s left? I’m for ‘containment’ and ‘amplification.’  How so? Where there is disorder — Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya — collaborate with regional forces to contain it, which is basically what we’re doing today. …Where there is imposed order — Egypt, Algeria — work quietly with the government to try to make that order more decent, just, inclusive and legitimate. Where there is already order and decency — Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan and the United Arab Emirates — do everything to amplify it, so it becomes more consensual and sustainable. And where there is order, decency and democracy — Tunisia — give it as much money as they ask for, (which we haven’t done).”

Friedman does an excellent job of pairing the spectrum of US goals, ranging from basic security and stability to freedom and pluralism, with the various situations on the ground.   He also provides a decent roadmap for how US objectives can and should change over time as the situation in country changes.

Finally, Friedman talks about Dubai as the unlikely crucible of the Arab Spring:

“Did Dubai cause the Arab awakening? Wait. How could it have? The U.A.E. and Dubai are absolute monarchies that tolerate no opposition or real freedom of the press. It’s because Dubai, beyond the glitz, glass and real estate booms and busts, has become the Manhattan of the Arab world — a place where young Arabs from across the region can come to realize their full potential in arts, business, media, education and technology start-ups — with world-class companies — and in their own culture, their own language, their own religious milieu, their own food preferences, music and clothing.  As more young Arabs came to Dubai, or viewed it on TV from afar, more and more asked: ‘Why don’t we have that in my Arab country?’ …  It was one thing for young Egyptians to observe the success of Singapore or Brazil and compare it with their own flagging country, but when Dubai showed that Arabs could build a Singapore, where young Arabs could realize their potential, Dubai became politically subversive. Across the region, you heard the question: ‘Even if we can’t have democracy, why can’t we at least have Dubai?’ … When you see someone just like you succeeding next door while your society is not, it becomes political.”

Friedman makes two important points, one explicit and one implicit.  The explicit point is that the success of Dubai served as a role model and a rallying cry for young Arabs in a way that the US, Germany, India, even Turkey, could not because it is Arab, it has been built and sustained by people like them.  The implicit point, though, is that perhaps at a fundamental level we continue to misunderstand the aspirations of the Arab world, including young Arabs.  If Dubai is what they want, their aspirations for freedom do not necessarily include democracy and presidents and congresses.  Greater civil liberties, yes.  Greater social and economic freedom, absolutely.  An elected legislature?  Maybe not so much.

You can read Friedman’s entire piece at

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