For well over a year now, the Arab Spring has struggled on life support, doomed to die with barely a whimper. Instead, it ended definitively with the bang of U.S. airstrikes in Syria, coordinated with five of the Arab world's most authoritarian states. The long winter of a protracted war with the Islamic State and affiliated jihadists now seems here to stay.
There was a time when the White House genuinely had hope that people power and pro-democracy uprisings could reshape the Middle East. In a famous speech in May 2011, President Obama likened the dramatic self-immolation of a fruit seller in Tunisia, which triggered protests that toppled a long-ruling autocrat, to the defiance of Rosa Parks and the agitators of the Boston Tea Party.
Tunisia's protests inspired a far more epic revolution in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous state. An entrenched dictator was forced to step down and Cairo's Tahrir Square, a faceless traffic roundabout, became the birthplace of something far more inspiring: a moment in which people long suppressed joined together and demanded their rights. The genie was out of the bottle. Protests spread to Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria.
Obama, in his speech, echoed the optimism and hailed the "extraordinary change taking place":
In Cairo, we heard the voice of the young mother who said, “It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time.”
In Sanaa [Yemen], we heard the students who chanted, “The night must come to an end.”
In Benghazi [Libya], we heard the engineer who said, “Our words are free now. It’s a feeling you can't explain.”
In Damascus [Syria], we heard the young man who said, “After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity.”
But the rosy glow of 2011 has sputtered out like the thin flame of a candle. From being the catalyst of seismic upheaval, Tunisia's fledgling democracy is starting to look like the sad, lonely exception. And for Obama, a realist's caution has replaced his earlier embrace of the Arab Spring.
In Egypt, elements of the old regime are firmly back in power, led by a former general who presided over the ruthless slaughter of Islamist protesters and the arrests of hundreds of dissidents. Some of the leading liberal activists who once defined the revolution in Tahrir Square have been jailed. The United States was largely a bystander; Secretary of State John Kerry even claimed that the Egyptian army was “restoring democracy.”
In Libya, an armed uprising, backed by NATO airstrikes, defeated the regime of Moammar Gaddafi. But the unraveling that has followed has been stark and tragic. Benghazi, the seat of the 2011 rebellion, is now a city known for its Islamist militias, gun violence and political chaos. Libya is in the grips of a low-level civil war.
In Yemen, protests led to a political transition backed by the U.S. But the larger narrative has hardly improved: A Shiite rebellion in Yemen's north has brought the country to its knees, while U.S. involvement is characterized not by democracy-building but an interminable, controversial drone war against al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate.
And then there's Syria. In 2011, the Obama administration was adamant that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had to go. They thought Assad's departure was as "inevitable" as that of the other fallen Mideast dictators; Washington paid little heed to the calls of other countries, particularly Russia, to take Assad's proposals for dialogue and reconciliation seriously.
It's three years later, and the Syrian death toll has likely eclipsed 200,000, with roughly a quarter of the country's population displaced by the brutal conflict. Assad remains in power and it's hard to see how the current U.S. intervention, aimed at attacking the extremist Islamic State, will not boost his regime's prospects of survival. Anti-Assad activists appear to be not so thrilled with the current strikes.
Meanwhile, the U.S.' coalition of Arab allies comprises some of the region's most authoritarian governments. Saudi Arabia, notorious as the incubator of the Salafist creed that inflames terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State, gave sanctuary to Tunisia's exiled dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
The kingdom looked on with great anxiety at the upheavals sweeping through countries around it, and did what it could to arrest the change. It helped crush anti-regime protests in neighboring Bahrain (Bahraini military jets took part in the airstrikes overnight). After the Egyptian army ousted the unpopular (but democratically elected) Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last year, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf sidekick, the U.A.E., extended billions of dollars of aid to the new Egyptian regime.
Qatar, another petro-rich Gulf state, saw the political vacuums in the Arab Spring states as an opportunity to spread its clout. The Qataris backed Islamists in various countries, but now appear to have been chastened by that support. The Gulf states reject longstanding accusations that they, through various proxies, helped fuel the Islamic State's rise.
Last week, the Saudis played host to Arab, American and European delegations all seeking a strategy to crush the Islamic State, a terrorist organization that first emerged in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The jihadists present a real security threat to the neighborhood, as well as numerous Western countries whose nationals are in the militants' ranks.
And, in Washington, those considerations now far outweigh the idealism of Obama's 2011 Arab Spring speech. The agenda of jihadists, Obama said at the time, "had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands."
That future has been clearly taken out of their hands — both by the political dysfunction of the post-Arab Spring governments and the larger tectonic geopolitical battles in the region. In that context, the U.S. air campaign in Syria, which follows more than a decade after its invasion of Iraq, is a blistering return to the status quo.