Great Decisions 2012 Preview: After the Arab Spring

The Great Decisions briefing book and television series on PBS take a closer look at the Arab Spring. How will uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa impact American objectives in the region? For more in-depth analysis, order the 2012 briefing book and DVD.

Current Situation

The Middle East has been in the midst of a remarkable wave of both violent and peaceful uprisings against decades of corrupt, dictatorial leaders. From Tunisia to Egypt, Libya to Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, popular protests flooded the streets. Academics and journalists were quick to dub the rapid political changes the “Arab Spring”, a reference to the hope that democratic structures will take root in the region. Policy makers in the United States have adopted a variety of case-by-case approaches, from vocal to tacit support, to outright military intervention. Certainly many in the U.S. government would like to think that the Arab Spring will usher in a new era of peace, democracy, and stability in the region. But how will the Arab Spring affect U.S. foreign policy? What are the ramifications of these political upheavals and how can the U.S. adapt to a changed political environment in the Middle East?


In the past half century, the U.S. has played two dueling roles in the Middle East, that of a promoter of liberal ideals, willing to wage war to build democracy, and that of a supporter of dictators who adhere to American interests and ensure stability. In Yemen and Saudi Arabia, notably, the U.S. has historically turned a blind eye to governmental corruption and human rights violations. Yet in non-allied countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, the U.S. has condemned dictatorial practices, issued crippling sanctions, and in the case of the first two, large scale wars in the name of democracy. U.S. reactions to the protests across the Middle East have been indicative of these two opposing historical policies.  Though the U.S. was a less-than-tacit ally of Mubarak, when peaceful protesters gathered by the thousands in Cairo’s Tahrir Square the U.S. rapidly urged the embattled leader to depart and initiated dialogue with the leading opposition party. U.S. policy makers were also quick to defend the oppressed citizens of the late Muammar Qaddifi’s Libya, spearheading a UN sanctioned NATO military operation to secure a no-fly zone over the country, aiding in the toppling of his regime. President Barack Obama called NATO’s airstrikes necessary measures to prevent gross humanitarian crimes, yet the U.S.’ historically tense relationship with Qaddifi prompted skepticism over the swift choice to use military force. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to sit on its hands in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, where protests are rapidly deteriorating into a potential region-wide conflict.


One of the U.S.’ greatest fears is credibility in whatever “new” Middle East will emerge. The U.S. is guilty of supporting at times brutal dictators if they have adopted foreign policies favorable to U.S. interests. How will the U.S. appear as an ally if it is quick to renege on partnerships when a leader’s position turns sour? A second crucial concern of policy makers depends on the type of organization that will emerge in the revolutions’ wake. (A second Iran, where the 1979 revolution ushered in radical Islamist rule, could present a grave new threat to the U.S.). Can the U.S. be sure it’s supporting a future ally? Perhaps of greatest concern to credibility, the U.S. is guilty of a gravely uneven response to the Arab Spring. While intervention was swift in Libya, Syrians are being killed under Assad’s rule, Bahrain continues to crack down on protestors, and Yemen is teetering towards disaster- yet the U.S. has issued little more than formal warnings. Members of Congress even challenged President Obama’s decision to initiate airstrikes in Libya, questioning both his authority and the ramifications of the move on U.S. foreign policy. Challenges also lie with traditional U.S. allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, where rule is still administered with an iron fist; can the U.S. support democracy and keep traditional allies? Finally the Arab Spring presents a dilemma of security versus instability. Supporting democratic movements nearly guarantees instability in the short term.


The recent revolutions have the chance to usher in a new status quo in the Middle East, free an oppressed and jobless youth, increase economic standing and trade, and give democracy a chance to flourish. Along with this promise, the U.S. has an opportunity to influence its negative standing in the Middle East; a chance to change a stoic, ineffective foreign policy. In his famous May 19th speech, President Barack Obama called this opportunity a “new chapter in American diplomacy.” Many hope this will include a more uniform response to calls of oppression, while at the same time not entangle U.S. troops in another drawn-out war. The U.S. clearly has an opportunity to encourage liberal, democratic growth in the Middle East, but can the U.S. support the instability these upheavals promise?

Key Questions

  • How will the Arab Spring impact U.S. policies in the Middle East?
  • Can the U.S. deviate from its historical relationship with dictatorial allies in the region?
  • What are the greatest challenges to a changed U.S. foreign policy?
  • Can, and if so how will, the U.S. alter its uneven, case-by-case reaction to the Arab Spring?
  • What can the U.S. do to support democratic movements in the Middle East?
  • Was the U.S. correct to intervene militarily in Libya? Should it do so in other Middle Eastern countries?
  • How can the U.S. be certain it’s supporting true reformers, who will align with the U.S.?

The Great Decisoins 2012 Preview was written by Sarah Marion Shore

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