Beyond the Arab Spring: U.S. Engagement in a Changing Middle East

April 08, 2014 // 11:30am1:00pm

Three experts discussed how a range of domestic and regional changes in the Middle East have generated new challenges for U.S. diplomacy.

On April 8, 2014, the United States Institute of Peace and the Middle East Program held a meeting, “Beyond the Arab Spring: U.S. Engagement in a Changing Middle East” with Daniel Brumberg, Senior Adviser, Center for Middle East and Africa, United States Institute of Peace; and Co-Director, Democracy and Governance Studies, Georgetown University; Steven Heydemann, Vice President, Applied Research on Conflict, United States Institute of Peace; and Danya Greenfield, Acting Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, The Atlantic Council. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event, which marks the sixth and final meeting in a series of presentations on “Reshaping the Strategic Culture of the Middle East.”

Heydemann began by assessing the impact of Arab Spring transformations on authoritarian governments in the region. He asserted that three years into the Arab Spring, the changes have been taking an increasingly negative turn, arguing that the euphoria of 2011 has given way to a much bleaker assessment of the current political, social, and economic issues in the Middle East. Heydemann referred to the 2014 Freedom House survey that ranked the Middle East region as the lowest in terms of freedom. He noted a current transition in several Arab countries toward more repressive, less inclusive forms of authoritarian governments. He also referred to key features of authoritarian upgrading, such as controlling new communications technologies and containing civil societies. Prior to 2011, Heydemann asserted, Arab governments failed to respond to grievances and popular anger associated with the economic effects of authoritarian regimes’ policies. Consequently, protests organized around economic demands, and governments responded with increased state spending in an attempt to “buy off” protesters. Heydemann expressed pessimism at the prospect of building viable domestic or external coalitions that can fight back against authoritarian regime tactics. He concluded by arguing that the repressive response of Arab governments has made it unlikely that Western pressure will be effective.

Brumberg also expressed a pessimistic outlook with regard to the unstable landscape in the Middle East and the negative trajectory of Arab governments since the 2011 uprisings. However, he began by emphasizing positive changes such as the progress of the Iran nuclear talks and the recent political developments in Tunisia. In the case of Tunisia, Brumberg argued, the new leaders successfully overcame deep-seated ideological differences and fought internal pressures of terrorism. On the other hand, Brumberg noted Egypt’s increasing tilt toward Russia as represented by a visit from Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the signing of a $2 billion air missile deal. Brumberg asserted that closer Egypt-Russia relations provide an opportunity for Russia to advance its interests and agenda in the Middle East.

Greenfield began by expressing optimism for the trajectory of Arab countries and emphasizing the fundamental shortcomings of the West in response to the post-2011 transitions. She first noted the positive developments in Yemen and its successful avoidance of civil war and mass violence. Subsequently, she stressed the lack of clarity regarding U.S. interests in the Middle East and questioned whether successful transitions are, in fact, instrumental to U.S. foreign policy. Using Ukraine as a recent example, Greenfield characterized American and European foreign policy as “crisis-driven, short-term, and reactionary.” Additionally, she argued that increasing polarization, border security issues, and extremism across the Middle East has called into question whether achieving democratic change will serve the short-term interests of the United States and Europe. Greenfield asserted that policymakers need to assess the cost to the United States and Europe if the Arab Spring fails to deliver. This assessment, she argued, would differentiate between the U.S. response in the Middle East and the U.S. response in Russia and Ukraine. Greenfield stressed the importance of shifting American and European strategy to a more long-term approach.

By Yomna Sarhan, Middle East Program

5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Event Speakers List: 
  • Senior Adviser, Center for Middle East and Africa, United States Institute of Peace; and Co-Director, Democracy and Governance Studies, Georgetown University
  • Vice President, Applied Research on Conflict, United States Institute of Peace
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