On October 23, 2017, former White House Advisor on U.S. Middle East Policy under President George W. Bush, Elliott Abrams, spoke at Georgetown University about American foreign policy in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  The speech centered around Abrams’ new book, “Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring,” and was part of the Center for Jewish Civilization’s inaugural Andrew H. Siegal Memorial Lectureship series.  SOFREP guest reporter Cheyenne Martin was there, and filed this report.

Elliot Abrams is a cautious optimist when it comes to the Middle East.  Mr. Abrams opened his speech at Georgetown by explaining that he wrote his latest book because he noticed that many Americans were pessimistic about the outcome of the Arab Spring and its impact on governance in the Middle East.  In Abrams’ words, many Americans think, “well, there was this Arab Spring, right? Optimistic, but it’s over. It failed, except in Tunisia. Let’s get over it; let’s be realistic. It is not going to happen.”

Abrams’ views this outlook as an unrealistic assessment of the impact of the Arab Spring, and cautions against giving up on promoting democracy in the region.

Mr. Abrams stated that the central problem with the Arab Spring was that it failed to fundamentally transform the whole Middle East.  From the American perspective, he went on, when those in the United States think of the Middle East, they worry most about terrorism and Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.  In Abrams’ view, Americans believe that the United States must make allies “where we can find them.” 

This security dilemma also bumps up against the American preference for human rights and democracy “everywhere at all times.”  Since America faces real threats, including terrorism and Iran, if brutal dictatorships are on our side when it comes to facing those threats, we tend to accept those less-than-ideal allies.

The Moroccan Arab Spring movement – AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar

Abrams described the Arab Spring as a series of revolts against illegitimate governments.  Specifically, he mentioned the concept of “performance legitimacy” in the Edelman Trust Barometer that shows how the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Singapore and China often rate highest in that regard.  Abrams’ theory is that because citizens in those countries can see tangible change when it comes to governance and their economic situation, the respective leaders of their countries thus establish legitimacy among the people. 

On the other hand, when it comes to the countries effected by the Arab Spring, Abrams stated that in those countries there were primarily established “fake monarchies in addition to … fake republics.”  Abrams stated that those citizens did not find legitimacy in those faux dynasties, thus they began to attempt to overthrow them.

Mr. Abrams continued by dismissing the theory that the Arab Spring failed due to the incompatibility of Islam and democracy.  He cited Muslim democracies in Malaysia and Indonesia as examples of Islam and democracy co-existing.  In addressing the question of whether or not Arabs even want democracy, Abrams said surveys conducted over the years concluded that they do.  The real question, in his view, is what they mean by “democracy.”