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.” 

Mr. Abrams went on to cite the importance of ethnic homogeneity in establishing a successful democracy in the Middle East.  If one asked a citizen in the Middle East if they wanted their neighbor to be free, Mr. Abrams thinks many would answer in the negative.  In his words, they might reply, “No, my neighbor’s a damned Kurd, or… a lousy Sunni.”  Abrams believes that this is one reason why, as a whole, the Arab Spring failed, but succeeded in a place like Tunisia where the population is homogeneous.

While Abrams assesses that Arabs do in fact want democracy, he does not think it will look similar to American democracy in all ways.  He suggested, for example, that the ruling establishment would not have a neutral stance on religion as the U.S. government ostensibly does.  Instead, Islam would hold a special place, though there could probably be religious tolerance.  On issues of gender equality and rights, Abrams believes it is simply “going to take a long time” for those things to be realized in the region.

Abrams went on to tackle the question of why Americans should care about the political systems in the region.  He cited the main danger: the forming of a political vacuum, where the Muslim Brotherhood, or worse, might fill the void.  To prevent that from happening, the political space is often kept open only to dictators, generals, and/or powerful civilians.  Mr. Abrams believes that Americans should not view this space as only able to be filled by extremist Islamists or dictators, the latter of whom may not even be the best suited to defeat the former.  Instead, Abrams pointed out, Middle East dictators often try to crush the center left, not the Muslim extremists, so that they can tell officials in Washington D.C. that, “It is me or the Brotherhood.”

Abrams went on to state that extremist Islam is a set of ideas and the best way to defeat it is to debate it.  The citizens in the region need to be convinced that it is wrong.  He cites Turkey’s past as an example. There, an election would be held, Islamists would do well, the generals would then step in, disband the Islamist party, overthrow the government and the cycle would repeat.  “Relying on dictators to defeat Islamism will always work in the short-term… but it will not work in the medium to long run because they are not debating or winning debates, they are just repressing.  And what they are repressing will emerge again.”

Finally, Mr. Abrams revealed his policy prescriptions for the United States in the region.  First, America should protect Arab democrats and protest publicly and privately whenever they come under threat.  He elaborated by stating that America should offer Arab democrats safe havens when they are released from prison or escape repression.  Secondly, the United States should focus on the real politics of the region, and not on more neutral issues like clean air or water. The focus should be on supporting political organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that can make a real difference in the politics of the region.

Mr. Abrams capped off his speech by stating that defeating radical Islamists will take more than force.  It will also take legitimate governments that can win debates against the other side to gain people’s loyalty.  As Mr Abrams stated, “It is possible for Arab states to become democratic, but there are lots of hurdles, lots of obstacles.  It is going to be very difficult, [but] not impossible.”

Guest reporter Cheyenne Martin is currently a freshman at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.  She plans to major in International Politics.  Whenever she has a free moment from intensely studying Chinese, you can find her reading SOFREP or restoring classic cars.

Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.