Book Review

The New Arab Wars

Marc Lynch

 

Spring 2017, Volume XXIV, Number 1

In his 2016 book The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East, George Washington University political-science professor Marc Lynch notes, "This book has been painful to write" (p. 255). As someone who has lived in the Arab world for a dozen years over the course of five decades, and who spent much of a 34-year diplomatic career working to improve U.S. relations with the region and to support political, social and economic advancement in the Arab countries, I can attest that Lynch's book was also painful to read.

The New Arab Wars follows Lynch's The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East (2013). In his new book, Lynch presents a well-researched account of the events that started in Tunisia in late 2010 and spread through most of the Arab world during 2011. One of the strengths of Lynch's account is its detailed chronology of the events that unfolded immediately following the Arab Spring. His facts are well-documented. Likewise, he provides an insightful account of how the progression of the various national uprisings influenced and, in some cases, emboldened subsequent protest movements, but also — tragically — misled many, breeding false hopes. Nowhere was this more evident than in Syria, leading protesters to disastrously misjudge the level of pro-opposition intervention they could expect in support of their cause.

Lynch presents his analysis in nine chapters, with a brief preface summarizing the key dynamics that he views as having determined the course of the uprisings and their aftermath. First among these was the NATO intervention in Libya in early 2011, which Lynch suggests eventually triggered "the transformation of the Arab uprisings from domestic peaceful uprisings into a regional proxy war." Tragically, as one can now say with hindsight, the "NATO intervention showed Arab protesters and autocrats alike that armed insurrection could succeed by attracting external assistance." This (false) lesson of the Libyan intervention "set the stage for Syria's descent into catastrophic civil war" (all quotes from p. xi). Lynch spends much of the rest of the book identifying regional actors and the roles they have played: "The Arab uprising, by weakening key states, and empowering diverse non-state actors, opened the gates to a dramatically new regional politics of proxy war and competitive interventions" (p. 27).

In his final chapter, "Where Do We Go from here?" Lynch summarizes and expands on five core themes:

This book's account of the new Arab wars offers a different way of making sense of the current regional situation. Put bluntly: the Arab uprisings have not failed; the Arab regimes have not restabilized and are not the solution; more forceful intervention would not have saved Syria; the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood does not validate anti-Islamist views; and the Islamic State does not represent real Islam (p. 242).

Early in the book, Lynch notes that, by and large, the uprisings "crossed ideological lines, preached nonviolent resistance, and rejected traditional sectarian and religious lines of division" (p. 7), a point he reiterates early in chapter two, "The Arab Uprising": "Millions of people mobilized in the streets across more than a dozen countries almost simultaneously. Participation in these protests transcended social class, religious and ethnic differences, and political ideologies" (p. 48). Indeed, in all of the countries where the peaceful protests of the Arab uprisings took place, the protesters came from all elements of their societies; they set aside their religious, tribal and sectarian differences and petitioned their governments as a unified citizenry. This suggests that, at the popular level — especially among the youth, who largely led the public protests — the societal divisions of the past had receded in favor of a more universal view of citizens' rights, personal freedoms and opportunity. However, curiously, one of the main theses of Lynch's book is that regimes played on sectarianism to divide and defeat the protesters.

Lynch also writes, "The Arab uprisings offered a real opportunity for the consolidation of new democratic systems which might finally be responsive to the unmet demands of their citizens" (p. 242). From long experience in the region, I find it hard to suppress the urge to finish that sentence with "as did the Iranian revolution of 1979." Sadly, as happened with that hijacked uprising, while the Arab Spring protesters collectively knew what they were against, they were far from united in what they were for, as the aftermath across the region has made abundantly clear.

Lynch infuses his account with considerable commentary and conjecture on the motives of the regional actors. His depiction of the early euphoria of the Arab Spring giving way to the disappointment and carnage of the Arab wars is a significant point of narrative. However, as an account of the thinking that motivated the regional leaders behind these actions and events, and of the public attitudes in the countries in which the Arab uprisings occurred, Lynch's account is, in my view, incomplete.

What did the uprisings usher in? In Egypt, a popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood government that looked as if it were on its way to exemplifying "one-man, one-vote, one-time." In Tunisia, years of political upheaval and violence. In Libya, militia warlordism and massive economic decline. In Yemen, a failed political transition and ongoing violence. Most tragically, in Syria, the most destructive and costly civil war the world has seen in decades.

Given the state of affairs in these countries, their publics seem largely to have concluded that the emergence of a more responsive governance system, and improved economic opportunity, were unlikely to result from political protest and upheaval. Conflict and competition for power among groups and leaders jockeying to exploit change triggered by the uprisings overwhelmed the good intentions of nonviolent, non-ideological, nonsectarian citizenries. Lynch downplays the possibility that, seeing what the uprisings had wrought, the Arab street may have concluded that bottom-up political change was probably not going to work out very well.

In ascribing motives to various players, especially to the leaderships involved, Lynch states, "Every Arab regime had been built around the singular imperative of ensuring its own grip on power at any cost" (p. 7). This view — that the Arab leaderships and their supporters among the entrenched elites pursued policies that were solely self-serving and not in line with the best interests of the citizenry — discounts basic complexities and dynamics in these countries which, more than the behaviors of leaders, determine the trajectories of their societies.

Lynch proposes that the disastrous outcomes of the Arab uprisings were the result of the intervention of regional actors pursuing their own agendas through proxy wars. It is undeniable, however, that the people of the region got a very strong dose of political reality following the uprisings and seem to have reached a logical conclusion: there was no currently available institutional structure or political process that would deliver them the improved governance and economic opportunity they were seeking. Lynch does note in passing that "the failures of transitional regimes have badly degraded popular enthusiasm for democratic institutions" (p. 244), but he assigns such sentiment little role as a determining factor in the aftermath of the uprisings.

This leads to the bigger question of why, when opportunities for improved governance in the region have arisen, better governance has not followed — as in Iraq after Saddam Hussein, in Libya after Qadhafi, in Egypt after Mubarak and in Yemen after the GCC-orchestrated transition from Ali Abdullah Saleh to Abd Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi. As noted above, for Lynch the main culprit was outside intervention by regional powers engaged in proxy wars (or, at the least, heated competition for influence on the emerging regimes). No doubt, regional jockeying was unhelpful, but I do not believe it was determinative of the outcomes of the uprisings.

Even though historical fault lines in Arab societies — tribal, sectarian and ethnic — are eroding, especially among the youth, the primacy of family, tribe, ethnicity, religion or sect over the broader public good continues to infuse the power structures in these societies. This leads to widespread misuse of power and authority for the benefit of one's identity group, to the detriment of the society as a whole. Cronyism, bribery, corruption and influence-peddling (wasta) are endemic. It also leads to mistrust of those who are not part of one's identity group. In such circumstances, the prospects for an honest, responsive, accountable government's coming into office through popular protest or even the ballot box is remote. Thus, it is instructive that, following what were essentially peaceful efforts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria to petition their governments for positive change, only one — small, well-educated, European-oriented Tunisia — has even a chance of a successful transition. The others are still experiencing widespread internal discord and violence as various power centers vie for primacy.

Moreover, the evidence from relatively free and fair elections in Iraq and Egypt underscores that, even when genuine democratic electoral competition occurs, the resulting governments typically rule in sectarian or ideologically biased ways. Thus, not only — as Lynch points out — has the expulsion of the legitimately elected Mohammed Morsi from the Egyptian presidency destroyed the Muslim Brotherhood's strategy of seeking political power through nonviolence and participation in the political process, but the examples of Iraq and Egypt in the past decade have reinforced among Arab publics that open electoral processes do not leave them with governments any better than strongman autocracies.

The New Arab Wars reprises the criticism that the U.S. government has, over many decades, pursued a policy of working uncritically with non-democratic regimes, rather than promoting American principles and cajoling Arab governments to adopt them. In fact, in view of the internal societal dynamics in these countries, the U.S. government has endeavored to walk a fine line between helping to sow the seeds of positive change — which would allow for better governance and foster the emergence of stronger societal structures — and not triggering instability. In this connection, a brief look at what Lynch describes as "the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy in the 2000s" is instructive. Lynch mentions "aggressive new programs such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI)," which "put a spotlight on the civil society groups" (p. 31). During my tenure as ambassador in Oman we had a robust MEPI program providing support to a variety of civil-society organizations. The point of supporting such groups was to catalyze the engagement of individuals in their communities, empowering the like-minded to come together to address issues affecting their societies. Such engagement is a hallmark of the role played by NGOs in the United States and other Western countries to foster enlightened governance.

While perhaps Lynch's description of these programs as "promoting democracy" does apply to their prospective long-term impact, programs such as MEPI were designed to create the building blocks of an engaged citizenry to complement existing governance structures. Such programs in support of civil-society development create new voices of expertise that can influence governmental programs. Similarly, the U.S. government's longstanding professional and educational exchange programs give smart young potential leaders in these countries exposure to U.S. society and institutions, contributing to the emergence of voices in support of tolerance, moderation and other attributes required for more inclusive, representative governance. In recent years, such connectivity between the Arab countries and the West has been massively expanded through the information revolution and, especially in the last decade, social media. A look at the protesters in the Arab uprisings and their demands suggests that such engagement has had a strong, positive effect on the region, in particular among its young people.

Lynch further claims that the United States is in great disrepute among the peoples of the region ("Decades of imperium and intervention have produced a region where America is despised by both regimes and publics alike," p. 246). It is true that recent actions by U.S. administrations — such as the invasion of Iraq, "enhanced interrogation" of detainees, indefinite detention, drone strikes — have undermined any U.S. claim to the moral high ground. But the animosity directed toward our country by those in the region stems much more from unhappiness with U.S. policy choices than from a rejection of the United States as an exemplar of principles and values. One could easily spark a riot in an Arab capital by having the U.S. embassy announce that it will issue immigrant visas to the first 100 people who show up.

The issue of enmity towards the United States for its policies has long bedeviled U.S. public diplomacy efforts. As I saw during many years as a public-diplomacy officer in the region, broad public dissatisfaction with U.S. policies stems as much from unrealistic views about U.S. capabilities as it does from perceptions of U.S. perfidy. Since becoming the world's sole superpower, the United States has faced the public perception that it can impose its will on any issue anywhere in the world. Lynch correctly notes instances in the current dynamics of the Middle East where U.S. policies have not met local aspirations, most prominently concerning U.S. policy towards the conflict in Syria. Surprisingly, while uniformly praising President Obama for not being misled into pursuing the unworkable (or worse) policies being advocated by his U.S. critics and by leaders and publics in the Middle East, he fails to connect such "correct" policy decisions to the high level of public dissatisfaction with the United States in the region.

One of the major omissions in Lynch's account is a failure to distinguish between the political and sociological dynamics of the Arab monarchies, on the one hand, and the Arab republics, on the other. Over the past several decades, the monarchies have experienced relatively stable governance (their leaders ruling largely by consensus), while the republics have not (their leaders ruling largely by force). There are many reasons for the stability exhibited by the monarchies, including — in the case of the Gulf states — rapidly improving economic conditions and quality of life due to wealth from energy exports, relatively small populations, and the absence of a history of citizen political organization and activism. But one of the defining elements of this stability has also been the role — and the historical legitimacy as a unifying force — of the ruling dynastic monarchies. This is not to say that such dynasties do not have an obligation to evolve; their citizens expect them to do just that, as does the international community. But as social glue to counter destabilizing internal and external forces, these monarchies play a critical role.

When he does consider the Gulf monarchs, Lynch characterizes them as "the fiercely anti-democratic rulers of the Gulf" (p. 141). Certainly, the Gulf monarchies are not Western-style democracies. However, as they have developed in the relatively few decades since their establishment as sovereign states, they have by and large embarked on a steady path toward greater involvement of their citizens in governance. All currently have elected assemblies with varying levels of power and authority, and all enfranchise women in their electoral systems. Lynch also does not mention the reforms that took place in the Gulf monarchies in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. One can certainly question the pace of the expansion of popular inclusion in governance or criticize the extent of the reforms, but the record does not suggest that all of the Gulf monarchies are "fiercely anti-democratic."

My own experience in Oman during the early 2011 protest movement was instructive in this regard. The United States had long worked with Omani leaders to strengthen and deepen the ties between our countries by conducting educational and professional exchange programs (in both directions) and working together to support and expand Oman's civil society. At the same time, Oman's enlightened leader, Sultan Qaboos, has systematically expanded the institutional basis for Omanis to have a greater voice in their governance. If there were any Gulf country that might have seen itself on a course towards a constitutional monarchy, it was the Sultanate of Oman. Sultan Qaboos has made great strides in institutionalizing the exercise of government there, and, as a practical matter, the absence of an heir would seem to suggest less vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. Thus, I can only imagine his surprise and disappointment when, during the relatively mild protests in Oman during the Arab Spring, he saw Omanis clamoring to shut down public musical performances and restore gender segregation in primary schools. Such occurrences suggest that the country's leadership may be more attuned to the values of a modern society than many among its population. This phenomenon is not limited to Oman. Many observers of Saudi Arabia during the rule of the late King Abdullah certainly saw a monarch who was in many respects ahead of his citizenry in seeking to introduce progressive social reform.

In discussing purported motives behind the current policies of the Sunni Arab countries, Lynch also raises the issue of anti-Shiism. There is undeniably widespread fear concerning Iranian actions and intentions vis-à-vis Shia Arab communities. I agree with Lynch that Arab leaders tend to overstate the Iranian meddling in Shia communities in their countries, but I also understand that even paranoids have enemies.

Lynch notes that, as part of a strategy to "spend their way out of trouble," the Gulf states "offered huge new scholarship programs for youth who might otherwise be prime candidates to join protest movements" (p. 59). I would note, however, that a government whose goal is to stifle political and social change would not likely choose to send tens of thousands of the country's brightest young people to the United States and other Western countries to receive a university education. Even to the extent that such scholarship programs might have been viewed as short-term bulwarks against popular protest movements, they certainly must also be seen as a commitment to change on the part of the leadership.

The 14 U.S. presidents who have dealt with the region since FDR met Ibn Saud on the Great Bitter Lake in February of 1945 have understood the importance of the Middle East and American engagement there. They have pursued the realpolitik of dealing with a region emerging from relative global isolation whose populations have, in the span of a few decades, progressed from widespread illiteracy and economic underdevelopment to universal education, economic modernization and deep connectivity to the outside world. The youth-led protests of the Arab Spring suggest that today there is a new generation attuned to more open social and political mores. It has shed many of the region's old prejudices, embracing a world of tolerance and possibility for the pursuit of aspirations in just societies governed by fairness and the rule of law. Lynch himself notes this "profound generational change" (p. 36). Such change portends the steady advancement of the values and principles which Lynch, and those like him who wish the region well, seek to promote. I would encourage them to use their expertise and insights to offer advice to the region's leaders, and support to the region's people, in their efforts toward such peaceful transition in their governments and societies.