What to think about the Arab Spring? Dour pundits insist that spring is a misnomer. Many are less preoccupied by the odd pairing of spring and death and more troubled by the fact that the spring seems, well, springier for Islamists than it does for secular democrats. It’s true, Islamists are doing well in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, and will likely prosper in Syria and Yemen if the people are given their druthers. That’s unfortunate news for those of us who believe in secular democracy, and sadder still for those who believe in secular dictatorship. But here are a few reasons why hysteria on both the left and right seems ill considered:
• It’s done. Every debate I’ve had on this topic has focused on why what’s coming in Egypt etc is bad for the United States (and Israel). That may be true, but there’s no stuffing the genie back in the bottle.
• It was always coming. In this day and age, leadership that doesn’t have a mandate from the people is precarious. Betting on it long term is a bad bet.
• We can manage if we have to. The United States still enjoys substantial leverage in the region, Barack Obama notwithstanding. We could use it to empower groups that share our values, rather than immediately hopping in the sack with those who don’t (see Brotherhood, Muslim).
• It won’t be easy for the Islamists. In many of the countries where they stand to gain a political foothold, Islamists must lead. That means delivering on the very high expectations of the people, ensuring that economic grievances are addressed, untangling crony economies from holdovers, and managing regional relationships. It’s not as easy as it sounds, particularly for countries like Egypt and Tunisia that lack natural resources.
Is the Arab Spring unmitigated good news? That remains to be seen. All transitions away from tyranny are difficult; expectations that there should be a magical transformation are foolish. The way to ensure U.S. interests are ill served is to prejudge the outcome of these revolutions, to deem all successors to the secular tyrants as untouchable Islamists, and to embrace the status quo antebellum. If the United States wants democracy in the Middle East outside of Israel and Iraq, the best way to advance it is to ensure that institutions are built, that elections are free and fair, and that those who share our values get the bulk of our assistance.
Danielle Pletka is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at AEI