Who Killed the Arab Spring?


Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (PublicAffairs, 2016).


On May 19, 2011, President Barack Obama stood in the ornate Ben Franklin Room on the State Department’s 8th floor and called for a broad change of approach in America’s engagement with the Middle East, making clear that he backed political and economic reform. Responding to the dizzying first six months of the Arab Spring, Obama reiterated America’s enduring security interests, yet acknowledged that grievances had accrued among ordinary people that “only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense.” The speech was lauded for its sharp diagnosis of the problem and willingness not to pull punches. It was also widely interpreted as a dramatic swing away from Obama’s customary caution and pragmatism — many commentators remarked about its exuberance.

Back then, the Arab Spring was still seen as reason for optimism. For many of us then working in the White House at the time, it recalled the heady days of 1989, when walls came down and the Cold War ended. As Obama told us in the weeks before the speech, he wanted to do some “truth-telling” about what was going on and how the United States needed to embrace this transformation and change its approach.

Yet toward the end of his speech, Obama made mention of three places that, unintentionally, foreshadowed the challenges to come. Despite all the uncertainties, he wanted to recall the reasons to have hope. He cited the examples of the Libyan city of Benghazi, at that moment protected by U.S. and allied planes attacking Qadhafi’s forces; young people cramming Egypt’s Tahir Square to demand political change; and the protestors in Syria, braving bullets while chanting “peaceful, peaceful.” In May 2011, these examples symbolized potential, and his cautious confidence seemed reasonable. Yet in the years to come, it was in these three places most of all — Libya, Egypt, and Syria — where the Arab Spring died.

The story of how this happened has already produced a pile of books, but I can think of few better than Marc Lynch’s The New Arab Wars. Sober, insightful, self-critical, and at times searing, this book is one of the clearest accounts yet of the tangled mess of today’s Middle East. Lynch, a well-respected political scientist at George Washington University, was one of the scholars we would reach out to for insight on what was happening in the Arab world when I served in the Obama administration. With this book, he has given us not another scholarly tome, but an indispensable autopsy of the Arab Spring. It is also the best-informed and sharpest pushback to the Washington wisdom on the Middle East —  what Obama has famously called the “playbook” — I have read.

Thinking of this as a post-mortem is fitting, because while reading this book I was reminded of the brilliant account written by the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann, of that country’s breakup and descent into violence in the early 1990s. In his final cable to Washington in May 1992 — written exactly 19 years before Obama’s Arab Spring speech — Zimmermann described the causes of Yugoslavia’s death by using the children’s nursery rhyme, “Who Killed Cock Robin?,” a parable with culprits, witnesses, gravediggers, and mourners, but no one to save the victim. Both simple and poignant, it seems an appropriate way to assess Lynch’s tragic tale.

Who killed Cock Robin?

I, said the Sparrow,

with my bow and arrow,

I killed Cock Robin.

Lynch makes clear that it is Arab autocracies who shot the arrow — actually, two arrows — into the Arab Spring’s heart. First, by failing to govern effectively for decades and therefore unable to meet their people’s expectations for better lives, they helped create the conditions for greater sectarianism, extremism, and popular discontent that sparked the uprisings. Once these forces were unleashed in 2011, they fired the second arrow, pumping weapons and money into Libya and Syria and backing the al-Sisi regime in Egypt. As Lynch writes, the uprisings did not fail because of devious Islamists or an Arab lack of readiness for democracy, but “primarily because the regimes they challenged killed it.”

One of the great strengths of Lynch’s book is how it weaves together the regional and international context in which these local uprisings unfolded. The Arab Spring was a truly transnational phenomenon, in that what happened in individual countries was shaped by outside forces, although not exclusively of course. Lynch describes four overlapping conflicts: first, the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran; second, the struggle for leadership in the Sunni Arab world between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey; third, the fight for dominance within Islamist politics, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Al Qaeda and ISIL; and fourth, the broader regional struggle between autocracies and mobilized societies. The mix of these forces helps explain the arc of the regional meltdown. Lynch concludes, “The Arab uprisings began in transnational diffusion, ended in transnational repression, and birthed transnational wars.”

Who saw him die?

I, said the Fly,

with my little eye,

I saw him die.

The death of the Arab Spring had many witnesses, with the United States being the most prominent. Lynch persuasively argues that Obama’s efforts to alter America’s role in the region — or more accurately, to undo the mistakes of the George W. Bush administration — was the inescapable backdrop to the Arab Spring’s transnational battles.

There is no question that all of America’s long-standing partners have been rattled by recent policy changes — whether that means Washington dealing directly (and sometimes secretly) with Iran to close a nuclear deal, the willingness to see Mubarak step down in Egypt (and the perception that Washington pushed him out), the unwillingness to go all-in in Syria and take out Assad, or the bitter political differences between the United States and Israel at the highest levels. Looking beyond the region, Gulf Arab partners are worried that U.S. energy independence means they have less leverage over Washington, and that the strategy of “rebalancing” to Asia means less attention paid to their priorities.  Moreover, Lynch notes, placing greater emphasis on political reform — which was what Obama’s May 2011 speech was all about — had the perverse effect of causing Arab leaders to double down on their resistance to democratic change, as well as their suspicions of the United States.

But are Washington’s actions or inactions responsible for the turmoil we see today? This is where many readers will find Lynch most provocative. He rebuts the prevailing narrative that if only the United States had become more involved in crises like Libya and Syria then it could have stemmed the instability. Instead, he argues, greater American involvement — whether that meant keeping troops in Iraq after 2011, arming the Syrian rebels, or overruling the objections of the Libyan government and deploying U.S. peacekeeping troops there after Qadhafi’s fall — would have made things worse.  Lynch is skeptical that the United States could have done much to affect a better outcome in any of these crises.

In this way, Lynch offers a spirited and convincing defense of Obama’s approach towards the Middle East. This is especially the case with Syria, a country whose descent into hell he recounts in grim detail. But, he calls out critics who rate Obama’s alleged passivity in Syria on the same level as Bush’s intervention in Iraq, as though both presidents are equally culpable for the region’s turmoil. That’s a convenient excuse — don’t just blame us, it’s Obama’s fault too! — but it is false equivalence. It also overstates the ability of the United States to shape events in Syria. And as Lynch argues, it shows the problem with the debate in Washington: Obama’s “Washington playbook,” or what I describe in my current book as “foreign policy breakdown.” Lynch concludes that “perhaps Obama’s greatest sin in the eyes of the Washington consensus was to have learned the lessons of Iraq.”

Who’ll dig his grave?

I, said the Owl,

with my little trowel,

I’ll dig his grave.

Numerous gravediggers buried the Arab Spring — deep economic and social ills, ineffective leaders, weak institutions, extremist groups — but the greatest is regional power politics. Power rivalries played out in every corner of the Arab world, and the stakes were huge. As Lynch describes, “all of the civil wars ripping apart Arab countries have been shaped profoundly by transnational flows of money, information, people, and guns.”

Countries like Egypt that had once vied for regional leadership became the arena in which these struggles took place. Libya — which initially brought unusual consensus among Arab states to intervene (with Qatar leading the charge), as well as a reversal of such long-standing regional norms as respect for sovereignty and non-intervention —devolved into a proxy war with different countries backing different militias. And this set the stage for Syria, which from the beginning has been a cauldron of regional rivalries, whose terrible consequences we will be living with for a generation.

Once again, these power struggles were exacerbated by disagreements between Washington and its closest regional partners. Sometimes Lynch goes too far, such as his categorical assertion that the United States “has no real allies” in the Middle East, and his call for “consolidated retrenchment” — which seems to be another way of saying strategic withdrawal. While some of these relationships are, as Obama puts it, “complicated,” they do serve core U.S. interests, and despite a myth of American disengagement from the region, in many ways it is doing as much as ever.

There is a reason the administration has put so much diplomatic bandwidth, political capital, and military muscle into making allies like Israel and our regional partners in the Gulf  stronger. Yet at the same time, during the past seven years, both before and after the Arab Spring, these relationships have been tested by diverging policy priorities and changing U.S. goals. Whether the issue is how to deal with Iran or how to deal with Assad, Washington’s closest partners often disagreed with the White House’s strategies and objectives. As Lynch explains, their frustrations mounted not because of Obama’s alleged weakness, but because of his strength in not changing direction despite considerable pressure.

Who’ll be chief mourner?

I, said the Dove,

I mourn for my love,

I’ll be chief mourner.

Considering the terror, hardship, and tragedy that has convulsed through the Middle East since 2011 — as well as how this had metastasized elsewhere, especially in Europe — it may seem tempting to think the Arab Spring will have few mourners, to believe that we all would have been better off had it never happened and the region could return to the status quo ante. Yet, it is impossible to finish Lynch’s book and have much nostalgia for the old order. Instead, one mourns for the potential the Arab Spring once promised, and for the hopes and ambitions of those millions of common citizens throughout the region who stood up in hopes for a greater voice and a better life, only to have them crushed.

All the birds of the air

fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,

when they heard the bell toll

for poor Cock Robin.


Derek Chollet is author of the book The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World.  During the Obama administration he served at the State Department, White House, and Pentagon, and is currently with The German Marshall Fund of the United States.