By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
The easy part of the Arab Spring — the part that brought instant gratification to Western elites — is over. That part was about the overthrow of tyrannical regimes in some places and the weakening of them in others. Because the object was only humbling the dictator, it was essentially a liberal affair, an attack on the overcentralization of power. The United States and Israel were not relevant to this initial phase.
The second phase now upon us is about who gets to rule in the streets and in the palace. It is about defining society from the ground up. This part is about political values, and because Islamism is somewhat shaped by views toward the United States and Israel, the United States has been the object of mob fury. Israel is, for the moment, spared. That is only because the anti-Islamic video happened to have originated in the United States. Sooner or later, the mob will vent its anger against Israel directly. After all, frustration with the United States is, in significant measure, due to its support for Israel and Israel's refusal to stop settlement building.
This internal struggle for power will go on for years. Because it involves societies afflicted with severe economic woes, which have little experience with free governance, the new regimes will be preoccupied with merely maintaining power in the face of tumultuous domestic politics. Such weak, preoccupied regimes will have limited capacity to wage war. This is the opposite of the situation in Asia, where governments have consolidated military and governing institutions through decades of economic growth and can now project power outward — leading to territorial disputes in the maritime sphere.
The fact that Arab regimes are inhibited from waging interstate wars is offset by the fact that they have difficulty controlling their own borders and the militant elements within their societies. Thus, the Sinai Peninsula has become more insecure after decades of relative quiescence, and armed groups unconnected to the elected government roam Libya, where geographic distance and tribal identities bedevil central control. Libya is an apt metaphor for the region: It has an elected government but little governance.
Indeed, the Middle East has evolved in stages from organized interstate warfare during the Cold War decades (1956, 1967 and 1973) to the relative anarchy of the Cold War's aftermath. Though, the possibility of interstate warfare remains because of one non-Arab state, Iran — even as major Arab states such as Iraq, Syria and Libya have in varying degrees weakened or dissolved while Islamic militants run amok and intercommunal tensions flare.
Jihadism also will flourish in this power vacuum created by the replacement of strong central authority with weak democratic rule. But rather than a transnational jihadism focused on planning attacks against the United States, we are more likely to see homegrown jihadism preoccupied with political power struggles within each society. After all, some of the pro-western governments al Qaeda sought to topple have already fallen, thus al Qaeda as a force with a pan-Islamic raison d'etre has been somewhat superseded. Everywhere from the Maghreb to the Iranian Plateau, political structures are crumbling, while the possibility of a sectarian bloodbath increases in Syria the longer the fighting there grinds on. Syrian President Bashar al Assad has no possibility to reconstitute his regime; rather, he might emerge as the most powerful warlord among many in Syria, with the Lebanonization of the country being a likely scenario.
The state of anarchy flows naturally from the lack of institutions hidden for decades under the carapace of authoritarian rule. With that rule gone or weakened, feeble or nonexistent bureaucracies must try to cope with mayhem in the streets and in the tribal desert reaches. The Israelis well understand this sobering reality. So far, Israel has only made peace with strong authoritarians. Frightened and besieged democrats do not have the political space to take risks. Likewise, there is no Palestinian leader who is not paranoid and who is not constantly looking over his shoulder. The peace process is in disarray: Israel may, thus, continue to enlarge settlements and then, perhaps at some propitious moment, stage a unilateral, strategic withdrawal from the major West Bank cities and contiguous areas it chooses not to occupy.
The toppling of authoritarian regimes may have been unavoidable, but it has unleashed a whirlwind because stable democracy can take decades to develop. Moreover, in a world of overcrowded megacities beset with bad infrastructure, at a time when media travels at virtually the speed of light, the appearance of mobs because of this or that suspected outrage is the new normal. Middle East geography in such a circumstance has not been negated; it has only become more claustrophobic and more precious.
In this anarchic new Middle East, Egypt is no longer the political anchor for the West that it was until recently. Since the 1970s, beginning with dictator Anwar Sadat and continuing with Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's geographical centrality and demographic heft were a force for regional stability against radical forces. But the new Islamic regime in Cairo must assuage its radical elements, even as internal politics give it little energy for seriously projecting power beyond its borders. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is politically infirm with aging, Brezhnevite rulers grasping for dear life onto the status quo, while nascent youth dissatisfaction fed by the toxic combination of social media and unemployment hovers around them. As for Iran, Marg bar Amrika ("Death to America") is the bumper sticker of the revolution that must be maintained in the face of new economic woes coarsening the society — since revolutionary discipline is now especially required to keep the regime intact.
The key insight to be had from all of this is how little leverage the United States has. The United States cannot nation-build across the Middle East. It can have limited arrangements with local security services in this country and that for the sake of protecting American embassies and other equities. It can encourage moderate forces with aid and use its leverage to influence the Egyptian government on some issues and the Saudi government on others. But the United States cannot, for example, make Libya a strong, well-governed state without an extraordinary effort that would rob Washington of bandwidth elsewhere in the region and around the world.
The Arab Spring, in other words, is about the limiting of American power through the breakdown of authority on which Washington once depended to exert its influence. The fact that the Middle East is more democratic than it once was does not necessarily benefit the United States. This is because democracies are themselves value-neutral: They need not always represent liberal orders, especially if they are frail and unstable.