U.S. Foreign Policy and the Arab Spring

As the uncertainty of the Arab Spring continues, the debate on the future of the movement and the U.S. role in it grows into a colorful debate. As a part of this policy debate I was recently asked to review Foreign Policy Association’s Great Decisions episode on the Arab Spring, featuring columnist Mona Eltahawy and Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and also featuring comments from key foreign policy heavyweights like Madeleine Albright, General Michael Hayden, Robert Malley and Carl Gershman.



The debate in the episode is in many ways a small-scale projection of the overall U.S. policy debate on the current and prospective U.S. role in the Arab Spring. It focused on the issues of U.S. military help, danger of militancy, and the Arab Spring view towards Israel and the United States. This article will focus on three of the most under-studies aspects of the U.S. role in the Arab Spring: American policy and the academic debate, the paradigm of ‘doing’ in U.S. foreign policy and the question of overlap between American domestic and foreign policies.

  • Predicting the Arab Spring: U.S. policy and the academic debate

The widespread policy and media narrative of the Arab Spring is that the movement has been a surprise; emerging completely out of the blue, catching every political player flatfooted. ‘Even the regimes and administrations that were targeted by the Arab Spring movements couldn’t see it coming’[iii] – or so it is argued.

While this shock is somewhat understandable among the regimes of the Middle East whose administrations never really established rigorous ‘academia-watch’ departments that follow the academic literature and debate, I can’t really contextualize the surprise in the American executive branch circles as almost every branch have one or more academia-watch programs staffed by quite capable analysts. My curiosity grows even further as it was Gary Fuller, a former CIA political analyst who wrote about the danger of the Middle East ‘youth bulge’ back in 1989 and its possible dangers to regime stability, as well as U.S. Middle East policy[iv]. The youth bulge literature grew in the 1990s, highlighting statistical correlations between nations with youth bulge demographics and the likelihood of socio-economic discontent. Further studies by political scientists like Jack Goldstone,[v] Gunnar Heinsohn[vi] and more recently Richard Cincotta – Christian Mesquida[vii] reinforced Fuller’s observations. But the most critical warning was given by perhaps one of the most read books of its genre, Roger Owen and Şevket Pamuk’s work on Middle East economics, whose concluding chapter argued that based on the MENA region population growth statistics in the 1990s, the region had to maintain a minimum of %7 economic growth. Otherwise, authors warned, the region would fall to youth bulge demonstrations by 2010.[viii]

Furthermore, the assumption that the Middle East youth bulge would create such a domino effect was one of the hypotheses behind the 2003 War in Iraq. Bernard Lewis for example[ix], was aware of the repeated warnings by Middle Eastern demographics experts and argued that it was the duty of the United States to knock the first domino by invading Iraq. In a romanticist Wilsonian spirit, it was argued that the presence of a large U.S. force intended to overthrow perhaps the most hated dictator in the region would inspire the Arabs to rise and overthrow their dictators as well and create a region-wide movement like the Third Wave democracy movements in Eastern Europe. However, due to the way in which the U.S. entered the war in Iraq and handled the conflict ended up delaying this domino effect, effectively causing people to rally around their dictators against a possible American invasion, strengthening the position of the very dictators the United States sought to remove.[x]

However, despite the existence of a substantial literature that warned American policy-makers about the Arab Spring as much as two decades ago (including forecasts commissioned by the intelligence service) Washington appeared unable to make sense of what was happening in the region or what to do about it. This raises serious questions over the executive branch’s handling of academic information and forecasts.

I recall from the International Studies Association (ISA) annual conference of 2010, that a group of senior analysts from various government agencies were boasting how closely foreign policy and intelligence programs were following ‘all that’s going on in the literature’, in response to an inquiry from the audience questioning the government’s rationale of ignoring the academia’s warnings before the war in Iraq. Just about a month after the conference Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation started the Arab Spring. Ever since the American administration has been scrambling – with mixed results – to situate itself with regard to the movement, still not convincing those who think the government organs are following the academic literature – at best – preferentially.

  • U.S. foreign policy and the ‘paradigm of doing’

Go to Google and search for the query: ‘What should the United States do?’ – you will end up with thousands of issues and agenda topics on which some expert is ‘urging’ the United States to do something about. Carry on with the search adding a random country each time; you’d probably be surprised to see that American decision-makers are called on to act in some way on almost every country in the world and every global issue.

Although many American foreign policy professionals don’t like ‘the E-word’, feeling an urge to act in a large volume of area, including literally the other side of the world, is one of the main characteristics of an imperial consciousness.[xi] I don’t necessarily say this in a pejorative way: projecting an imperial consciousness is not the same as being an empire. Yet cost-benefit calculations don’t travel far with ‘normal’ states; their security concerns are geographically close.[xii] The ability to make these calculations globally is the mark of imperial ambition and capabilities.


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downloadbutton3Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 3  No. 2

*Dr. Ünver is the Ertegün Lecturer of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
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