Arab Spring, American winter

All Gaul was divided into three parts, Julius Caesar wrote in his “De Bello Gallico.” For America, the Arab world had been divided into two: adversarial and acquiescent Arab authoritarians.

Until now.

The last eight months have witnessed profound changes. The willing and unwilling Arab autocrats have gone or are going the way of the dodo.

What remains — Arab states without strong and authoritative leaders and caught up in lengthy, messy transitions, monarchies trying to co-opt and pre-empt transformational change (Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan); and nonstate actors still at war with themselves (Hezbollah and the Palestinians) — guarantees a turbulent and complex environment for the United States. Few offer a hook on which to hang a set of American policies now broadly unpopular throughout the region.

The long arc of the Arab Spring may yet bring more transparency, accountability, gender equality and, yes, even some semblance of real democracy. But the short term all but guarantees a much less hospitable and forbidding place for America, whose credibility has shrunk.

For 50 years, America dealt with two kinds of Arab leaders: the adversarials (Syria, Libya and Iraq) and the acquiescents (Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and a few key Persian Gulf states). At times, each of the adversarials also played the role of partners for brief periods: Iraq against Iran; Syria on the peace process; Libya on giving up WMD in exchange for an end to its pariah status. But leopards really do not change their spots. The violent ends of Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi and perhaps at some point even the younger Bashar Assad make the case.

For the most part, these Arab authoritarians guaranteed a relatively stable and predictable region in which U.S. interests thrived: successful containment of the former Soviet Union, access to oil at fair prices, security for Israel, close relations with the acquiescents and even progress on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. This left America with a role it understood and could play rather well.

It wasn’t pretty, of course. There was that pesky Arab-Israeli conflict that drove a handful of wars, oil shocks, an Iranian revolution and Islamic extremism, and a few self-inflicted disasters such as Operation Iraqi Freedom. But by and large, the United States got by, its prestige high with acquiescent autocrats and low with their publics.

And why not? America had cut the devil’s bargain: In exchange for giving the friendly autocrats a pass on governance and human rights (and at times reaching out to the adversarials), it was able to enlist their cooperation on a range of issues. But Washington may now find itself in the strange position of getting neither democracy nor stability. America’s stock is lower than it’s ever been, its partners are gone, along with the familiar bad guys, and it’s not at all clear who or what will take the place of those partners. We confront not just an Arab Spring but an array of uncertainties complex enough to run many years to come.

Tunisia, where it all began, appropriately offers the best chance for a working democracy, in part because it’s small and largely irrelevant. In Egypt and Libya, where hopes have been high, you have to wonder. The former is less free, prosperous and secure than it was under Hosni Mubarak and is likely heading for a future like Turkey — but two decades ago. Libya, a country the size of Alaska with only 6 million people and a lot of oil money, should do well. But it isn’t Western Europe. Rival militias, Islamist radicals, outside meddling and just the lack of traditions and experience in self-governance guarantee that Libya will be a long slog.

Elsewhere, matters look a lot worse. In Syria, nobody has a clue: The scenarios run from more of the same to civil war to an Alawite coup against the Assads — even the possibility (now don’t shoot me) of some kind of external military intervention should the bloodletting rise exponentially. We can be pretty confident that whatever transpires, it will be long, complex and bloody. Yemen, which most people (including myself) don’t really understand, is equally opaque. But dollars to doughnuts that won’t be a polity of which Thomas Jefferson would have been proud.

Strange as it seems, the monarchies may well have the best shot at avoiding these kind of painful transitions. Where in varying degrees money, legitimacy from Islam and some enlightened leadership combine (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Oman), reckonings have been averted. For how long is unclear. At some point, if they’re not smart on reform — and even if they are — the bell may toll for the kings too.

I know that people say, be patient, the arc of the Arab Spring is long and potentially a happy one. And for the Arabs, that may well be true. They are seizing control of their destiny and they will be allowed — as they should be, finally — to make their own beds.

But for America, it may not be such a happy experience. Our policies, opposed from one end of this region to the other, are unlikely to change. Our capacity to succeed at war and peacemaking — the real measure of respect and admiration (Libya notwithstanding ) — has diminished along with our street cred. We can’t solve the Palestinian issue, can’t stop Iran from getting the bomb, can’t find a way to achieve victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are still caught up in the devil’s bargain with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

We resemble more a modern-day Gulliver tied up by tiny tribes and by our own illusions than a smart, tough and fair superpower.

If we could disengage and spend more time and resources on our own broken house, we should; but alas, we can’t. And therein lies the conundrum for America today: stuck in a region (with fewer friends) we can’t fix or walk away from.

• Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations.

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