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Ellen LustBack to OpinionEllen Lust

Bin Laden’s dead, but challenges remain

A protester holds shell casings as another man holds up his blood-stained hand following an attack by security forces in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Saturday, April 9, 2011. Photo: AP/Khalil Hamra

Bin Laden is dead, but America’s troubles in the Middle East loom as large as ever. Long before bin Laden was found in Abbottabad, the key challenges facing the U.S. had shifted from the dark, lonely caves of Kandahar to the bright, peopled streets across the region. Popular uprisings, not terrorists, should spur the U.S. to rethink its foreign policy.

Radical Islamist movements had weakened dramatically over the last decade. Pew surveys from 2003 to 2011 report that confidence in Osama bin Laden has dropped from 19 percent to 1 percent in Lebanon, 15 percent to 3 percent in Turkey, 56 percent to 13 percent in Jordan, and 27 percent (in 2006) to 22 percent in Egypt since 2003. Even in the Palestinian territories, where bin Laden’s support is highest, public confidence had dropped from 72 percent to 34 percent. Terrorists still warrant attention, but they are no longer the major threat they once seemed.

Today, the real challenge facing American policymakers comes from the streets. Fear of conservative Islamic rule had once helped insulate regimes from pressures for change. Afraid that radicals would hijack attempts for democratization, secularist opposition chose to stay off the streets. This has changed. Radical Islamists failed to demonstrate their relevance, and moderate Islamists came into increasing contact with secularists. Both groups became increasingly frustrated with stagnant, corrupt dictatorships, and this year, they joined together to challenge regimes. Reflecting on the January uprising, one Egyptian secular activist put it nicely when he told the Wall Street Journal on February 15, 2011, “We just got to know, trust and like each other, even — believe it or not — the (Muslim) Brothers.”

September 11 drove a long-lasting wedge between Americans and Arabs. Almost a decade after the attacks, CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider summed up the situation succinctly:  “The feeling seems to be mutual. We distrust Muslims. They distrust Americans.” In stark contrast, the recent popular uprisings have changed Americans’ views toward the Arab world.  Crude stereotypes of Arabs as Islamist terrorists started to give way to enthusiastic support for wired Arab youths, linked by Facebook and Twitter, peacefully demonstrating to tear down repressive regimes. According to a recent Gallup Poll published on February 7 of this year, 82 percent of Americans supported the pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt.

Yet, like the collapse of the Twin Towers nearly a decade ago, the recent uprisings should also serve as a wake-up call for the U.S. to reexamine its policy toward the region. Despite important differences between 9/11 and the Arab Spring, the takeaway message is the same: America’s long-standing policy of shoring up friendly dictators to maintain stability in the Middle East must come to an end.

However, the Obama administration has so far resisted a fundamental overhaul of conventional policies. It has sought to contain change. In Egypt, the U.S. only reluctantly supported the protesters after it had become clear that Mubarak’s regime would not survive. It subsequently worked with long-standing allies – Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and others — to shore up regimes in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. It has so far also failed to recognize and welcome the opportunities for change that the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, instead remaining silent as Israel cut the transfer of taxes to the Palestinian Authority. Even its engagement in Libya has been halting, demonstrating the lack of coherent policy toward the major changes in the region.

In short, the U.S. continues to formulate policy within a framework that views the U.S. as a hegemonic power in the region, attempting to pick winners and losers, and awarding privileges to authoritarian allies over popular demands for freedom. It aims to “weather the storm” of change rather than embrace it.

This is not surprising. Making policy that anticipates large-scale, unpredicted change goes against decades-long U.S. policy in the region. It is difficult to envision, and antithetical to policy planning. It is easier to hope that the forces of change subside and the need for a new approach evaporates.

However, failing to overhaul U.S. policy is counterproductive. Moving slowly to support popular demands in Egypt, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere has only confirmed to Arabs that the U.S. privileges its own interests over their freedoms. Although the Obama administration belatedly came to their support, many Egyptians emerged from the revolution frustrated with the U.S. Indeed, the January 25 Youth Coalition refused to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, citing her failure to support the revolution from the outset. Where regimes change and new forces to come to power, they will be tempted to gain political legitimacy and popular support through anti-American policies. It is not surprising that Egypt has recently moved to warm relations with both Hamas and Iran.

Throwing our support behind long-standing, but ultimately unpopular, allies will also further erode our regional influence. Our promises to promote democracy after 9/11, followed by timid steps toward change and increased security presence, only weakened U.S. influence. The problem is even more serious today, as the region experiences unprecedented change.  Many seemingly stable allies may become untenable friends tomorrow. Lessons from Iran 1979, repeated in Egypt 2011, are likely to appear again.

As we reflect on the death of bin Laden, we must recognize that fundamental issues in the region remain unresolved. September 11 and the Arab Spring, seemingly discrete events, reveal the need for the U.S. to take a bold new approach with its foreign policy. We failed the first time. Let’s not do so again.

Ellen Lust is an associate professor of political science at Yale University and an associate editor of the new journal, Middle East Law and Governance.