Who Killed the Arab Spring?
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.