There is a sour mood nowadays about the so-called Arab Spring. Armed gangs roam in Libya, Salafists win votes in Egypt, and minorities like the Egyptian Copts live in fear -- as does the Shiite majority in Bahrain. The whole "experiment" seems to some critics to be a foolish, if idealistic project that promises to do nothing but wreak havoc in the Middle East. These same critics cast blame at the Americans who applauded the Arab revolts of the past year: naive, ideological, ignorant, dangerous folk.
As one of those folk, allow me to strike back.
The failures of the Arab world's rulers were manifest and explicitly described well before 2011, and it was no secret that these deficiencies threatened their hold on power. In 2002, the U.N. Development Program's Arab Human Development Report noted that the spread of democracy in recent decades from Latin America to Eastern Europe "has barely reached the Arab States." It was precisely this lack of freedom, the report argued, that "undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development."
U.S. President George W. Bush recognized this stark reality. "Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism?" he asked at the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."
Bush and the U.N. Development Program's analysis were right, and those who judged that the old regimes could survive forever were wrong. What has been called "authoritarian resilience" turned out to be less impressive after all, and the popular hatred of those regimes much greater.
The Arab Spring is therefore not a peculiarity of history, but a natural outcome for regimes that had quite simply become illegitimate in the eyes of their subjects. Of the possible sources of legitimacy -- such as democracy, religion, monarchic succession, or the creation of great prosperity -- they had none. They were kept in place solely by force, and they were far less stable than the vast majority of scholars, diplomats, and political leaders thought. They were not overthrown because Bush criticized them or President Barack Obama failed to shore them up, but because they lacked a coherent defense of their own rule.
Thus the neocons, democrats, and others who applauded the Arab uprisings were right, for what was the alternative? To applaud continued oppression? To instruct the rulers on better tactics, the way Iran is presumably lecturing (and arming) Syria's Bashar al-Assad? Such a stance would have made a mockery of American ideals, would have failed to keep these hated regimes in place for very long, and would have left behind a deep, almost ineradicable anti-Americanism. This kind of so-called "realpolitik" is the path U.S. President Richard Nixon's administration took after the Greek military coup in 1967, and nearly a half-century later the Greeks have still not forgiven the United States.
Of course, the best answer is that we should have been pushing harder for reform all along, but that is after all the Bush/neocon/democracy activist line. Take U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo or Bush's second inaugural address -- both reviled by "realists." It would be nice if some of the critics now admitted that such speeches were prophetic, even if the United States was far too tentative in adopting, as Bush put it at the National Endowment for Democracy, "a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."
Instead, the critics condemn such a strategy for producing the dangers we now see. That is exactly wrong, for it was in fact the policy of ignoring gross oppression that helped bring us to the precipice of today's dangers. Bush, after all, was not urging instant remedies; he said democratization was "the concentrated work of generations." He was urging reform, in part because it is usually far safer than revolution. Those who thought "durable authoritarianism" could persist forever have far more to apologize for than Bush, democracy activists, or neocons do.
But we are where we are, so the next question is whether the Arab Spring will actually fulfill its promise of greater democratic rights or whether it will simply usher in an era of extremist Islamist regimes or new forms of authoritarianism. The pessimists might yet be proved right -- any comparison of the Arab lands to Eastern Europe suggests that many positive elements are missing, not least the magnet and model of the European Union.