Voice

The Terrible Twos

Can Washington prevent the turbulent Arab Spring countries from going the way of the post-Soviet states?

We have reached the second anniversary of the Arab Spring, but no one is celebrating; the divisions inside the "post-revolutionary" countries of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have become so pronounced, and have provoked so much turbulence and violence, that a sense of grim foreboding has almost entirely eclipsed the giddy atmosphere of 2011. Optimism says that we are witnessing the inevitable birth pangs of democracy; pessimism says that the joyous scenes of two years ago will degenerate into yet deeper political and sectarian strife.

I have been trying to think about analogies that could offer some guidance for what the future holds. The obvious one is Eastern Europe after 1989 -- there, too, millions of people flooded the streets to demand freedom, overwhelming the benumbed autocracies which had ruled over them. But the two situations resemble one another only in their birth: Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and the like had long traditions of liberal and even democratic rule, and shucked off communism as an alien and despised ideology. Moreover, Eastern Europe was pretty rich by global standards. A slightly closer analogy is Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s; but nations like Brazil and Argentina left behind military rule through "pacted" transitions in which political elites agreed to surrender their power, easing social tensions and creating consensus around democratic rule.

Larry Diamond, the democracy theorist at Stanford University, suggested to me that the most useful analogy is the post-Soviet space, where a dozen new nations with no prior experience of democratic rule left behind a hated system and struggled to create something new. This is not a particularly encouraging comparison. As Diamond points out in his 2008 book, The Spirit of Democracy, nine of those states are authoritarian while the other three -- Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova -- are "illiberal, even questionably democratic, and unstable."

Guarded optimism on the Arab Spring -- if one can still use that inspirational term --consists of the recognition that societies deeply damaged by autocratic rule and economic failure take a generation to heal. It is still very early days. This is still my view. But the Soviet Union passed into history in 1991, and there's precious little democratic light at the end of the Russian tunnel. Steven Sestanovich, a Russia scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that the crowds that filled the streets of Moscow in 1991 were every bit as large, passionate, and as filled with a sense of destiny as those in Tahrir Square. The old system felt just as discredited. But the democratic order created under Boris Yeltsin was simply too weak to curb the energies unleashed by the colossal scramble for wealth as Russia privatized its state-owned resources. Into the ensuing vacuum stepped a strongman, Vladimir Putin.

Egypt's revolutionaries have begun to think of President Mohammed Morsy as their Putin, consolidating power and crushing dissent. But it's much more likely, as Sestanovich observes, that Morsy will prove to be Egypt's Yeltsin, presiding fecklessly over weak institutions and an increasingly fragmented polity. Yeltsin's Russia resisted demands for market reform from the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Morsy's government has spent months putting off an agreement with the IMF even as foreign exchange reserves dwindle down to a three-month supply. Morsy has been unable or unwilling to curb the hated security forces directed by the Interior Ministry, deepening the outrage at his high-handed political tactics. We should remember that Yeltsin was first seen as a bully, and only later as a weakling. Morsy's own position is hardly secure; he may react to his growing unpopularity by becoming more autocratic, which will in turn provoke more protest.

Still, the post-Soviet space offers many different models. Kazakhstan's oil wealth allows it to buy off protest, as the Gulf states have largely done. The Baltic nations have become fully incorporated into the West, as many Tunisians aspire to be. Ukraine and Georgia, for all their problems, have conducted fair elections in which the incumbent lost, and accepted his defeat. It's not unreasonable to feel hopeful about them.

But here the analogy falters. The people of Ukraine and Georgia, and even more of the Baltics, and still more Eastern Europe, saw in the West -- and in democracy -- the salvation they sought from Soviet rule; nationalism predisposed them to democracy even where historical experience did not. Many people in the Arab world, by contrast, see Islam as the salvation from secular authoritarianism. Not only does nationalism not dictate democracy, but religious identity offers a powerful rival ideology to it, even if the two are not intrinsically incompatible. Even in Tunisia, a nation with one foot in the Mediterranean, the hardline Islamists known as Salafists have derailed what had appeared to be a rough social consensus around liberal constitutionalism. There are still good reasons to feel hopeful about Tunisia. But the question of identity will vex Arab societies much as the question of property did Russia; and only a deep commitment to pluralism will prevent resurgent Islam from splitting these countries apart.

My colleague Marc Lynch has recently challenged academics and policy experts to explain what the United States can actually do to strengthen democratic forces in Egypt. The post-Soviet experience may offer some useful lessons here. First, the United States can only be an anxious spectator on the most primal issues. In Power and Purpose, an analysis of American policy towards Russia after 1991, James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul (now ambassador in Moscow) conclude that, despite concerted efforts by President Bill Clinton,  Washington was able to do very little to influence Yeltsin. Even had Clinton been more willing to speak out in the face of Yeltsin's democratic backsliding, they conclude, the United States probably lacked the leverage to move Russian policy. On the other hand, they add, "words do matter," and Clinton was far too constrained by the fear of losing Yeltsin as a partner on global or regional issues.

That is very much where President Barack Obama stands today with Egypt and Morsy. There's nothing Obama can do to affect the likely Islamic cast of Egypt's new constitution. But the White House's reluctance to criticize Morsy after he played a very useful role brokering a truce between Israel and Hezbollah has made it that much easier for Egypt's leader to follow his worst impulses. Obama seems to have pushed all his chips on Morsy, as Clinton did on Yeltsin -- though the Egyptian leader's secular rivals seem so feckless that it's easy to understand Obama's logic. The Clinton administration pushed a giant $22.8 billion package through the IMF for Russia, which Moscow promptly misused. That won't happen with Egypt, which is now balking at the IMF's conditions. But the Obama administration must adopt a less Morsy-centric policy. "You don't try to pick winners," Larry Diamond says. "You defend the process." And Washington can't issue blank checks, even though Egypt urgently needs financial help. At the very least, U.S. aid should be directed away from the military and towards security sector reform, as Congress is now considering.

The post-Soviet case reminds us that the long term really is long. The United States, Europe, and private actors made a real difference at the climactic moments of democratic upheaval in Georgia and Ukraine almost a decade ago, but now they have to engage in the slow and unglamorous process of training political parties, nurturing civil society, and giving economic advice as well as assistance. Defending the democratic process is an enterprise for the patient. It's way, way too early to despair about the direction of Egypt or Libya, much less Tunisia. (It may not be too early in the case of Iraq.) It's unlikely that any of them will wind up like Estonia -- or, for that matter, Turkmenistan. But they've got a decent shot at Ukraine.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Five-Year Engagement

As Obama begins his second term, one thing is clear: the administration's Iran policy is failing. What now, Mr. President?

There is no better example of an Obama administration initiative that has succeeded on its own terms, and yet failed as policy, than Iran. By engaging the regime in Tehran, and being rebuffed, the White House has been able to enlist China, Russia, and the European Union in imposing tough sanctions on Iran. By steadily ratcheting up those sanctions, the administration has been able to gradually squeeze the Iranian economy. By insisting that "containment" is not an option, Obama has persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he need not launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities -- at least not any time soon.

Obama has done everything right, and yet his Iran policy is failing. There is no evidence that the sanctions will bring Iran to its knees and force the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to accept the humiliation of abandoning his nuclear program. But neither is there any sign of new thinking in the White House. "I don't see how what didn't work last year is going to work this year," says Vali Nasr, who served in the Obama State Department before becoming dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He might not get much of an argument from White House officials, who, the New York Times recently noted, "seem content with stalemate."

The United States is not negotiating directly with Iran but rather doing so through the P5+1, which consists of the five permanent Security Council members and Germany. The P5+1's current position is that Iran must stop enriching nuclear fuel to 20 percent purity -- a point from which Iran could quickly move to weapons-grade material -- transfer its existing stock of such fuel to a third country, and shut down one of its two enrichment facilities, known as Fordow. In exchange, the parties will help Iran produce such fuel for medical purposes, which the regime claims is its actual goal. Iran has refused, saying it will not shut down Fordow.

But the current state of play masks the larger issue, which is that the ayatollah and those around him believe the United States wants to make Iran cry uncle -- which happens to be true. The next round of P5+1 negotiations, now scheduled for Feb. 25 in Kazakhstan, are almost certainly not going to go anywhere unless the United States signals that it is prepared to make what the Iranians view as meaningful and equivalent moves in exchange for Iranian concessions. Arms-control experts say that both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Catherine Ashton, head of foreign affairs for the European Union, favor offering Iran a reduction in sanctions; but there's a limit to what they can do without the United States.

Of course, such flexibility would be pointless if Iran is simply hell-bent on gaining the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. The signals, as always with Iran, are cryptic. Iranian authorities have told nuclear inspectors that they plan to install a new generation of centrifuges in order to accelerate enrichment. And yet Iran also chose to convert some of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for medical use rather than approach the amount needed for a bomb, leading Israeli authorities to predict that Iran wouldn't be able to build a bomb before 2015 or 2016. Last week, Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei's foreign policy advisor, publicly criticized officials who have treated the negotiations dismissively. Presumably, he was thinking of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has compared Iran's nuclear program to a train without brakes.

Iran is now at the outset of what promises to be a raucous presidential election, and may be no more capable of serious negotiations between now and June than the United States was in 2012. But what is clear is that the sanctions have moderated Iranian behavior and rhetoric. At the same time, as the Times also noted, the economic pressure is not nearly great enough to compel concessions that the regime would view as a blow to national pride. In short, Iran might -- might -- be more willing to accept a face-saving compromise than they were a year or two ago, but will need serious inducements to do so.

What would that entail? Virtually all the proposals that have come from outside experts suggest that the P5+1 begin with modest confidence-building measures, especially in the period before the election. A recent report by the Arms Control Association enumerates several of them. Western diplomats, for example, could take up Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign minister, on his proposal to limit the "extent" of enrichment -- i.e., well below 20 percent -- in exchange for fuel rods for the research reaction and a recognition of Iran's "right to enrich," a notional concept the United States already supports under specified conditions. Or Iran could suspend 20-percent enrichment in exchange for a suspension of new sanctions. But Iran is unlikely to accept even such small steps unless it felt that additional moves would win additional explicit concessions.

Beyond that, the outlines of what in Middle East peacemaking is known as "final status" are clear enough: Iran agrees to verifiable inspections to ensure that it does not enrich uranium beyond 3.5 percent and does not pursue a nuclear weapons program, while the West accepts Iran's "right to enrich" and dismantles sanctions. Of course, the outlines of a Middle East peace deal are clear enough, too. But in both cases, neither side trusts the other, and each demands that the other go first. Instead, nobody goes anywhere.

U.S. officials have very good reason to be wary of Iran's bona fides. In 2009, they reached a deal with Iranian negotiators to send the stockpile of highly enriched uranium out of the country -- only to see the ayatollah repudiate it. As Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert with the Council on Foreign Relations puts it, "Khamenei has created a politics where it's hard for him to compromise." But so has the United States. Anyone who watched Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing knows that it is an article of faith in Congress -- and pretty much a bipartisan one -- that Iran is a faithless, illegitimate terrorist state that will be deterred from building a bomb only by the threat of massive attack. Had Hagel been foolish enough to suggest that the United States offer to reduce sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions, the White House would have had to find a new candidate for defense secretary.

It's the U.S. Congress that arguably holds the high cards, though the White House put them in its hands. The most potent sanctions are legislated, and have been written in such a way that they will be very hard to unwind. Obama can waive them for up to six months. But the ayatollah is not about to make irreversible decisions in exchange for six months of relief.

The White House is thus stuck between Tehran and Capitol Hill. And it can't live long with the current stalemate. After all, Obama has said that "containment" is not an option. He is hoping that the combination of economic pain and fear of military action will bring Tehran to its senses. If it doesn't, the president has said that he is prepared to use force. Perhaps he feels that just as spurned engagement served as the predicate for tough sanctions, so would failed negotiations lay the predicate for a broadly supported strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Iran left us no choice, he might say, as the bombers fly.

That would constitute a diplomatic triumph ... if a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities is a good idea. If in fact it's a dreadful prospect -- worse, perhaps, even than containment -- then it would constitute a failure that would obliterate the record of adroit diplomacy of the last four years. Obama understands very well -- even if many members of Congress do not -- that even our worst adversaries have interests of their own, that those interests feel as legitimate to them as ours do to us, and that we at least have a chance of settling disputes with them if we can find the place where our interests overlap. The time has come for him to apply that wisdom to Iran.

Alex Wong/Getty Images