The Arab Spring Goes up in Flames

Remember the Arab Spring? It started in December 2010 with the suicide of a street peddler in Tunisia, and spread across the Arab world, shaking up long-entrenched regimes in a popular, mostly nonviolent democratic movement that held so much promise.

Now that promise has been burned to a crisp, all because a stupid bigot and con man made a vile little film about the Prophet Muhammad called “The Innocence of Muslims.” No one noticed it until Arabic subtitles were slapped on, then it went viral, and was exploited by fanatic Islamists who incited mobs to violence against US embassies from Egypt to Libya to Sudan to Indonesia.

Most tragically, four Americans, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in a siege on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya which may have been stage-managed by Al Qaeda.

The fury against the US is unsettling and to me, frankly, annoying. The way these mobs link the US government with this slimy little film is based on wholesale ignorance of how our country works. It’s the result of decades of conspiracy theories fed to Arab populations by cynical governments, like that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, who stayed in power by deflecting criticism outwards—to Israel and to Egypt’s best ally, the US. He may not have done that personally (while cashing checks for billions of dollars in US aid), but he, like other Arab dictators, allowed it to happen.

Now, as the Muslim Brotherhood consolidates its power in Egypt, President Obama has said of that country: “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.” What an amazing turnabout from 35 years of diplomacy—and in a late night phone call he read Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi the riot act: protect our embassy or else. “Or else,” of course, refers to pulling the plug on the $1.5 billion in aid US taxpayers give Egypt each year.

An American school near the US Embassy in Tunis was burned down by rioters. AP Photo/Hassene Dridi.

The president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were taken aback by the Arab Spring, dithering before doing the only thing they could do: urge Mubarak and other dictators to step aside and hold democratic elections. That’s what our country stands for and to do otherwise would have betrayed our principles in the region and elsewhere. But the Muslim world is full of deep resentments which boil over, especially when religion is involved, and the lack of economic opportunity is so pervasive it can’t be remedied quickly, a recipe for frustration and violence.

So, the president’s Middle East policy is in shambles. Egypt is suddenly no longer an ally and he’s in a cold war with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. He “led from behind” in Libya and has been missing in action in Syria. And Iran? I take him at his word, but who knows? Mitt Romney has handled the whole situation abysmally, but he has a point in his criticisms of the president’s policy.

The rioters are a small minority, but they represent a much larger sentiment—a deep hatred of America that seems to be getting worse the more we try to help them achieve democracy. Efforts to do that by diplomats like Chris Stevens were noble and heroic, but we need to do a major rethinking now.

It’s time to disengage from the Arab world, focus strategically on Asia, and build energy independence (with proper environmental safeguards) the same way we decided to go to the moon. And we shouldn’t put our own people in harm’s way—and spend taxpayers’ dollars–naively trying to bring democracy to countries that clearly aren’t ready for it.

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