The Middle East is Changing: But is U.S. Policy?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The (second) Arab spring—one of the most remarkable outpourings of democratic sentiment in history—was not supposed to happen. Arab regimes, if nothing else, were good at repression. They had no recognizable ideology beyond self-perpetuation. It seemed to work. Occasionally, they delivered impressive economic growth (but seemed almost entirely unconcerned with redistribution). They chugged along, coming up with a curious blend of brutality and, if necessary, insincere democratic openings.

This led to an odd phenomenon in Washington, D.C. Everyone knew the regimes would fall—eventually—but few seemed particularly interested in doing much about it. They’d last at least ten or 15 years or maybe 50. But this was precisely the problem with autocratic regimes. It was only a matter of time. Autocracies, by definition, are temporary. It’s difficult to recall it now, but the Bush Administration seemed, even if for a short while, to be making precisely that argument. The status quo was “untenable,” Bush officials were fond of saying. Well, the status quo was untenable.

The “stability paradigm”—exchanging ideals for interests in the Middle East—has proven foolhardy and, perhaps worse, naïve. Instead of hard-nosed realpolitik, foreign-policy realists, in particular, put their heads in the stand, unwilling to look at, much less understand, the shifting dynamics of a region in turmoil.

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