WRITING IN THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS in 2008, Max Rodenbeck, the Economist’s Middle East correspondent, called veteran Washington Post reporter Robin Wright’s Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East “in many ways […] an admirable book.” Wright argued that Middle Eastern governments, for their own viability, had to respond to popular pressures for change and tackle the issues of political prisoners, women’s rights, and political Islam. “Perhaps,” Rodenbeck, a longtime Cairene, wrote, “but that sounds closer to concerns in Washington than to the more mundane things, such as jobs, the corruption of local officials, and the soaring cost of marriage, that actually exercise many Middle Easterners.” Democracy was no doubt desirable, but Wright seemed to be projecting a narrow definition of reform. So, Rodenbeck concluded, “One cannot help wondering whether some of the wishful thinking that has proved so injurious when translated into American foreign policy has been influenced by the finely turned but subtly distorting prism of honest and talented reporters such as Wright, reflecting their ultimate faith that one day the rest of the world, and even the benighted Middle East, will come to embrace the American way.”
In the year and a half since Tunisians and Egyptians overthrew their autocrats, sparking popular uprisings in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, the hopeful but otherwise unforeseen Arab spring has produced a bumper crop of new media experts. They can be found on most of the cable news shows proffering insights on Islamist electoral politics, the tactics and importance of young, tech-savvy activists, and the collective desires of a region of 350 million people. Many of these experts seek to create an American storyline where one does not necessarily exist, either by amplifying America’s role in the protests, especially in Egypt, or by suggesting that they had few foreign policy motivations and goals and, therefore, that America need not adapt its policies to profound and popular changes in the region. Such a view plainly ignores that Arab authoritarianism was not only supported by Washington, but was integral to protecting the tenets of America’s Middle East concerns: the flow of oil, Israeli security, and counterterrorism.
Some experts warn of Islamist takeovers by the ballot box, or even cast the Arab spring as a vindication of George W. Bush’s “freedom” agenda. The latter interpretation is a reactionary neoconservative defense, articulated by former Bush administration officials like Elliott Abrams, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, and former Bush speechwriter Paul Wehner. Amid this political culture of misplaced punditry, Fawaz Gerges is a welcome contrast, and a voice of dissent. His answer to the question posed on the cover of his book Obama and the Middle East is a forecast of decline: “We are witnessing the beginning of the end of America's moment in the Middle East. Illegal and unjust wars have not only been costly in lives and money but have also undermined the moral foundation of American power and authority.”read more