The Arab Spring, the Media, and America

By the time the “Arab Spring” broke out, the old neoconservative claim that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would embolden pro-Western democratic forces in the Middle East to come alive was dead as a doornail. Still, many Americans from different political persuasions harbored vague feelings of pride that somehow we had inspired the uprising, either through our general example or via the use of social media that we like to think of as “ours.”

But as Wall Street Journal media reporter Keach Hagey notes in her review (from the May/June issue of the Monthly) of a new book on the Arab Spring by Georgetown University’s Marc Lynch, the main thought about America in the minds of most protestors in the various uprisings was how much they disliked our Middle Eastern policies. And while social media were important, they owed little or nothing to their American usages, and were no more important than indigenous media sources like Al Jazeera:

Lynch has long had a special focus on Al Jazeera and the role that the media plays in shaping Arab public opinion. For him, a few falling dictators are less important than what he sees as “a powerful change in the basic stuff of the region’s politics”—a new, media-enabled reality where regimes have to listen to their publics. If experts seemed surprised by the contagiousness of the uprisings, he argues, it was because they did not understand the unique media conditions in the Arab world that bound together separate national struggles into a single narrative.

Lynch traces the roots of this shared media space back to former Egyptian Pres-ident Gamal Abdel Nasser and his use of Voice of the Arabs radio in the 1950s and ’60s to spread pan-Arabism. But Lynch points to this same tumultuous period, dubbed the “Arab Cold War,” as a warning against irrational exuberance among the current moment of pan-Arab unity. Then, like now, mass protests flooded the streets, governments fell, and the region felt swept up in pan-national movement. But none of that tumult led to democracy. On the contrary, it led to decades of despotism, censorship, and the ever-present threat of detention and torture by the secret police.

Still, the independence of most contemporary media from state control is encouraging to the prospects of social change and democracy, Lynch says. But it may not be that encouraging for American influence in the region, thanks to longstanding misteps, most notably by George W. Bush’s administration, whose policies Lynch regards as “a disaster.” And although Lynch advised the Obama campaign in 2007 and still has strong White House ties, he’s not that bullish on the current administration’s approach, either.

You should read Hagey’s whole review, and then Lynch’s book. There’s more about the strategic implications of the Arab Spring, and what the United States needs to do to improve both its image and leverage in the Middle East. It’s not as though the region’s problems are about to go away, or stop mattering.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.