US & Canada

PJ Crowley: After an Arab Spring, what next in 2012?

A general view shows protesters of Tahrir Square in Cairo 21 November 2011
Image caption Egypt's Tahrir Square movement has returned to downtown Cairo to protest against the military

Call 2011 the Year of the Tsunami, both literally and figuratively.

In Japan, while large segments of the country were untouched by the March earthquake and tsunami, everyone was affected in some way. The long-term trajectory is positive, but the road will be difficult.

The same applies to the Middle East and North Africa. Existing governing systems in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya capsized. Others, including Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, continue to confront stormy seas. Every country in the region and beyond, as far away as China and Burma, felt the shock and dealt with its ripple effects.

While facing its own long and difficult road, the Middle East lacks most of the advantages that will guide Japan's recovery - a peaceful neighbourhood, a cohesive population and a strong tradition of effective governance.

Whether the potential created by the Arab awakening in 2011 translates into real progress in 2012 and beyond depends on a number of factors.

Can indigenous reform movements outmanoeuvre entrenched interests? Do the initial winners in transition countries remain faithful to their inclusive rhetoric? Does the region punish (or wink at) those who violently resist change? Does Iran push the nuclear envelope more aggressively than it already is? And will the US and the West remain fully engaged despite political distractions, competing interests and economic realities at home?

Given the abrupt shift in the status quo, the US, Europe and the region have, all things considered, managed well thus far. Three dictators are gone so far (as well as a caliph in waiting, Osama Bin Laden). A leadership change is underway in Yemen and inevitable in Syria.

The impact is not restricted to one part of the world. Kim Jong-il has evidently slowed down the transition to his son. The government of Burma is cautiously opening up.

Without the inspiring images from Tahrir Square, the global photo of the year would be US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Burmese Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi holding hands during a joint press conference in Rangoon, at her house that was her prison barely a year ago.

All autocrats have had to recalibrate and react to the Arab awakening. The Obama administration could hardly have imagined such an opportunity when it came into office committed to a policy of diplomatic engagement.

Electoral diplomacy

But what Hillary Clinton said about Libya recently applies more broadly: now comes the hard part.

The coming year will represent the sternest test of the Obama administration's engagement strategy, but it confronts a number of complicating factors along the way.

First, as the euphoria wears off, more competing agendas and motivations are now surfacing. Identifying those who are part of the solution from those who are part of the problem will become increasingly difficult.

Image caption A year ago, this picture was a distant dream

Take Egypt for example. The protesters are getting impatient. The Egyptian military, a bulwark back in February, has been discredited to some extent by its recent actions. The parliament that emerges early next year will be predisposed towards Islam and against Israel.

It will be no easy trick to effectively engage these groups and to gain credibility and influence while potentially disagreeing with much of their agendas.

It will be even harder given US domestic politics. Republican candidates are already shouting from every stage: "The Islamists are coming, the Islamists are coming." Any action that complicates Israel's strategic thinking becomes a potential campaign issue.

This is likely to limit how aggressive and creative diplomacy will be. Election years are not normally propitious periods for bold thinking and action.

A second limiting factor is the economic crisis, and by extension, the US federal budget.

All countries in the Middle East and North Africa are experiencing economic shocks from the Arab Spring, Egypt foremost among them. Democracies will flourish in the region only if they deliver results, most importantly jobs.

But it is hard to tout job creation overseas with an 8.6% unemployment rate at home in the United States. Civilian assistance from the US to Egypt pales in comparison to its military support, and is well below what is needed, particularly in the short-term.

Unfortunately, at a time when the need for foreign aid is rising sharply, the state department budget is already shrinking.

It will inevitably go down further as members of Congress look for alternatives to cutting defence spending given the failure of the not-so-super-committee. The state department will end up with fewer tools in its diplomatic and development toolbox than are needed.

Tehran troubles

The greatest unknown is Iran. The Iranian leadership has internalised the lessons from Iraq and Libya, two cases where leaders had nuclear programs, gave them up and are now dead.

Iran's nuclear centrifuges are likely to keep spinning, although how close that puts Tehran to the nuclear threshold remains unclear.

Iran is likely to be the primary foreign policy issue in the US election campaign. Expect some tough talk, but not decisive action. Military options will remain on the table. The United States will continue to look for entities to sanction, and encourage greater action by countries in Europe and Asia.

Washington is unlikely to shut down Iran's energy sector and risk a spike in energy prices that could send the economy back into recession and the president back into private life.

The more Iran heats up as an issue, the less time, space and capacity is available to deal with the rest of the region.

The United States is a superpower, but there is a limit to the number of balls it can effectively keep in the air at one time.

The fact that 2011 was a bad year for autocrats does not guarantee that 2012 will be a good year for democrats.

The US can shape and reinforce behaviours that enable reform movements to stay the course and mature over time, but it cannot dictate specific outcomes. Those days are gone.

Call 2012 the Year of Possibility. Things could go well - or not.

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