The World After the Arab Spring

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston. The United Nations says Syria has reached a shameful milestone. A million children are now refugees of the war. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gutierrez says Syria is facing the risk of losing an entire generation and no one seems able to do anything about it.

Antonio Gutierrez: I think the international community has been losing capacity to prevent conflicts and to timely solve conflicts and nowhere else in the world is this so obvious as in Syria. It goes on and on and on, and international community was not able until now to come together to make sure that the fighting stops. And then the needs of these children are so immense that the response capacity of international community has been very far from being able to really address those needs in an effective way.

Werman: Meantime, President Obama told CNN that the possible chemical attack in Syria this week was "a big event of grave concern." But he said the US is waiting for conclusive evidence that chemical weapons were used in the suburbs of Damascus. So with these two grim events, are we reaching a tipping point with Syria right now? That's a question I put to Paul Danahar. He's a former bureau chief for the BBC, and he's just written a book about the upheaval sweeping the Arab world.

Paul Danahar: When you draw a red line and you're the most powerful nation on the planet, there comes a point where you have to be seen to be doing something about it. So I think we are getting to a point now where, if this has been a gas attack by the Syrians, and I think what the trigger might be is not necessarily evidence, but perhaps a refusal of the Syrians to allow an investigation to take place, I think we will see some action taking place. I think it is likely to be air strikes from a distance, rather than risking American lives over Syrian air space. But I think there's another factor here and that is the Iranian nuclear issue. Because America's drawn a line in the sand there too, and that line affects two people. It affects the Iranians, but it's also a reassurance to Israel. And if America is not seen to stand by its promises to Israel, that a line in the sand is a line in the sand, then Israel will want to go it alone, or at least they will be pressured to go it alone. So I think action probably will take place, and I think it's to do with two issues. One is Syria, and the other is to reassure Israel that it means business on Iran.

Werman: The US is drawing lots of lines in the sand in the Mideast, as you indicate, and you seem pretty clear in your book that the US is really at sea right now in the Mideast. Is it too late for US intervention in Syria, or in any of the crises, like Egypt right now?

Danahar: I don't think America really wants to get involved in anyone else's big problems in the Middle East. I think really we've seen a policy of containment in the Middle East with the Obama administration. Nothing they've tried in Syria has really worked. They've helped out with the humanitarian disaster that has unfolded, but none of their policies, from calling for Assad to go, to trying to pull together a viable opposition, to trying to tip the balance in their favor on the ground, to trying to keep the jihadist elements out. None of that's really worked. Obama clearly wants to get America out of wars. I do think we are looking at an American president that is basically saying, I don't want to get involved unless I really, really have to.

Werman: You quote a diplomat in your book who refers to the pre-Arab Spring days when, I think she points out it was so cynical, but life was much easier back then to deal with dictators. I'm wondering, is the US struggling to find a stake in the Mideast right now because, A, it just doesn't get the post-dictator paradigm, or B, because the US might be worried that if it tries to get more deeply involved there could be a kind of humiliating backlash along the lines of, you supported dictators for all those years, we don't want your help any more.

Danahar: I think, yeah, I think you're absolutely right. That quote came from Barbara Bodine, who's a former ambassador in Yemen. And basically, it was simple to run things in the Middle East in the past. You just had to deal with the Egyptians, the Israelis, and the Saudis. But now these states are all over the place. They're all worried about their own uprisings or their own consequences from the Arab Spring. And they are not listening to America. And America is basically exhausted from over a decade of warfare. And I think what they're basically doing is saying, you know, we can't really shape this. We can nudge it along, we can react to it, but let's see where everything lies when it all falls down, or when it all gets built up, and then we'll deal with the consequences of that. But I don't think Obama thinks that they can shape what's going to happen in the Middle East, and rather than own someone else's disaster, they'd rather just stand back and then be seen to help what comes out at the end.

Werman: I got to say, Paul, it was pretty remarkable going through your book. It's barely been published and because of chemical weapons allegations in Syria, Mohamed Morsi deposed in Egypt, and Mubarak now out of prison, your book's already out of date. How do you write about the Mideast right now?

Danahar: Yeah, when you write anything about the Middle East, when you write a news article about the Middle East, by the time it's up on the Web things have changed. But what I think we can see are clear themes and those themes are that religion is going to play a much bigger role in the Middle East. We're seeing that in Syria, we've seen that in Egypt, we're seeing that across the region. And I think people power is going to play a big role, because at the end of the day, the generals would not have been able to kick Morsi out unless there had been millions of people on the streets. So I think we've got those two big themes, and I think that will continue.

Werman: You did a fair amount of reporting in Iraq during the US invasion in 2003, Paul. How do you situate the toppling of Saddam Hussein by outside forces against the leaders taken down by popular uprising during the Arab Spring and now all the uncertainty?

Danahar: Well, I think the big issues there was that the Iraqis didn't feel like it was their mistake, and so when they saw it going wrong, they basically sat back and said, you know, we can't change this, we didn't create this, it's your fault, you fix it. I think the difference with the Arab Spring is that the mistakes that have been made, have been made by the people of those countries. And I think that's important because it means that they therefore have to take some responsibility. For a lot of the modern history of the Arab world it's basically been the people blaming everybody else, particularly the Western powers, and in particular America for all of their woes. So again, I think a new thing that's emerged from the Arab Spring era is that people have to accept that they have some responsibility to organize their countries. They have some responsibility to change their countries. And while many people's instincts are to just say, well, it's all the Americans, it's a big conspiracy, at the end of the day that's not going to solve their problems. And there are many problems, particularly economic ones. And I think the Arab people now understand that they have to basically pull their own socks up and get on with dealing with many of their issues. And that didn't happen in Iraq because the young men that toppled Saddam Hussein were young men from America, they weren't young men or young women from the Arab world, and that was a key difference.

Werman: It does seem, though, that in your book, when you pull back, you're kind of hopeful. You cede these countries engulfed by the Arab Spring are actually on the road from dictatorship to democracy, but the way we see the narrative now, it just doesn't seem that way. Do you think we just have to hold out hope for the longer term that this story will eventually unfold that way?

Danahar: I think you and I are probably old enough to remember how everyone talked about Russia descending into civil war, how Eastern Europe was all going to fall apart. I mean, those years after the revolutions in Eastern Europe were very, very messy, and I think if you step back and look at what's happened in most parts of the world where democracy has come in a kind of messy and violent way, it hasn't worked overnight. So we are going to be in a situation where there is ebb and flow, there is violence and chaos, and I think I say somewhere in the book, that chaos has been unleashed in the Middle East and it's going to look like hopes of it all settling down are a bit vague. But I think we will. I think what we have to do is basically look back at what's happened in other parts of the world, in other times in history, and say to ourselves, you know, the Arab world had to wait a lot longer than anywhere else to get its democracy. It may have to wait a lot longer to sort out the problems of the dictatorship so that they can start to bed down and build something new. But overall, I do think there is much to be hopeful about. But it's not going to be easy.

Werman: Paul Danahar is taking up a new job as the BBC's bureau chief in Washington. His new book is “The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring.” Paul, great to speak with you. Thanks a lot.

Danahar: Thanks very much.