Who Killed the Arab Spring?

04/11/2011 07:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2011

The limited intervention in Libya averted a humanitarian disaster, but it also killed the Arab Spring.

Regardless of how one feels about the recent military intervention in Libya, it is now safe to say that it succeeded in what now appears to have been its main goal: to avert a humanitarian massacre. As a result of a no-fly zone, the citizens of Benghazi were spared the near certain hell of Qaddafi's merciless military.

But the NATO-led military action in Libya has already failed on a different count: to rescue the regime-shattering protests that were once sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. Over three weeks into the military operation, the revolutions around the region remain stalled, stuck in a potentially endless holding pattern.

Even reluctant proponents
of the air strikes hung their hat on the hope that the intervention in Libya would resuscitate the revolutions that had seemed to come to a screeching halt -- after the initial dramatic regime change in Tunisia and Egypt.

The thinking went something like this: Up until Gaddafi declared war on his own people, the Middle East was averaging one deposed authoritarian leader per month in 2011 (Ben Ali in January; Mubarak in February). But that was before Gaddafi vowed to kill any protester who stood in the way of his rule.

If left unchecked, Gaddafi's new message to his fellow authoritarian leaders seemed increasingly dangerous: Mubarak and Ben Ali fell not because they were too autocratic, but because they were too weak. Instead, if like Gaddafi, you kill your citizens and fire at protesters at will, then you can hold onto power. Leaders in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain seemed to be listening especially closely.

This larger argument about intervention boiled down to this: Libya matters because the revolutions matter; we should intervene in Libya to save the revolutions everywhere else.

But these hopes were overly optimistic. For the desires of a jumpstarted Arab Spring to pan out, Gaddafi would have needed to go. He would have needed to be taken out early, swiftly and with overwhelming force. NATO would have needed to go well beyond a humanitarian mission. The aim of our operation would have needed to be much clearer at the outset: take out Gaddafi. Instead our intervention was delayed (by three weeks) and is now overly limited. Gaddafi remains in control of Libya, flouting American force (just as he did in the 1980s).

As long as Gaddafi holds onto power, so will every other authoritarian leader in the region. This fact is unmistakable: No Middle Eastern leader has fallen since February 11. Muammar Gaddafi, it turns out, has fulfilled his wildest fantasy: he has become the most important person in the Arab world. The future of the Arab Spring rests precariously on his shoulders. In Yemen, any possible regime change may one day appear more like a game of musical chairs of generals. Even in Egypt or Tunisia, it is still unclear whether a genuine new government will ever emerge.

But the fact is, the adverse effects of our limited intervention reach beyond one man. Our actions in Libya have done potentially permanent damage to the wider revolutions that once promised to sweep across the region like wildfires.

This is the case for two main reasons.

First, the intervention changed the narrative. The beauty of the Arab spring was the new story it seemed to offer the region's youth. The remarkable -- and potent -- message of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings was that young people, on their own, without anyone's help, managed to march themselves free of authoritarianism. The youth of the Middle East, once dismissed by the likes of Tom Friedman as "sitting around guys," literally overthrew regimes.

But in the wake of the U.S.-backed intervention in Libya, this account has been upended. The new message of Gaddafi's persistence in the wake of the limited airstrikes seems far more depressing. It is as if the Western world is once again saying the following: Young Arabs, you need our help to overthrow authoritarian regimes; without us, you probably won't be able to do it. But, keep in mind also that we can't help everywhere and even when we are helping -- in Libya, for instance -- we are not succeeding. We probably won't commit to the military force necessary to overthrow leaders.

So, where does that leave the remaining citizens of the Arab world who continue to live under increasingly repressive authoritarian regimes? What of the citizens of Syria, Bahrain, or Yemen?

It leaves them in a hopeless holding pattern. It leaves them pondering how when the most powerful forces of the Western world can't seem to bring down a lone lunatic despot, how on earth can they stop authoritarianism elsewhere? This message is brought home everyday that Gaddafi remains in power. It will compound as the weeks, months and perhaps years pass. It will be further pronounced as more stories surface about the challenges of the military campaign, of rumors of Libyan aircraft evading the no-fly zone or of NATO jets inflicting harm on civilians, or of unity among allies beginning to fracture, or the appetite for war among allies beginning to decrease.

The promise of people power that Tunisia offered has now been replaced with the peril and insufficiency of foreign intervention. For citizens left to their own devices, overcoming the most tortuous regimes in the regime will now be all but impossible. And, even if Gaddafi falls, it will be because our air force helped do the pushing. And it likely won't do any more pushing anywhere else.

Second, the intervention offered up a smokescreen for repression in other places. The intervention hasn't managed to spearhead the cause of freedom, it has masked it. NATO-led bombing campaigns have provided a carefully calibrated cover for authoritarian bloodshed elsewhere in the Middle East to continue unabated and unchecked. Each day, new stories of horror from around the region begin to emerge. Citizens being murdered in Syria. Yemeni forces opening fire on protesters. Bahrain sinking lower and lower into the depths of repression. (Even protesters in Egypt were killed over the weekend.)

The citizens still suffering at the hands of authoritarianism could be forgiven for thinking that no one is listening. The story of the Arab Spring has been overtaken by headlines about budget impasses at home or even Iranian ascent in the Middle East. Anderson Cooper has long since moved on from Tahrir Square. Even the 2008 Gaza War is back at the top of the news.

Simply put: all this waiting around has taken the air out of the potent contagion effect that was once underway -- an effect that began the second after Ben Ali fell on January 14.

Gaddafi's initial carnage of his own people may have managed to stop the revolutions elsewhere in their tracks. But our limited interventions haven't managed to rescue the revolution. Instead, the citizens of the Arab world are stuck waiting at the station -- waiting to see if the most powerful country in the world can manage to unseat one man, Gaddafi. But it is likely too late. The Arab Spring has already been canceled.

Avi Spiegel, a fellow at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin, is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of San Diego in California. He has been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, and the Ali Pachachi Scholar of the Modern Middle East at Oxford University.