President Obama's recent Middle East trip reflects a measure of recognition that some of the most fundamental assumptions about the region that are prevalent in the West could be flawed. This recognition is, apparently, only half conscious, but it may be a hopeful sign of both ability and courageous willingness to reconsider some important misperceptions that guided Obama's first term in office.
These assumptions are rooted deep in ideology (sometimes even in secular theology) but have long been masquerading as analytical products of historical and strategic studies, and have heavily impacted on decades of Western reading, reporting and policy regarding the region.
The first assumption is that the structural instability, the political violence and the protracted failure of Arab societies to meet the challenges of the modern era are primarily the product of the colonial legacy and the authoritarian regimes. Associated with this perception is the conclusion that the profound popular hostility towards the West stems from its responsibility for the predicament of the Arabs -- the colonial rule, the support for the oppressive regimes and the backing of Israel.
The second assumption is more recent. It is that a "Two State Solution" to the Palestinian Israeli conflict is at hand, impeded primarily by Israeli right wing intransigence, and that such a "solution" is crucial for the stabilization and the pacification of the region as a whole and for a major improvement of Arab public attitudes towards the U.S. and Europe.
The policy conclusions of these assumptions were clear: encouragement of regimes that "reflect the will of the people," even at the expense of relatively mild pro Western authoritarian regimes that provided an important measure of regional stability followed the first. The promotion of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, often referred to by the media as "Middle East peace," followed the second.
The present regional upheaval (the Arab Spring) already disproves the basic tenets of both those assumptions and policies. While it is practically impossible to predict its outcome in a few generations, and beyond the important distinctions between different Arab countries, by far the most likely trajectory of what we have witnessed in the last two years suggests that in the foreseeable future the challenge to those assumptions in the mainstream of the Arab World will only intensify.
The first and most important challenge is presented to the assumption about the root causes for Arab failures. While the authoritarian regimes were (and are) indeed rejectionable and disruptive, they are first and foremost a product of structural flaws in Arab societies, and only later one of the reasons for their predicament. These regimes came into being and lasted for generations primarily because they reflected the political culture of those societies (primarily the rejection of pluralism) and only to a lesser degree because they were supported by outside powers. When some of them were recently replaced by governments "reflecting the will of the people," some already proved to be more repressive than their predecessors (e.g. Hamas in Gaza) others seem to be going in this direction (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) and yet others seem to lead to tribal and sectarian fragmentation (e.g., Libya and probably Syria).
With all the uncertainties so soon after the revolutionary changes, it seems quite clear that the Arab Street inspired regimes that are less stable, and less responsible; most importantly, they are even less qualified or able to satisfy the most basic, vital and urgent needs of their people. Some "post spring" entities already exhibit progressive symptoms of failed states. If the prevailing trend spreads further, it may well culminate in a failed region. The widespread frustration that this must breed is a recipe not only for even deeper and more prevalent internal violence and animosity vis-à-vis America and Israel, but also for regional radicalization, violent provocations and more likely major eruptions.
To expect that all these can be pacified by a more sympathetic western attitude to the Arabs, or that external financial assistance can reverse the socio-economic trends, is to indulge in wishful thinking. To expect that peace between Israel and the Palestinians (even if it were at hand) can have a major impact on the region is even more bizarre. Such peace will have no effect on what really matters -- Iran's nuclearization, Turkey's Islamist counter-revolution, Egypt's economic sustainability, a functional Syrian state, the rise of Islamist regimes and the continued marginalization of the pluralist supporters of open society in the Arab world.
The urge to "do something" should be steered away from world-saving occupational therapy and redirected towards modest yet realizable objectives -- from ambitious "solutions" to damage control. This can take the form of support for carefully controlled reform in milder (preferably benign) authoritarian regimes, where Jordan offers the best cost-benefit ratio. For those who feel that they must "do something" on the Israeli-Palestinian front, encouragement of parallel unilateral steps seem the most promising proposition. The precondition of catastrophe prevention by stopping the nuclearization of Iran may seem less inspiring for the enthusiasts of fixing the Middle East. That does not make it less vital or urgent.