From the first stirrings of change in the Middle East nine months ago, optimism at the prospect of 100 million young people rising up to seize their democratic freedoms has been tempered by fear in Western capitals that radical Islamists might also rise up and try to hijack the so-called Arab Spring.
And now, many analysts say, that fear has been realized.
In Tunisia, where the epic season of unrest began, last Sunday’s historic elections appear to have resulted in an Islamist group winning a governing majority.
In Libya, an ex-terrorist once jailed by the Central Intelligence Agency now runs the country’s foremost military organization, and new political leaders speak openly of enacting Sharia, the ultra-harsh code of Islamic law.
And in Egypt, where the world’s oldest civilization is bracing for elections next month, rioters have recently forced the evacuation of the Israeli embassy and waged vicious attacks on Coptic Christians.
Worrisome in their own right, these developments also raise difficult questions, in an already contentious political season, about the conduct of President Obama and his national security team: Has the White House done all it could to steer the Arab Spring in the right direction? Have events to date strengthened U.S. security – or left America weakened abroad, with Islamic fundamentalism ascendant?
At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the Mideast “really worries me,” and asked what the Obama administration “plans to do to make sure that we don't have a radical government taking over those places.”
“Revolutions are unpredictable phenomena,” Clinton replied. “I think a lot of the leaders are saying the right things and some are saying things that do give pause to us….We're going to do all that we can within our power to basically try to influence outcomes. But, you know, the historic wind sweeping the Middle East and North Africa were not of our making.”
Jamie Smith, a former CIA officer who has made three fact-finding trips to Libya this year, warns that the sense of unity that bound the country’s disparate rebel groups during their eight-month revolt has evaporated since Muammar Qaddafi fell from power.
In the dictator’s place, Smith says, the oil-rich but woefully mismanaged North African state is relying on the Transitional National Council, made up of inexperienced ex-rebels, and the Tripoli Military Council, headed by Abdel Hakim Belhaj. The latter was once head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which the U.S. State Department classifies as a foreign terrorist organization.
It is unlikely that Belhaj’s loyalties to the United States run strong: Smith notes that the CIA captured Belhaj in 2004, briefly held him in Thailand, and ultimately returned him to the custody of Qaddafi in Libya, where the former LIFG fighter languished in prison until his release last year.
“So now you’ve got a radical Islamist terrorist leader who is running the most powerful military group in Libya,” said Smith, a veteran of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. “In that area of the world, the people with the biggest guns make the rules. And this guy has got the guns. And he’s going to make the rules.”
Not all veteran analysts of the Mideast see the TNC’s embrace of Sharia as an imminent threat, nor the broader trend in the Arab Spring as hopelessly dark for American interests.
Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy draws encouragement from the fact that the region’s revolutions, by and large, have not been marked by strong expressions of anti-Western or anti-Israel sentiment. And he suggested that Washington can work reasonably well with governments whose legal codes do not mirror our own.
“The Saudi government has been perhaps the most vigorous applier of Sharia law throughout the Muslim world for decades, and yet Saudi Arabia and the United States have had a pretty close relationship on national security issues,” Clawson told Fox News. “And that's very different than a secular revolutionary government like that in Syria, which certainly doesn't apply Sharia law, but which has been happy to sponsor terrorist attacks against Americans.”
Some conservatives, however, are inclined to blame the Obama administration for mishandling the Mideast upheaval.
Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan-era Defense Department official who now leads the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, expands his definition of the Arab Spring to include the Iranian uprising of June 2009, which the regime in Tehran used lethal force to suppress.
Gaffney contrasts the Obama administration’s fairly cautious response to that event – framed, at the time, as part of the president’s attempt to “engage” Iran – with Obama’s swift call for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian revolution this year.
“The president of the United States in both cases did the bidding of the Islamists, who wanted to preserve the regime in Iran and who wanted to remove the regime in Egypt,” Gaffney told Fox News. “And I think that quite apart from what his intentions were, in so doing, he made all the more predictable this very unhappy outcome that I think is playing out before our eyes.”
The next shoe to drop in the region will likely be the Nov. 28 elections in Egypt. U.S. officials are bracing for a strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that boasts a long history of organized opposition to the Mubarak regime, and whose foreign offshoots include Hamas.
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).