What has come to be called the Arab Spring in the Middle East is the most important strategic development of the year. These protest and democracy movements have upset conventional wisdom and toppled leaders, but they also have run into brutal resistance and face an uncertain future.
When the movements were on the upswing, many observers reasonably believed we were witnessing a tipping point in the broader Middle East, with the rise of movements largely driven by secular democratic objectives. Islamism was not the driving force, and Islamist parties and organizations were not central to events.
In all of this the American role has been unclear and its policy indecisive. Senior administration officials attempted to reassure supporters and brush back critics by noting that this was all part of a grand administration strategy to “lead from behind.” To most, it appeared the wave sweeping across the region had begun to ebb, along with impressions of American power and reliability.
The stunning but welcome news of Usama bin Laden’s death offered the prospect of changing perceptions of President Obama’s leadership and America’s willingness to project power. The action was bold, risky, and ultimately successful. Elimination of the world’s most notorious terrorist would surely be a blow to the world’s most destructive terrorist network, and perhaps weaken the appeal (out of admiration or fear) of Islamist movements generally.
Perhaps, we are once again at a turning point, not just for America and our president, but for the region that has suffered most of all from the rise of radical Islam. Odds are, however, that the turning point will not lead in the direction most anticipate or hope for.
Bin Laden and his ilk appear to have played little to no role in the unfolding regional drama to date. His death also is likely to be of minimal consequence. But affiliated networks and violent radicals aspiring to follow in his footsteps wait in the wings to seek advantage.
As this vital region struggles though this current transformation, we may end up with the spread of democracy and Islamism. Rather than turning to Bin Laden style violence and austerity, a new wave of Islamists may embrace modernity and democratic processes in order to consolidate power and impose illiberal ideology. Call it an adaptation of Puritinism of sorts.
The only certainty we have with regard to the ultimate fate of the Arab Spring is that Usama bin Laden won't get to see it, thanks to a moment of decisive leadership from President Obama.
If the future of this region is to favor freedom and American interests, however, that will require much more from our president than we have seen to date. Those who risk all in pursuit of the liberties we enjoy deserve our support, even if it isn't always in the form of military support.
America needs to be a reliable partner and our president needs to articulate a clearer strategy for how to help them succeed. Equally important, American needs to help them counter Islamist ideology, an adversary that lives on post-Bin Laden.