The Arab Spring is therefore not a peculiarity of history, but a natural outcome for regimes that had quite simply become illegitimate in the eyes of their subjects. Of the possible sources of legitimacy — such as democracy, religion, monarchic succession, or the creation of great prosperity — they had none. They were kept in place solely by force, and they were far less stable than the vast majority of scholars, diplomats, and political leaders thought. They were not overthrown because Bush criticized them or President Barack Obama failed to shore them up, but because they lacked a coherent defense of their own rule.
Thus the neocons, democrats, and others who applauded the Arab uprisings were right, for what was the alternative? To applaud continued oppression? To instruct the rulers on better tactics, the way Iran is presumably lecturing (and arming) Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? Such a stance would have made a mockery of American ideals, would have failed to keep these hated regimes in place for very long, and would have left behind a deep, almost ineradicable anti-Americanism. This kind of so-called “realpolitik” is the path U.S. President Richard Nixon’s administration took after the Greek military coup in 1967, and nearly a half-century later the Greeks have still not forgiven the United States.
Of course, the best answer is that we should have been pushing harder for reform all along, but that is after all the Bush/neocon/democracy activist line. Take U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo or Bush’s second inaugural address — both reviled by “realists.” It would be nice if some of the critics now admitted that such speeches were prophetic, even if the United States was far too tentative in adopting, as Bush put it at the National Endowment for Democracy, “a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.”