Inspired by Tom Paine, Americans have fermented revolution around the globe. From Prague to Tiananmen, expanding the will of the people has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. But this principle is increasingly contradicting key components of America’s international agenda as well as running up against the realities of dampened influence.
For example, George W. Bush vigorously backed Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution.” The U.S. media bestowed glowing coverage to street demonstrations over falsified presidential elections in 2004.
Academics, including Obama’s current Russian policy advisor Michael McFaul, produced self-congratulatory studies about the movement’s efficacy. The Orange Revolution was supposed to showcase how mass protest and regime change could quick start modernization. Scant attention, however, has been paid to the revolution’s enigmatic aftermath. Viktor Yanukovych, who had been defeated and disgraced in the 2004 elections, staged a stunning comeback. As president, he is steadily turning Ukraine into a typical post-soviet “managed democracy,” exactly the outcome the U.S. administration had sought to avoid. The “Orange Revolution,” moreover, was viewed by an indignant Putin as a personal affront. His struggle against the “orange menace” radically shifted the entire vector of Russian development. Putin, along with Belarusian President Lukashenko, continues to conduct brutal crackdowns on all independent social groups. Moreover, the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have sent clear signals that they intend to be presidents-for-life. Kyrgyzstan, which provided the template for the Islamic-style color revolutions, has experienced two mass revolts (in 2005 and 2010). Unfortunately, these were both mysterious, backstage intrigues, concerning Great Game machinations over U.S. military bases, rather than instituting democracy. Ironically, Kyrgyzstan’s first, non-color-revolution president, Askar Akayev, was one of the few regional leaders to have conducted a credible program of modernization. In sum, the color revolutions in the former soviet republics have proved to be disappointments.
The much ballyhooed “Green Revolution” in Iran ― which at first was seen as a deus ex machina rescuing Westerners from their failed attempts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program ― quickly fizzled. As well shown in the blog “Race for Iran,” the opponents of the Khamenei regime were more beloved abroad than at home. Contrary to the predictions of many Middle East analysts, after the “fraudulent” elections of 2009, Iranian sway has expanded throughout the Middle East. Notably the democratization of Lebanon has elevated Hezbollah, a group closely allied to Iran. In a stark about-face, the United States has turned to a policy of “maximalism,” refusing to deal with all adversarial groups, no matter how strong their following. In particular, the U.S. finds its only hold in the largely undemocratic March 14 alliance.
The current waves of protests are not occurring in Russia, China, Belorussia, or Syria but among the U.S. “partners” in the war on terror: Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen. As they democratize, there can be little doubt that these countries will be much less willing partners for the United States. Some analysts pin their hopes on a renewed rivalry between Sunnis and Shia. But the good relations Iran enjoys with Sunni Hamas, and even Turkey, seem to believe this thesis. Hamas, in fact, started as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Although, as a group dedicated to national resistance against Israel, Hamas may not be an exact indicator for the future trajectory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But even under an “optimistic” scenario of gradual transition, an Egyptian elite, tainted by decades of corrupt rule by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, will turn to familiar, crowd-pleasing nationalist slogans as the only way to distinguish themselves from the past. Amid rising food prices, less foreign investment, and falling budgets, the iron algebra of political calculation will force any elected politician to take anti-Israeli and anti-American stances. Only these can win quick esteem among a politically illiterate populace. Even in prospering, Europeanized Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan ― and hit films, such as the “Valley of the Wolves” ― garner adoration through nationalist stances.
America’s key ally in the region, Israel, will also be profoundly affected by the Muslim color revolutions. As an immediate consequence, Israel will lose its unique, privileged status as the lone bastion of democracy in the Middle East. Israel, moreover, will confront a newly emboldened Palestine leadership which is less willing or ― after the recent Al Jazeera leaks ― even able to negotiate. If events follow their current trajectory, Israel will become an Apartheid state, where Palestinians form a disenfranchised majority. As emphasized by the blunt international studies expert John Mearsheimer, this will make U.S. policy increasingly untenable.
In short, the color revolutions will soon cause America’s foreign policy to become ever more schizophrenic.
By Chris Monday
Chris Monday is a professor of the Department of International Studies at Dongseo University in Busan, Korea. ― Ed.