The current intense focus on the Syrian situation misses the proverbial forest for the trees. The war in Syria and its implications for U.S. foreign policy constitute just one part of a much broader problem. In an increasingly unstable and violent Middle East, few look upon Americans as friends and even fewer share our democratic values.
It is worth recalling the optimistic atmosphere nearly three years ago, when the December 2010 suicide of a Tunisian street peddler set off protests against arbitrary, dictatorial rule, leading to the fall of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Protests spread to other Arab countries as well. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign in February. By August, rebels were in control of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and the rule of Muammar Qaddafi soon came to an end. Signs of unrest also surfaced in Algeria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Oman, Syria and Yemen.
It seemed that the curse of authoritarian government was finally being lifted from the Arab world, and, as happened in post-communist Eastern Europe, multiparty systems with at least rudimentary respect for individual rights would replace it.
But this so-called Arab Spring — with its image of seeds of democracy sprouting from ground suddenly fertile with hope — has not fulfilled its promise. Instead, many questions have arisen regarding the real potential for political transformation in Arab countries and the possibility of their citizens to achieve true democratic rule.
• Tunisia, where it all started, has experienced political instability under an Islamist government, as well as numerous acts of violence, including assassinations of political figures and an attack on the U.S. embassy in September 2012.
• Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist winner of the elections to replace Mubarak in Egypt granted himself unlimited powers, and millions of protestors filled the streets to challenge him. He was deposed after barely one year in power in July 2012. Sporadic violence between his Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the new military regime has cost thousands of lives, and democracy remains an elusive dream.
• The government that replaced Qaddafi in Libya operates under constant threat from private militias, its weakness illustrated by the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last year that killed four Americans, including our ambassador.
• And in Syria, of course, where more than 100,000 people have been killed in President Assad’s two-and-a-half-year war against his people and millions more have fled the country, the international community has proven unable, so far, to punish the regime for using deadly — and illegal — sarin gas that killed in one day alone, Aug. 21, nearly 1,500 civilians, including hundreds of women and children.
The grim picture of a violent and repressive Middle East — in some respects even more grim than before the so-called Arab Spring — is relieved by only one exception: The State of Israel.
In a sea of instability and uncertainty, democratic Israel conducts business as usual:
• There are regular democratic elections in which voters can choose among parties from across the political spectrum.
• The media — print, electronic and digital — are models of free expression.
• The judicial system is independent and outspoken in support of the rights of the individual.
• Higher education, science, medicine and technological startups thrive.
• Amid robust controversy over the appropriate role of religion in Israeli society, the government and its institutions are secular, and freedom of conscience is guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence.
• And the U.S. has an ally on whom it knows it can count, day in and day out.
That explains why Americans feel such a strong bond with Israel. President Obama was speaking for the great majority of Americans when, in his Sept. 10 speech to the nation about Syria, he said: “Our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.”
Whatever dangers confront us in the unpredictable Middle East, we have one unshakeable friend, one that shares our values — Israel. And in today’s world, that means a lot.
Amy Stoken is the Chicago regional director of the American Jewish Committee.