Scholar: ‘Hard to say’ if Arab Spring is positive

Jonathan Adelman

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

According to Jonathan Adelman, professor in the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver, it is “hard to say” right now if the Arab Spring sweeping the Middle East and North Africa is positive or negative for the security interests of the United States and Israel.

Adelman, a frequent guest commentator on network TV news, is a popular speaker for Israel. He served as the doctoral dissertation adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington. Since receiving his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1976, Adelman has written or edited 10 books, many of which focus on the Middle East.

The Jewish Light caught up with Adelman for a phone interview shortly before his trip to St. Louis.

Now that the so-called “Arab Spring” has had some time to evolve-resulting in the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the capture and death of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya-would you say overall that its effect has been positive or negative for the security interests of Israel, the United States and the West?

Overall, it’s really hard to say. Some things are positive in the sense that authoritarian, repressive dictatorships inevitably fade away, and the fact some fairly strong secular liberal movements emerge is positive. But the negative could be worse than the positive from an Israeli perspective. The future of the Islamist fundamentalism in the region looks very strong. We just saw that in the election in Tunisia Islamists got 40 or 50 percent of the vote, even though they are more moderate. We are obviously very concerned about what’s going on in Turkey, where we have seen a strong anti-Israel move by the Islamist Justice Development Party, and we are also very worried about Iraq. So, I think on the whole, it’s not been positive, but it’s really too early to tell.

What do you make of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tilt away from positive relations with Israel and the West towards the Islamists in the Arab world?

The biggest problem we have right now is… with Turkey. Losing Turkey as a major American and Israeli ally would be a major blow for the West, and especially for Israel. There is also the threatening tone of Erdogan who said he may send Turkish warships to the Eastern Mediterranean-his whole tone has changed, and this is really encouraging the fundamentalists. We are also deeply worried about Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. The concern is not just how well they might do in the Egyptian elections, but signs that they, as in Iran, might be penetrating the Egyptian military, and that would be very negative for the West and Israel.

Were the seemingly forced resignations of some of Turkey’s top generals a few weeks ago part of an effort to weaken the usually pro-Israel and pro-Western elements of the Turkish armed forces?

The Turkish military three times has intervened to try to maintain democracy, and the loss of the Turkish military (as a moderating force) would be huge for Israel because it was the Turkish military that engaged in strategic war games with Israel. The Turkish military was the very bastion of pro-Western and pro-Israeli sentiment and they are fading very fast.

Why do you think Erdogan has moved against Israel so strongly in his rhetoric and actions?

I think Erdogan has learned something from Mahmoud Ahmedinijad (President of Iran), which is that anti-Israel rhetoric is a very powerful tool. His popularity in the polls has risen from 29 percent to 60 percent. While this is not the only factor, especially in difficult economic times, this kind of rhetoric riles the population.

In addition to the concerns in Egypt over gains by the Muslim Brotherhood, a recent issue of Newsweek contained an article that Amr Mousa, former secretary general of the Arab League and a secularist, is a leading candidate as Egypt’s next president. The article says that Mousa’s favorite saying is “I hate Israel” and that the slogan has become popular in Cairo. How concerned should Israel be about his possible election?

Since Amr Mousa is likely to become president, the question is how much power is he going to have. There is no question that he represents the fact that the tone has changed. And that has not been picked up by much of the media. The tone is that even among people like Amr Mousa, who are secular people, the anti-Israel sentiment is rising. Israel is being blamed for everything that has gone wrong in the region. Israel, the only real democracy now in the Middle East and the only real modern First-World country in the region is now being blamed for a multitude of sins that it couldn’t possibly have committed.

How is the anti-Israel rhetoric being received by the Egyptian public?

We all know as Jews the dangers of scapegoating. And there are recent polls that show only 3 or 4 percent of Egyptians like Israel, and that’s really disturbing. So even among the secular nationalists, a lot of them are picking up on the old (Gamal Abdel) Nasser line of anti-Israel rhetoric. We are seeing low single-digit support for Israel. The same polls show that among Egyptian Muslims, 84 percent believe if a Muslim converts to Christianity he should be killed. A similar percentage favors the segregation of women. As bad as Hosni Mubarak might have been, he was clearly more moderate. So we are really seeing retrograde attitudes across the board and the anti-Israel stuff in that mix, is pretty potent.

What can be done to push back against these trends?

We don’t know the answer at this point. The real question is how much effort is the United States and Europe willing to exert to help combat these trends. The United States and the E.U. have a combined $30 trillion economy. The whole Arab Middle East is only about $2 trillion. So there is a powerful economic base here. Whether or not the Europeans, who are so wrapped up politically on the euro-crisis, and the United States, which is facing upcoming elections, are willing to make this effort…. I am worried that we are so focused elsewhere in Washington, that we are missing much of what is really happening. There is very little reporting about this in the regular media.

What other observations can you share about the current state of affairs in the Middle East?

This is a moment like what was happening in Iran in 1979. At that time, Andrew Young, who was then U.S. ambassador to the U.N. said, “some day Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini may be regarded as a saint.” That kind of thinking worries me. I teach comparative revolutions, and I talk about it. People don’t know the history of how the French Revolution led to the guillotine, which led to a military regime, and it did not get to democracy until 1871. Russia had a series of preliminary revolution and then they had the October Bolshevik Revolution and they were in power for 71 years. People have this assumption that all revolutions are positive because they have in the back of their minds, the American Revolution, which was totally exceptional to the Chinese, Russian, French and Iranian revolutions. It is an example of American exceptionalism that we had a democratic outcome. People think revolutions will have a positive result, but sometimes the result is not positive, and we should keep this in mind in evaluating what is happening now in the Middle East.

Israel Bonds Dinner

WHAT: Jonathan Adelman discussing “Israel and the Middle East: Hope or Despair?” at the 37th Annual State of Israel Bonds Dinner

WHEN: 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 19

WHERE: Traditional Congregation, 12437 Ladue Road

HOW MUCH: $45 per person; advance paid reservations required by Nov. 4

MORE INFO: The event will honor Cyndee Levy, Director of Adult Education at Central Agency for Jewish Education. Call Traditional Congregation at 314-576-5230 to RSVP or for more information