The book under review is a work by American-Lebanese scholar Walid Phares, who specializes in Middle East politics. He has worked in different advisory positions in the U.S., most notably, within the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Congress. In 2012, he served as Mitt Romney’s advisor for Middle East affairs during the latter’s presidential candidacy. In 2016, he played the same role for then candidate Donald Trump. He is the author of The Confrontation, Future Jihad, and The War of Ideas.
The book consists of fourteen chapters, starting with “Western Failure to Predict the 2011 Uprisings,” and ending with “Alternative Policies Regarding the Middle East.” In his preface, Phares refers to the 2009 “Green Revolution” in Iran and the 2011 Arab spring as a historical opportunity for the U.S. and the Western powers, which they could have taken advantage of with a view to weakening or even defeating “the global and Jihadi terror.” According to Phares, the U.S. and the West embraced wrongheaded policies when dealing with these events, which caused them to lose this unprecedented opportunity.
In terms of the 2009 protests in Iran, which Phares describes as a “revolution,” he argues that these protests were able to threaten the Islamic regime for the first time since its establishment in 1979, with much of the world believing that the regime was about to crumble. The biggest U.S. policy mistake, according to Phares, was Obama Administration’s “weak and ineffective” positions, which were unable to support the grassroots movement. Hence, statements emanating from the White House at the time were considered a green light for the mullahs and ayatollahs to crush the civil unrest instead of making any concessions to the protesters. Thus, the letter sent by the new U.S. administration in 2009 to the Ahmadinejad regime suggested that the tough years during the previous George W. Bush Administration –and the era of unconditional U.S. support for the Iranian opposition– were over, and a new era of “engagement” had begun.
Regarding 2011’s “Arab spring,” Phares believes that two speeches delivered by Obama in Cairo and Istanbul in 2009 were both milestones in terms of U.S. Middle East policy, with both speeches marking the beginning of what Phares describes as “the American-Islamist alliance” in the region. Within the context of this “alliance,” Phares says, the Obama Administration bolstered its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups at the expense of more liberal-minded groups, which were largely responsible for the eruption of the popular protests that defined the Arab spring, especially in Tunisia and Egypt.
Starting with the failure of the U.S. and other Western countries to predict the Arab spring, Phares says he and other Arab scholars had advised research centers close to the U.S. administration that the uprisings were about to take place, due largely to rising poverty and unemployment. What’s more, Phares claims, the U.S. lately throw its support behind the uprisings as this support followed the joining of Islamist groups to the protests.
In terms of Egypt, Phares criticizes what he calls the “U.S.-Islamist” alliance, claiming that such an alliance should have been made with the country’s liberal youth movements, which had been at the forefront of the uprisings. In his view, the lack of support for liberal youth groups enabled the Islamists to win parliamentary and presidential elections because they were well organized before the uprisings. Phares also slams the one-year rule of Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, claiming the latter had sought to “Islamize” Egyptian society and achieve the Muslim Brotherhood’s dream of building a new Islamic Caliphate. Phares also says that what happened in Egypt in mid-2013 was not a military coup but a “second Egyptian revolution” against Islamist rule.
As for Tunisia, Phares repeats his criticisms of U.S. policy, which, he says, supported the Islamists in that country instead of standing with more liberal-minded groups and movements. Phares uses the assassination of two Tunisian liberal leaders –Shoukri Baleed and Mohammed Barahmi– as a pretext for accusing Islamist parties, including al-Nahda, of adopting a “terrorist mentality.”
In Syria, Phares believes the conflict there is the second after the Cedar Revolution, which hit Lebanon in 2005 against the Syrian army presence there, which was eventually forced to withdraw. For being late to launch a military campaign to topple the Assad regime, Phares attacks the Obama Administration and emphasizes that he was a “responsive” American president. Phares attributes U.S. hesitancy in Syria to expanding Russian influence in the country and Syria’s fertile environment for radicalization, especially after the emergence of the ISIS and al-Nusra Front.
In Libya, Phares claims that the U.S.-led coalition to overthrow the Qaddafi regime ended with catastrophic results, including the empowerment of Salafist groups and al-Qaeda. NATO airstrikes in Libya, Phares notes, succeeded in destroying the Qaddafi regime but left a vacuum that extremist groups were destined to fill while failing to provide any political solutions. He adds that the assassination of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, was a turning point that affected not only the Libyan uprising but also the entire Arab spring.
With regard to Yemen, Phares calls on the U.S. to continue targeting al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the country and support the Saudi-backed Hadi regime.
In the last two chapters of the book, Phares provides an alternative that should have been adopted by the U.S. administration. Phares, who was the Middle East advisor for Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, repeats several times that the latter’s proposals on Middle East issues should have been taken into consideration. It is worth mentioning that Phares was one of the key Middle East advisors for U.S. President Donald Trump during the latter’s election campaign.
In The Lost Spring, Phares uses no empirical statistics or indexes to strengthen his claims about the failure of U.S. strategies vis-à-vis the Arab spring. Nor does he give any proof of the alleged “alliance” between the U.S. and the Muslim Brotherhood. In the case of Egypt, for example, not a single visit was paid by a high-ranking U.S. official during the Muslim Brotherhood’s one-year rule, nor was any financial aid dispersed to Egypt, except for the annual aid for military generals. What’s more, the Obama Administration failed to challenge the 2013 military coup that ended Egypt’s first experiment with democracy and which caused the entire region be destabilized. These omissions leave the reader searching for convincing proof of Phares alleged “U.S.-Islamist alliance.” Despite these shortcomings, Phares’ book offers a divergent view to the U.S.’ foreign policy towards the Arab spring.