America and the Arab Spring 

Dr. Peter Mandaville
Professor of Government and Islamic Studies
George Mason University

July 12, 2011 Interview Synopsis

Dr. Peter Mandaville believes that the Arab Spring is an experiment still in progress, but he maintains that in the Middle East, fundamentally “the rules have changed” because populations no longer have a collective fear of brutal crackdowns on peaceful protest movements. He said that the U.S. government will be looking for indicators beyond free and fair elections (only one “procedural element” of democracy) to see how progress is made in the coming months in Egypt and Tunisia, including the role of the military in each country and the ability of all political players to have “a seat at the table” during the constitution-writing processes.

Dr. Mandaville spoke favorably of U.S. policy with regards to engaging groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that it is critical to engage all relevant actors who have renounced violence. He said ignoring political groups squanders an opportunity both to make clear points of disagreement and discuss how these groups can be positive contributors. Dr. Mandaville said that the United States is not overly concerned about Islamist elements having undue influence on emerging governments because they are savvy enough to avoid being perceived as an authoritarian threat and to recognize the national, unifying spirit of the Arab Spring protests.

Dr. Mandaville suggested that the U.S. government needs to change its approach toward public diplomacy to reflect what he called a strategy of “global engagement.”  Rather than having the same generic pattern and exchange programs for every state, the U.S. should sit down with each foreign government and find out what form of collaboration would be most beneficial. This change would represent a “tectonic shift” in the structure of the State Department, including a change in training strategies to incentivize Foreign Service officers to participate in open dialogue with a more diverse set of actors. Such change would greatly increase the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy.