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America and the Arab Spring 

Ambassador Thomas Pickering
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Ret.)
Ambassador to the United Nations (Ret.)
Ambassador to Russia, India, Israel, Nigeria, Jordan, and El Salvador (Ret.)

July 22, 2011 Interview Synopsis

Ambassador Thomas Pickering sees the Arab Spring as “the greatest movement in the Middle East since independence” from colonial rule after World War II. He said that a tectonic shift has indeed occurred, in large part due to the absence of a number of factors: Islamic fundamentalism, efforts to install a new strongman, anti-Western or anti-Israeli sentiment, and attempts to push through extreme socialist economic policies. The absence of these factors indicates to Ambassador Pickering that the majority of the current reform movements Middle East are genuinely striving for democratic reform through the legitimate rule of law. The demand of protestors for what amounts to Western-style democratic reforms has the Ambassador feeling optimistic about the Arab Spring.

Ambassador Pickering was not overly concerned about the pace of the U.S. government’s response to the protests in Egypt and Tunisia. He said that a natural “hangover effect” exists from supporting regimes for so long, and that protestors in those countries are more concerned about the way forward than when the United States chimed in support. Furthermore, Ambassador Pickering said that the public does not necessarily understand the arduous process by which the government decides to switch policies (balancing interests and normative goals), but he asserted that the Obama Administration has been better equipped to make the transition than a neo-conservative administration might have been.

Ambassador Pickering commented that the U.S. Information Agency had not been folded into the State Department as successfully as possible. This shortcoming, combined with the time gap separating the end of the Cold War and the rise of policy challenges in the Middle East, left U.S. public diplomacy efforts toward the region weakened. He suggested the need for a new semi-autonomous public diplomacy agency within the State Department that could draw on the Department’s resources across regional divisions, similar to the approach applied to the Agency for International Development. The Ambassador cautioned that, ultimately, “good information cannot substitute for bad policy.”