Journal of Human Security | 2013 | Volume 9 | Issue 1 | Pages 15–26
DOI: 10.12924/johs2013.09010015
ISSN: 1835-3800
Research Article
The United States and the Arab Spring
Timo Kivimäki
Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 54, 00014, University of Helsinki,
Finland; Tel.: +358 503081270; E-Mail: [email protected]
Submitted: 25 April 2013 | In revised form: 29 May 2013 | Accepted: 5 June 2013 |
Published: 3 July 2013
Abstract: This article reveals, by studying correlative relationships between US regime support
and regime properties, that the US foreign policy in the Middle East has traditionally helped
governments to limit the political participation of Islamists, communists, enemies of Israel and
populations that could be hostile to the US oil interests. This way the US economic and
strategic security interests have contributed to human insecurity in the region. With the
exception of the last interest, the US has relaxed its support for repression of the above-
mentioned groups. This seems to be one of the international factors that made the Arab Spring
Keywords: autocracy; democracy; human security; Middle East; sovereignty; United States
1. Introduction
Human security of individuals depends on many
things, not just on political systems. Yet, restrictions
to political participation, lack of openness and com-
petitiveness of executive recruitment, and especially
the lack of constraints on the chief executive's policies
and actions all predict authoritarian violence, which is
definitely a threat to human security. According to
Rudoph Rummel, more than six times more people
were killed by their governments than by all the wars
combined during the 20th century [1]. In this sense,
the fall of brutal autocrats during the Arab Spring
constituted progress for human security.
Human security and the change of a repressive
government can be brought about in many ways. In
the Arab Spring ordinary people took center stage. At
the same time, political discourse on the Respon-
sibility to Protect (R2P), let alone the discourses giving
legitimacy to international military interventions in the
name of democracy, also highlight the role of
international state actors in the promotion, and
destruction of human security. Recently up to 60% of
people killed in wars were killed by wars (Libya, Iraq
and Afghanistan) that were justified by references to
human security, democracy and human rights
(calculated by the author on the basis of best
estimates for 2011, the last year of the data published
yet [2]). This is why it is still relevant to ask how
states really influence each other and what human
security implications this influence could really have.
This article will focus on these questions in the
context of the Arab Spring and argues that the ending
of the US support of authoritarian suppression of the
© 2013 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
political participation of Islamists and anti-Israel
movements in the Arab world could have affected the
downfall of autocracy in several Arab countries.
Furthermore, this article argues that greater openness
provided by WikiLeaks about this change in the US
policy possibly triggered this change.
2. Earlier Studies and the Argument of This
The successful toppling of autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt,
Libya (and Yemen) has often been attributed to the
popular motives of opposing despots. The failure to
bring about development (legitimacy by means of
performance) has been pointed to by several scholars
[3–8]. Filipe Campante and Davin Chor and Katerina
Dalacoura specify the argument by showing that
grievances, especially that of unemployment, held by
well-educated people foreshadow problems for auto-
crats [9,10]. According to Samuel Huntington "The
higher the level of education of the unemployed,the
more extreme the destabilizing behavior which
results" [11]. In addition to unemployment, economic
policies that discriminate against the well-educated
middle class have been associated with the success of
change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya [12].
Nonetheless, grievances that motivate and initiate
revolts can also be purely political. Abrams applied the
logic of relative deprivation to political grievances by
explaining the appraisals of the Middle East as a
response to the increasingly violent repression of the
non-violent political opposition and also to the
reversal of the modest beginnings of early democratic
signs [11].
Some explanations emphasize the resources and
opportunities of the potential rebels. This article will
focus exactly on the modalities of democratic revolt.
People are able to topple autocratic regimes, only
when the autocrat fails to keep his/her order intact
[13] and this condition is partly dependent on
whether or not the opposition has the resources, the
education and the time for mounting such a challenge
[9,14]. The availability of new communication media
with Facebook, text messaging etc. have been
considered to have been among the facilitators of
change in the Middle East [4,14–17]. In contrast, an
ideational emancipation, the ability to imagine
democratic models that are not copied from American
textbooks on political science, has also been seen as a
necessary condition to the process of democratization
[18]. Finally, a successful challenging of the rulers
also required the political awakening of the young
people [15,16,18], and the political (rather than
militant) mobilization of religious groups. The wisdom
of Przeworsky [19] about the impact on perceptions
of the feasibility of democratic revolution in
democratizing regions was also utilized in the analyses
of the opportunities available for the toppling of
autocrats in the Middle East [20].
3. External Action…and Inaction
Opportunities for a democratic change are not always
created domestically. External political influence and
intervention in domestic power battles is another
factor that affects the opportunities of peoples who
might have other motives for toppling their respective
autocratic regimes. On the one hand, much attention
has recently been paid to international efforts to help
the opposition topple their despots. Vali Nasr, for
example, criticizes Obama's administration for
rejecting the initiatives of the State Department for
greater activism in support of democracy. Instead, he
claims, the White House is "in a retreat" from the
region [21]. At the same time these efforts at
democratization often end up as imperialism that does
not serve the human security in dictatorships [22].
This article will focus precisely on those inputs into
those opportunities that topple autocrats that
emanate from the political interventions into the
domestic power struggles of democratizing states
made by the big powers. Seven out of the ten most
spectacular changes towards democracy that occurred
after the First World War were at least partly
influenced by international manipulation of the
military power balance of the affected country [23].
However, in most cases the change was related to the
ending of support for an autocrat by a foreign power.
In Latin America, the US support of autocrats ended
with the human rights campaign of President Jimmy
Carter, and with the anti-drug warfare of President
Ronald Reagan and what followed was a wave of
democratization throughout the region. The wave of
democratization in Eastern Europe, again, was made
possible by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its
support for the communist autocrats. The ending of
the Soviet intervention for the communist autocrats in
Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia
resulted in the democratization of half of the ten
countries that had experienced the most profound
democratization after the First World War [23].
4. Can It Be the WikiLeaks?
The question related to foreign impacts is, whether
there was a foreign power that withdrew its support
from the autocrats. If such support from a power
existed in the Middle East, it had to be from the US
since only the American influence can have had such
a decisive role in the shaping of polities in the region.
A thesis that this was the case has already been
presented. Ruthie Blum surprisingly accuses the US
for abandoning its autocratic allies and thus making
available space for anti-Israeli Islamists to take over
[24]. In contrast, other scholars have been more
critical of the US with its support for autocrats in the
past, and more recently they have been critical of the
US policy that has not supported the democratic
movements sufficiently [21], and these scholars are
now pleased to have seen the autocrats overthrown.
The thesis of the Arab Spring being influenced by the
refusal of the US to support its old allies was well
presented by the advocacy group of the main
whistleblower, WikiLeaks. This organization allegedly
leaked the information about the unwillingness of the
US to continue its support for President Ben Ali in
"The US campaign of unwavering public support for
President Ali led to a widespread belief among the
Tunisian people that it would be very difficult to
dislodge the autocratic regime from power. This
view was shattered when leaked (WikiLeaks) cables
exposed the US government's private assessment:
that the US would not support the regime in the
event of a popular uprising. While extreme
economic hardship and popular discontent with
(human) rights abuses had already set the stage
for an uprising, this new information played a
critical role in transforming the landscape of
political possibilities in Tunisia. The Tunisian people
finally realized that, contrary to the US
government's public relations efforts, they weren't
really up against the full force of the world's
superpower" [25,26].
Could it be that the main international push for
democratization in the Middle East came as a negative
act? The negative act, or non-action in this case was
the refusal of the US to continue support for Ben Ali
against his democratic challengers. In Egypt the US
abandoned President Hosni Mubarak, who until the
turmoil had received financial support matched only
by the US support for Israel. In Libya the United
States participated in a military operation involving the
heavy bombing of Muammar Gaddafi's troops. In
contrast, during President George W. Bush's regime,
the country solicited Libyan support in the war on
terror, tried to persuade Gaddafi to accept intelligence
sharing arrangements and hoped to add Libya to the
Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership [27]: a
venture that was undoubtedly aimed against some of
the individuals in the current Libyan government. It is
not within the scope of this article to prove that the
US policy towards some of its Middle Eastern allies,
especially in the war against terror, has dramatically
changed. Instead, this is taken as a given. Such a
change is considered to be a subject that this article
will not analyze. In addition, no proof for the
argument that the sudden inaction of the US
regarding support of its autocratic allies was one of
the reasons for the emergence of the opportunity for
the Arab Spring will be provided either. Instead the
topic that this article will focus on, is the question of
whether the former US policy indeed contributed to
the durability of Middle East autocracy.
Thus, the main question this article tries to answer
is whether or not it is true that former US support of
regimes in the Middle East supported autocrats more
than it did democrats. If the answer to this
controversial question is no, then it will not be
possible to say that the ending of such support
contributed to the toppling of autocrats. Only if the
overall balance of US interference and intervention in
domestic affairs of the Middle East tilts in favor of
autocracy, can US inaction be said actually to have
helped to oust the dictators. This is why this article
focuses on the question of what the overall balance of
US support to domestic forces was: Was the support
of the US in general in favor of democrats or
5. Quantitative Design
In order to answer this challenging research question,
it is necessary for the analysis to go beyond gut
feelings and qualitative analysis that aim at
quantitative conclusions. It is known that there are
cases where the US has supported democratic
regimes and there are cases where the US has
supported autocrats. Of these claims there are no
doubts. Nevertheless, the crucial question is which
pattern is the rule and which is the exception with
regard to US interaction with the countries of the
Middle East. In addition to revealing incidents and
support and opposition of different types of regimes,
one needs to reveal how often the US influence
supported autocrats, and how often it supported
democrats. This can be done by correlating data on
polities with data on US military support and political
support for regimes. The Polity IV dataset will be used
for the data on polities. This database is the most
used data on polities among specialists of comparative
study of democratization. The definitions and
operationalizations of the variables that will be used in
this article will be discussed as and when these
variables are introduced. The data on US support
have been derived from historical analyses that will
not be discussed here. However, for the sake of
transparency, the coding of Middle East countries to
various contemporaneous categories of US support
during the years after the Second World War are
shown in Appendixes 1 and 2 of this article.
Previously, I examined the relationship between
changes in polities and changes in the qualities and
quantities of US support [28]. My conclusions
suggested that the US has generally rewarded
changes towards autocracy whereas it has punished
democratization. Examination of the events reveal
that this was because the processes of
democratization have often been spearheaded by
groups who are either against Israel, against the US
economic interests (mainly oil-related), or are
geopolitically problematic as Islamists or socialists
[28]. However, this time I wish to establish whether
US support for regimes has been important for the
stability of autocrats per se (and whether the ending
of such support can be a crucial reason for the Arab
Spring). It is also important to analyze how support
and autocracy correlate, i.e. what is the overall
balance of US influence with regards to autocracy in
the Middle East. Thus, the hypothesis of this study is
that it is possible that the ending of US support for
autocrats facilitated the Arab Spring because the
overall influence of the US regional power previously
was in support of autocracy.
The temporal focus of this examination begins from
the beginning of independence of the Middle East
countries and also after the US became hegemonic
over the region, i.e. after the Second World War. This
analysis period ends at the end of the year 2010, the
last year of Polity IV at the time of writing this article.
Using the year 2010 as the last year of the analysis
also reveals the policy of the US before the beginning
of the Arab Spring. For this reason, the decision for
using the year 2010 as the last year for analyzing the
research question, is academically robust.
In my quantitative analysis I will reveal two sets of
results, one dataset in which Turkey is treated as a
Middle East nation, and the other in which Turkey is
not treated as a member of the region. Iran is another
borderline state. Yet it is more often than not included
in the region of the Middle East and this is why I will
also consider it as a Middle Eastern power in my
analysis. After all, in political terms Iran is a most
central actor in Middle East politics, and its experience
of US influence is crucial in the construction of the
political reality of power in the Middle East region.
Iran, as one of the members of the "axis of evil" and
the group of "tyrannies", has been central to the US
argument for the need to interfere in domestic policies
in order "to rescue populations". The focus is on
Muslim countries, as this is the cultural and
geographic area where the Arab Spring took place.
Lebanon has not been dominated by Muslim regimes
even though currently Muslims constitute a majority
of about 60% of the population. Lebanon is naturally
included in the Muslim Middle East area due to its
integral affiliation within the group of the Middle East
states. Since the study leaves out the examination of
Israel (since the focus in on Muslim countries), there
is an inherent bias against US policies of support for
democracy: Israel is a democracy (within its core
territory), and the US tends to support Israeli
6. US Support for Democracy…and Autocratic
Democracy in this article can be defined as the
following essential interdependent elements: open-
ness and competitiveness in executive recruitment,
and competitive and regulated political participation.
Autocracy, in this article, is defined by the lack of
competitiveness of political participation, the reg-
ulation of participation, the lack of openness and
competitiveness of executive recruitment, and the lack
of constraints on the chief executive's policies and
actions. Both the Democracy and the Autocracy
indicator used here are an additive 11-point scale (0
10). These definitions follow the operationalizations of
the Polity dataset [29,30]. It is important to note that
autocracy and democracy are not mutually exclusive:
a country that allows a lot of popular participation,
but rules without constraints can be relatively
autocratic at the same time as being relatively
democratic. The US military relationship means US
military aid or concessional sales of military hardware
for regimes that enable them to maintain law and
order. The US general assistance to the regime means
political support for the regime in the form of
economic aid, diplomatic support or positive publicity
for the regime. The coding of political and military
support can be accessed in Appendixes 1 and 2.
7. US Support in the Middle East Including
Before going into correlative analysis one should make
a methodological reservation here. To assess the
significance of correlations one should focus on
observations that are independent of each other.
However, if the country is a democracy this year it is
likely to have been a democracy the year before and it
is likely to be a democracy the following year. The
same is true for US support. Yet, correlations are
relevant regardless of the interdependence between
observations of each country over time as we are
interested in whether US influence is currently helping
autocrats or democrats, rather than in whether there
is a systematic causal relationship between autocracy
and US support. Even if it can be predicted that if the
US supports one autocratic regime this year, then this
regime will still be autocratic and that the US will still
support it the following year, support over the years
for a particular autocrat does affect the US's overall
balance of support between democrats and autocrats.
There is a very weak but highly significant
correlation (0.111**, sign. 0.000, N = 1054) between
US general support (non-military support) for regimes
and democracy. However, such a correlation is missing
between democracy and US military support for
regimes. However, there is a stronger and more
significant correlation between US general help to a
regime and the regime's authoritarian character, which
is more crucial for human security (0.171**, sign.
0.000, N = 1054). Thus in general, US general sup-
port has a highly significant, albeit weak, negative
correlation with overall polity quality (–0.165**, sign.
0.000, N = 1054), which indicates that over the study
period the US supported autocracies more than
democracies. Furthermore, US military support and
authoritarianism were highly significant, even when
they were weakly correlated (0.114**, sign. 0.000, N =
1055). The US then, weakly supports popular partic-
ipation, but it supports harsh measures taken by the
authorities and thereby supports human insecurity
more. Furthermore, it seems that US support has
targeted regimes with some competitive participation,
but where the security apparatus of the regimes
restrict the openness of participation. Before going on
to a more detailed analysis of the profiles of polities
that US support for regimes favor, let us look at the
archetypal regime that the US supports or opposes.
A typical US-supported country with democracy
score of 1 was Tunisia before the Arab Spring,
whereas a typical country opposed by the US with a
democracy score 0, was the Sudan.
The first observation of these data is that the mean
scores for democracy in the Middle East area are very
low (clearly below the global averages) whereas the
level of autocracy is high (way above global averages).
The second observation, before making the
comparison between supported and opposed regimes,
is that it seems that neutral countries that are neither
supported nor opposed by the US, perform slightly
better in terms of their development of democracy. This
is clearer the closer we come to the present. Neutral
regimes tend to be countries that are relatively smaller
in importance for global energy production and/or are
situated in less strategic locations. Competition
between the global great powers has not served the
human security of peoples of economically or
strategically important countries very well.
The third observation that can be made about the
contents of Tab le 1 is that the data confirm the result
of the correlation analysis. The US supports both
participatory and authoritarian regimes. The countries
that the US opposes tend to be less authoritarian and
thus the better at protecting their own people from
authoritarian violence. Moreover, neutral countries
score better than those countries that the US
supports. Morocco (1992–1997) after its constitutional
reform of 1992 and its slow democratic progress is a
typical US-supported autocracy (with an autocracy
score 7). Sudan at the beginning of the new
millennium (2002–2004) is a typical US-opposed
country, with an autocracy score of 6. Two typical
neutral countries with an autocracy score of 6 were
Egypt during the last years of Anwar Sadat and Oman
before the discovery of oil in the mid-1960s. These
relevant periods occurred before the development of
US relations and the intensification of authoritarianism
with these two countries.
Table 1. Mean democracy, authoritarianism and
US general support scores in the Middle East,
Mean level of
Mean level of
US opposes 0.30 6.41
US does not support or oppose 1.29 6.38
US supports 1.06 6.94
The same pattern applies to US military support.
The US tends to support more democratic but also
more autocratic regimes than it opposes. The
differences between militarily supported countries and
those that get no military support are smaller than in
the case of general support. Consequently, it seems
that US military support is even less selective than US
general support when one looks at the general
indicatorsof democracy and authoritarianism. However,
once we look at democracy and autocracy profiles we
will realize that this is not the case, after all.
8. US Support in the Middle East Not Including
Even though US support for autocracy is more
systematic that its support for democracy, the
difference between the two is not great. However, if
we take a narrower geographical look at the Middle
East area (Table 2) and assume that the regional
rationale of support for the NATO ally, Turkey, derives
from European rather than Middle Eastern realities,
the picture of US policies in the Middle East gets darker.
Suddenly, the difference in democratic credentials
between US-supported and US-opposed regimes
disappears. Moreover, a typical US-supported polity
has an autocracy score of eight whereas a typical
opposed or neutral country has a score of six. The
picture with military support is even worse (Tab le 3).
An average Middle East country receiving US military
assistance is clearly less democratic and much more
authoritarian than a country that is not involved in
military cooperation with the US.
9. The Difference between President Bush and
President Obama
After the end of the Cold War and especially after the
War on Terror had begun, the discourse on
humanitarian intervention gained political capital, and
thus respect for national sovereignty declined. This
does not, however, mean that the consistency of US
support for human security is greater once there is a
greater need to pursue policies that compromise state
sovereignty. Furthermore, the priorities of the War on
Terror also required continued support for pro-US
autocracies such as Saudi Arabia. An examination of
the presidency of the George W. Bush period (Ta b le 4 )
reveals how counter-terrorism affected US support to
the Middle East regimes. By way of contrast I will add
the figures during the first two years of the presidency
of Barrack Obama in parenthesis.
Clearly, the region has become less autocratic.
Since the comparison here is between countries that
the US supports and the ones US opposes, the general
development towards democracy, especially during
the past few years does not affect the conclusion
about how the US supports democracy and autocracy.
Table 2. Mean democracy, autocracy and US
general support scores in the Middle East (excl.
Turkey), 1946–2010.
Democracy Autocracy
US opposes 0.30 6.41
US does not support or oppose 1.26 6.41
US supports 0.35 7.61
Table 3. Mean democracy, autocracy and US
military support scores in the Middle East (excl.
Turkey), 1946–2010.
Democracy Autocracy
No military support 0.72 6.63
Military support 0.31 7.80
Table 4. Mean democracy, autocracy and US
general support scores in the Middle East, for
the G. W. Bush and (B. Obama) presidencies.
Democracy Autocracy
Enemies 0.75 (0.17) 5.34 (5.83)
Neutral 2.67 (4.00) 5.00 (4.00)
Allies 1.07 (1.33) 6.05 (5.63)
The general democratization happened before the US
policy changed as, during the term of President Bush, the
countries supported by the US still were clearly more
autocratic than those the US treated with suspicion and
hostility. The trend in US support did not change before
the change over to the Obama presidency. During the
Bush presidency the United States still supported regimes
that governed with slightly greater democracy than it
opposed. Nonetheless, the US also supported slightly
more authoritarian regimes than that it opposed. The
margin between the democracy scores of those supported
and those opposed diminished, whereas the margin
between autocracy scores of US friends and foes slightly
widened during the George W. Bush presidency. US
support scores for the George W. Bush era became even
less supportive of citizens when measured by support for
democracy and autocracy. If Turkey is excluded from the
analysis, the difference between the times before and
during President G. W. Bush is substantial. Then the US
clearly opposes more democratic regimes than it supports
(Table 5).
However, the Obama presidency is different. The
preference for autocrats virtually no longer exists in the
Obama presidency.
The presidency of George W. Bush was disastrous for
US legitimacy as a supporter of democracy in the Middle
East when US policy is interrogated from the perspective
of military support (Ta b le 6 ). Regardless of whether or
not we count Turkey as a Middle Eastern power, the G.
W. Bush era supported more regimes with a worse
democracy score and a higher level of autocracy
compared to regimes the US did not support. If one
looks at Table 6 on the Middle East without Turkey the
picture is grim.
As the figures in parentheses for the first years of
President Obama show, US policy towards democracy is
fluid. It seems that the autocratic bias has not changed in
US military relationships (Table 6), whereas for US
general support the bias towards supporting autocratic
regimes has disappeared (Tables 4 and 5). The Obama
administration's policy did give different signals to the
Arabs who disapproved of or opposed their autocratic
10. Profiles of Democracy and Autocracy
If we then move from the blunt variables of democracy
and autocracy scores towards variables that detail polities,
we can illuminate some of the hidden interests and
drivers behind US support or opposition. US supportive
relationship for a Middle East regime is correlatively
associated with high levels of regulation of chief executive
recruitment. Furthermore, US support was not given to
countries with a long history of military coups (even if the
US has backed a few of them itself). Regulation of the
recruitment of the chief executive of a country does not
imply either democracy or authoritarianism, but stability.
Hereditary succession can be as regulated as institu-
tionalized elections. The correlation between US support
and the degree of regulation of chief executive
recruitment is the highest and most significant association
in this study. This association is also a characteristic of the
target country's polity regardless of whether we look at
general support (0.451**, sign. 0.000, N = 1054) or
military cooperation (0.386**, sign. 0.000, N = 1055).
Regulation of executive recruitment was an even more
vital criterion under President G. W. Bush's tenure as
president. Clearly US support strives for stability rather
than democracy or the well-being of citizens of the Middle
East countries. This seems explicable, given the economic
and strategic interests the US faces in the Middle East.
This emphasis is often central to US definitions and
objectives of its Middle Eastern strategy: "The United
States has pursued a foreign policy that seeks stability in
a region with abundant energy reserves but which has
volatile interstate relationships" [31]. Furthermore, US
strategic interests in an area that neighbored the Soviet
Union required that a military relationship had to have
some stability. US support is also very significantly
correlated with the duration of regimes, which in turn, are
associated with the predictability of developments and the
stability of the situation. For example, the emphasis on
stability in US relations with Egypt and Tunisia continued
until the very end of President George W. Bush's stint as
president. The assessment at the end of 2010 was that
the US could no longer go against people who yearned
for democracy and wanted to oust President Ben Ali. This
revelation was disclosed by WikiLeaks in January 2011
and it was an indication of a priority change in US foreign
policy in favor of giving at least some room for human
rights and human security, even if this meant
compromising the "stability-interests" of the US.
Table 5. Mean democracy, autocracy and US
general support scores in the Middle East (excl.
Turkey), G.W. Bush and (B. Obama) Presidencies.
Democracy Autocracy
Enemies 0.75 (0.17) 5.34 (5.83)
Neutral 2.67 (4.00) 5.00 (4.00)
Allies 0.54 (0.80) 6.43 (6.00)
Table 6. Mean democracy, autocracy and US
military support scores in the Middle East (excl.
Turkey), G. W. Bush and (Obama) Presidencies.
Democracy Autocracy
No military relations 1.14 (1.58) 5.16 (5.08)
Military relations 0.49 (0.78) 6.63 (6.09)
Despite the poor democracy record of the US
supported regimes, the level of competitiveness in
executive recruitment and the level of competitiveness
in political participation in Middle East states on the
one hand and US military support on the other are
clearly correlated (competitiveness of executive
recruitment: 0.241**, sign. 0.000, N = 1055; compet-
itiveness of political participation: 0.160**, sign.
0.000, N = 1055) and with general support on the
other hand (competitiveness of executive recruitment:
0.267**, sign. 0.000, N = 1054; competitiveness of
political participation: 0.128**, sign. 0.000, N=1054)
are significantly, albeit very weakly, correlated. Clearly
the centrality of democratic competition in the
American policy can be seen.
Although competitive regimes are supported, US
support is correlated with constraints on the openness
of this competition. Executive recruitment and political
participation might be competitive, but not all can
participate in this competition. The openness of the
executive recruitment concept has the strongest
negative correlation with US support, both general
and military (general support: –0.336**, sign. 0.000,
N = 1054; military support: –0.254**, sign. 0.000, N
= 1055). An examination of the autocracies that the
US has supported and opposed reveals what kind of
restrictions to democratic participation the US
supports. Recruitment and political participation are
not open as Communists, Islamists and people who
would be harmful to US political interests in terms of
policy towards oil, are often excluded from the
political process.
The problem of the lack of openness is also
understandable from the point of view of US strategic
and economic interests. Even when the US is
ideologically committed to supporting competitive
political systems, it cannot allow ideological
expressions that harm its oil interests or strategic
priorities within the Middle East. However, when
emphasizing abstract strategic security interests, the
US has traditionally contributed to human insecurity
inside Middle Eastern autocracies.
11. US Support and Democracy and Human
Rights: Extreme Cases
The rationales of US support for elements of
autocracy namely: the bias towards autocratic
stability and the imposition of restrictions on
political participation and the competition for
executive positions against Islamists, Israel-haters,
Communists and opponents of US oil interests, can
also be examined by looking at the extreme cases
of US support for autocrats and its opposition to
democrats. If we list regimes that the United
States has supported and put them in the order of
their autocracy score from the most to the least
autocratic regimes, at the top of the list we would
get the extreme cases that the US should not have
supported if it were interested in the promotion of
human security. This is what I have done in Tab l e
7: the cut-off point is the autocracy score 10,
which is the highest level of autocracy in the Polity
data. All the regimes listed below belong to that
I now order the data for countries the US opposed
in the order of their autocracy scores, starting from
the least autocratic countries, in Tab le 8 .
Table 7. Most autocratic regimes that US has
Country Regime years Autocracy score
Iran 1953–1978 10
Jordan 1974–1983 10
Saudi Arabia 1946–2010 10
Kuwait 1976–1989 10
Bahrain 1971–1992 10
Qatar 1985–2010 10
Oman 1973–1990 10
Table 8. Least autocratic regimes that the US
has opposed.
Country Regime years Autocracy score
Sudan 1967–1968 1
Iran 1997–2003 1
Lebanon 2005 1
Yemen North 1967–1972 3
Yemen 2005 3
Sudan 2005–2010 4
Iran 1951–1952 4
Iraq 1958–1967 5
Yemen South 1969 5
Sudan 2002–2004 6
Iraq 1982–1996; 2004–2010 6
Many of the regimes (of Ta ble 8) demonized in the
Western media are nowhere near as autocratic as all
of the US allies of Tab le 7. In fact every one of the
regimes listed, including the currently much maligned
Iranian and Sudanese governments, is less autocratic
than the average Muslim regime that the US supports
in the Middle East. Not even the two most autocratic
regimes that US has opposed in the past, Saddam
Hussein's Iraq or the socialist, pro-Soviet regime of
Algeria of the mid-1960s ever had an autocracy score
of 10.
Each of the US-supported regimes that had an
autocracy score 10 were major oil producers, and all
of them have or have had a stable but ruthless
political system. The US is addicted to oil, and it sells
out its principles of human security to get what it
needs, as any addict would.
It seems from Ta ble 8 that the US has opposed
relatively less-autocratic countries when a) their
popular will went against the crucial interests of US
energy policies (Iran 1951–1952 being the best
example), and US global missions against communism
(South Yemen 1969) or against Islamic terrorism
(Iran, 1997–2008, Sudan 2002–2008), or b) when
their relations with the US were severed by them
having a negative stand on Israel (Sudan 1967–1968).
The pursuance of such opposition has often occurred
in ways that undermine the principle of human
If we look at the countries for which Barack
Obama's regime relaxed its rule of supporting stable
regimes, and allowed people to topple their leaders,
we can see that these countries were not crucially
important oil producers. Their respective democratic
oppositions were moderately Islamist and they did
oppose Israel, but the Arab Spring in these countries
never threatened the US oil interests. It seems that
Obama could tolerate human security progress even
in countries that were likely to turn Islamist and anti-
Israel. However, the US war on terror was not to be
compromised, and thus popular pressures were not
allowed to hamper US operations in Yemen. In
addition, popular preferences were still suppressed in
those US allied countries in which the promotion of
such preferences could have helped the geopolitical
interests of Iran (such as in Iraq and Bahrain).
However, US resolve was most unyielding in the
countries in which the US energy interests where
threatened (Bahrain and Saudi Arabia). Whether the
new energy solutions that will reduce US energy
dependence on the Middle East will affect this driver
for the support of stable but autocratic regimes of oil
producing nations remains to be seen.
12. Conclusions and Discussion
Comparison of polity profiles of regimes that the
United States either supports or opposes in addition
to an analysis of the extreme cases of US support and
opposition seem to produce the same conclusions.
The main conclusions of this study support the view
which can be summarized as follows:
1. In general, the United States has supported
more autocratic regimes than it has opposed. In
this sense US support of regimes seems to have
contributed to human insecurity.
2. In general the US military relationship facilitated
autocratic governments, i.e. governments whose
polity allows for a more brutal oppression of their
people than those regimes for which the US
eschews such a military relationship.
3. The US supports seven regimes with the highest
autocracy score of 10: i.e. regimes that are more
autocratic than the most autocratic regimes that
the US has opposed.
4. Many of the countries that the US has been
most passionate in opposing, i.e. those countries
that the US policy most frequently denies the
normal diplomatic rights to which all sovereign
nations are due, are relatively democratic and
much less autocratic than the countries the US
supports in general.
The polity profiles of the regimes that the US either
supports or opposes in the Middle East provide
important explanations as to why the balance of US
influence in domestic policies in the Middle East
countries favors autocratic governments. The analysis
above corroborates the findings based on the
observation of polity changes and the qualitative
analysis published by Marwan Bishara and myself
[28,32]. According to Bishara, support for autocrats is
because the US sees the Middle East through the
prism of oil, Israel, and terrorism, and that all of these
viewpoints are impediments to the US commitment to
pursuing democracy, human rights and freedom [32].
The US preferred the controlled chief executive
recruitment in Middle East countries, especially in
those countries where there was a risk of communists
(during the cold war), Islamists (during the War on
Terror), or haters of Israel taking over. The US also
supported the durability of these polities, especially in
oil producing countries. Clearly, all of these factors are
decisive in what lies behind the traditional US support
for autocrats in the Middle East.
The oil and gas-related interests for supporting
autocrats can be understood easily by integrating this
observation with the literature of political economy. Oil
is important to the US strategically, whereas oil
interests also affect the behavior of the US towards
Middle East states due to the influence wielded by the
oil companies.
Oil is a strategic commodity and a necessity of
modern industry, thus access to oil-based energy has
long been crucial for the strategic and economic
interests of the United States. In addition to it being a
necessity for American prosperity, it has been
instrumental in the setting of strategic goals, including
the ability of the US to promote democracy in the
world. This paradox between US economic interests
with regards to oil and the wider espoused US global
strategic goal of democracy was made very explicit in
the previous US president's (George W. Bush) analysis
of US policies on the Middle East [31]. This
dichotomous linkage between strategy and support
for oil autocrats explains the approach of the US in
limiting popular expression in favor of Islamism (or
Iran), and communism.
In addition to global interests, energy influences US
policies about protecting the investments of American
oil companies in Middle Eastern oil. Oil exploration
requires a huge investment before it starts producing
any profits and after this initial investment the assets
of the investors are fixed and immobile and therefore
at the mercy of any change in policy. Consequently, it
is clear that the investor is keen on rules that enable
the continuation of the business. According to
Hirschman [33], this creates a situation where the
investor is left with the strategy of trying to influence
the host country: leaving the country is not an option.
When the investment is crucial to national interest, it
is likely that the logic of power forces the country of
the investor to pursue strategies that aim at
controlling the polity of the host country. It does so to
ameliorate the vulnerability of strategically important
investments. The strong support given by the United
States to friendly dictators (regimes listed in Ta b le 7),
the American preference for controlled chief executive
recruitment in host countries, the support for the
continuity of favorable polities in oil countries testify
to this logic of immobile, fixed assets that explain the
interventions of US interests in securing access to oil
in the Middle East.
In addition to vital pressing economic motives, US
policy has to adjust regional approaches to global
priorities and this necessarily implies compromises to
optimal regional strategies. Amaney A. Jamal has
claimed in his book entitled: Of Empires and Citizens
that "democracy may not suit the strategic interests of
the United States" in the Arab world [34]. The global
conflicts against global communist dictators and
terrorism have sometimes meant that a Middle East
government's softness on communism or on terror
had to be punished or prevented or nullified by
subversive means, even when governments were
relatively democratic. Furthermore, as seen in Table 8,
some of the pro-Soviet regimes (South Yemen and
Sudan at the end of the 1960s, Iran 1951–1952) and
even more often some of the religiously oriented
governments that have had a sympathetic attitude
towards some of the organizations that the US
categorizes as terrorist (Lebanon 1985, Iran in the
2000s, and Sudan today) are somewhat less
autocratic in general than other regimes in the Middle
East. These regimes cannot win US support, as this
support, even if positive for human security in the
Middle East, could hamper the American global fight
against the forces of autocracy. Meanwhile,
governments with few democratic credentials can get
a favorable reception from the United States if they
have a favorable attitude towards the US and its
global allies.
A lesser, but still important intervening interest that
explains America's occasional support for repression,
is the US's support for the power, security and welfare
of Israel. Whether this support is due to the Second
World War's great narrative, which partly legitimizes
US leadership in the world, or to the extensive
domestic power of the American Jewish community
[35], or to something else cannot be concluded on the
basis of this study. However, what can be said on the
basis of the analysis above is that the US has had to
help autocrats stay in power to support the strategic
goal of helping Israel. The case of marginalizing the
democratically elected Hamas in Palestine, instead of
trying to isolate it from the radicals involved in civilian
targeting, is a good example of this. The subversive
punishment of the Sudan in the mid-1960s and the
refusal to endorse Iran's democratic development in
the 1980s and in the 1990s were partly related to the
upholding of this partisan support. Iran, obviously, did
not become a perfect democracy after its theocratic
revolution while the human security situation in the
country has deteriorated during the recent years. Yet,
according to Polity data, the country became one of
the most democratic and least autocratic countries in
the Middle East, and held that position even during
President Bush's campaign against tyrants (Iranian
leaders included).
Although claims that US democracy support is
corrupted by oil interests, strategic interests of
resisting Islamism (and Iran), the will of the US to
defend Israel are not new; these strategic interests,
as causal factors, had not been tested systematically
before this study. This is why there still are analyses
that assume, as a given, that the US influence overall
is in favor of democracy against totalitarian autocrats,
and that the question is just whether the US is doing
enough to support democracy [21,36]. This study
together with my study of US reactions to changes of
polities [28] clearly show that the inaction of the US in
the Muslim Middle East during the Arab Spring would
be more beneficial for human security than any
traditional US action. Thus we should not take it for
granted that the democratic superpower necessarily
has a positive effect on democracy in the Middle East.
The opposite is established here. The analysis above
suggests that the US has already done too much and
that it is a blessing for the human security and
democracy of the region that Barack Obama's US
administration is currently in retreat or less resolute in
supporting its autocratic Middle Eastern allies. Thus,
the most likely conclusion is that it has been US
inaction rather than US action that contributed to Arab
What has been shown above is not proof that it
was the US inaction that triggered the Arab Spring. It
is obvious that other factors were crucial. However,
without the traditional weight of US influence in favor
of autocracy, the claim of US inaction giving rise to
the opportunities in the Arab world for people to oust
their autocrats would have been impossible to make.
The fact that there seems to be an overall balance of
US influence in favor of autocrats and that WikiLeaks
revealed the evaporation of US support for Ben Ali
makes it plausible that the US was, after all, somehow
behind the collapse of brutal autocrats in the Middle
East. Whether this was actually the case should be
further studied by tracing the motivations of the
democratic Arab rebels, their knowledge of and trust
in WikiLeaks, whether their facebook, and text
messages referred to the new opportunities offered by
the US inaction, and whether they talked about the
WikiLeaks revelations. Yet, such research would be
useless before it can be shown that the US had
indeed supported autocracy and that this policy had
changed with Obama. This was proven in this study
(not that the US was necessarily an influence or that
WikiLeaks was the trigger).
The crucial oil states have not lost the support of
the US, and thus they have not managed to get rid of
their autocratic obstacles to human security. Instead
the US tried to prevent them from moving against
autocracy both in Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain. Thus
the change in the US attitude towards Islamist and
anti-Israel popular movements could be among the
explanations of the Arab Spring. Also, this should be
further studied by focusing on the differences in the
US policies towards oil states and non-oil states. If
there were a clear difference between how the US
policy developed towards the two categories of states,
this could further consolidate the hypothesis that the
change in the US attitude towards potentially Islamist
non-oil states could have been one of the external
conditions of the Arab Spring. In any case, the fact
that the US used to support autocrats, and that it
stopped this support for autocrats of non-oil states
just before the Arab Spring suggests that it is already
quite plausible that the US change was one of the
causes of the Arab Spring, and that the revelation of
this change by WikiLeaks was a trigger for
considerable human security upgrade in the region. In
any case, greater transparency early on about the US
support of autocracy, despite the country's pro-
democracy rhetoric, could have increased the political
costs involved in this double standard decades ago.
This could have generated the international conditions
conducive for the Arab Spring even sooner.
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Appendix 1. US general support for the Middle East regimes.
Country US Support Neutrality US Opposition
Algeria 1979–2010
Bahrain 1971–2010
Egypt 1946–1952; 1979–2010
Iran 1953–1978
Iraq 1980–1988; 2003–2010 1946–1957; 1989 1958–1979; 1990–2002
Jordan 1957–1990; 1992–2010 1946–1956; 1991
Kuwait 19632010
Lebanon 1946–1958; 1983 1959–1982; 1984–2000;
Libya 1952–1968; 2003–2010 1969–2002
Morocco 1956–2010
Oman 1973–2010 1946–1972
Qatar 1985–2010 1971–1984
Saudi Arabia 1946–2010
Sudan 1972–1973; 1977–1985 1956–1966; 1986–1988 1967–1971; 1974–1976;
Syria 1949 1946–1948; 1950–1962;
1963–1969; 2000–2010
Tunisia 1959–1984; 1986–1987;
1985; 1988; 1990–1991
Turkey 1947–2010 1946
UAE 1971–2010
Yemen 1990–2004; 2006–2010 2005
Yemen, North 1962–1966; 1979–1990 1946–1961; 1973–1978 1967–1972
Yemen, South 1967–1968 1969–1990
Appendix 2. US military support for the Middle East regimes.
Country Military Cooperation No Military Cooperation
Algeria 1992–2010 1946–1991
Bahrain 1971–2010
Egypt 1979–2010 1946–1978
Iran 1953–1978 1946–1952; 1979–2010
Iraq 1980–1988; 2003–2010 1953–1978
Jordan 1957–2010 1946–1956
Kuwait 1991–2010 1973–1990
Lebanon 1950–1958; 1983 1946–1949; 1959–1982; 1984–2010
Libya 1951–2010
Morocco 1963–2010 1956–1962
Oman 1980–2010 1946–2007
Qatar 1992–2010 1971–1991
Saudi Arabia 1951–2010 1946–1950
Sudan 1972–1973 1956–1971; 1974–2010
Syria 1949; 1991 1946–1948; 1950–1990; 1992–2010
Tunisia 1959–2010
Turkey 1947–2010 1946
UAE 2001–2010 1971–2000
Yemen 2006–2010 1990–2005
Yemen, North 1979–1990 1946–1978
Yemen, South 1967–1990