One can hope the turmoil is a good thing, but it's far too soon to be sanguine. First, the Arab Spring may prove to be as transitory as the European revolutions of 1848, which did not immediately produce functioning democracies. Second, if some measure of democracy does result, the elected governments likely will reflect the popular antipathy that the "Arab street" has for both the United States and Israel.
As a result, the United States could face some unpleasant consequences. Western and American counterterrorism efforts could be undermined. The regimes that are being swept away devoted considerable resources to battling terrorist extremists and collaborated closely with the United States in that effort. Unfortunately, these same security services often were also oppressive. They undoubtedly will be purged, and — given popular hostility to the Bush administration's War on Terror — serious anti-terrorism programs could be reconstituted. Al-Qaida could have far more room to organize, recruit, train and even develop new terrorist weapons to attack the West.
A standoffish regime in Egypt could create many problems for the United States. Denial of automatic overflight rights and priority transit through the Suez Canal could seriously compromise U.S. military flexibility and capability further east. U.S. efforts to turn back the genocide in Sudan's Darfur region have depended heavily on Egyptian cooperation, which always seemed reluctant, but now may prove unavailable.
Most important, a popular government in Cairo is likely to adversely affect relations with Israel. It would be remarkable if politicians do not exploit popular anti-Israel hostility. The Muslim Brotherhood is already a major player in post-Mubarak politics and is on record as wanting to renegotiate the Camp David Accords, which have helped to maintain peace in the region for more than 30 years.
As a harbinger of the future, Egypt is no longer cooperating in Israel's embargo of Gaza. The possibility of war is far from likely, but the Israelis are certain to seek even more material and overt diplomatic support from the United States. This will complicate U.S. efforts to build new relationships of trust with the regimes that emerge from the maelstrom of change sweeping the Arab World.
One can pray that this turmoil will lead to the advance of the values America cherishes — democracy and a better life for all in the Arab world. But celebrations are not yet in order.
David Aaron is a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation specializing in the Middle East and former White House Deputy National Security Adviser.
This commentary originally appeared in CQ Global Researcher on May 3, 2011. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.