Grumpy OseWalrus grumpifies below.
Americans and Europeans are self-centered gits. This self-centeredness extends throughout the political spectrum. The self-centerdness makes it efectively impossible to have a conversation with people about Middle East politics. For some reason, we are much less self-centered (and Europeans are much less self-centered) about Asia (which is therefore easier to talk about without my head exploding in frustration).
Basically, Americans and Europeans are incredibly self-centered and lazy thinkers when it comes to the Middle East. Nearly everyone eventually devlves to 3 standad positions.
Arabs (and Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan, even if not technically Arabs), are murderous blood thirsty savages/religious fanatics.
Everything would be fine if it weren't for Israel.
Everything is the fault of Imperiliasm (granted Israel is usually a subset of this, but it lets you blame just the U.S. and Iraq for everything going on now).
When people ask "how did we miss the Arab Spring?" The answer is -- because it doesn't fit into any of these three paradigms. Sure, history means that everything is related to everything else. Obviously the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (and conduct in those countries and surrounding countries) have big impact. But here is the thing that nearly everyone I talk to always misses:
It's not all about us. The broad swath of countries that we think of as "the Middle East" running from Morocco to Pakistan actually has a complex set of issues that have absolutely nothing to do with us (meaning the U.S.).
Anyone who wasn't invested in the top 3 explanations would actually know things like "why is it so hard to find a job or get married in Egypt," "what has happened in Tunisia since the Arab Spring" and "wait, you mean there is a civil war in Yemen?" It would also be a good idea to know how long the leaders of various countries in the Middle East have been in power as compared to, say, 15 years ago, and their average age.
But perhaps most important, what is the average age in each of the Middle Eastern countries, and what is the percentage of each population associated with what religion?
I mention this in part because there is a distressing tendency of people (including policy makers) in the U.S. and EU to ignore what goes on in the Middle East when it doesn't fall neatly into one of the preconcieved categories. For instance, the growing dilomatic crisis spurred on by the Saudi execution of Shia cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr. First, please not that Sheik Nimr was a Saudi, despite Saudi Arabia being a "Sunni state." Because yes, there are in fact Shia in Saudi Arabia. Nor was this a sudden thing. Nimr's execution has been on the schedule for some time, and Saudi Arabia has faced significant protest. Also note it wasn't just about Nimr. The execution was part of a mass execution that was mostly Sunnis accused of terrorism.
The Iranians have had their own difficulty in reacting. Rioters burned the Saudi Embassy (after evacuation). The Iranian leadership condemned the execution but also condemned the "lawless action" of buring the embassy -- clearly an effort to keep things restrained. But now Saudi Arabia has cut dilomatic ties, and Bahrain has followed suite. Why did Saudi Arabia opt for an escalation? And why does Bahrain fllow Saudi policy? None of the 3 answers most Americans rely on addresses any of this.
And finally, we have the Russians floating an offer to mediate. 2 of the 3 major paradigms are indifferent to this. One would say it's a good thing, because whenever the U.S. acts in the region it creates problems.
And yes, the Mid East really is different from other regions of the world on this. It's not just "oh, Americans are all stupid and parochial on foreign policy." Americans may be ignorant on why Japan and S. Korea are still sore at each other over what happened in WWII, but they at least know they are ignorant and therefore, if they engage, they usually actually engage. Same thing on Latin America. What is unique is that Americans aware of tension between Pakistan and India usually still somehow think this is all about the US invasion of Afghanistan because, well, USA! USA! We are the center of the world.
'K, rant over.