One of the most significant story lines associated with the death of Osama bin Laden is that yet another of the Middle East’s most important and enduring political leaders is gone. It would have been hard to believe had you told anyone that within the first four months or so of 2011, you would see the end of the very long and prominent careers of Hosni Mubarak (president of Egypt for 30 years), Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (president of Tunisia for 23 years), and bin Laden, who had led al Qaeda for almost a quarter century and who had been atop the list of the world’s most wanted terrorists since the early 1990.
But we have also effectively seen the end of the career of Yemen’s Al Abdullah Saleh despite his continuing efforts to wriggle out of a deal setting a fixed date for his departure. He is the only ruler the Republic of Yemen has known and has led the country in one position or another for 33 years. And while it is premature to count on the exit of Muammar al-Qaddafi or to predict how it will happen, the hand-writing seems to be on the wall. Either he will leave of his own volition or another of those inexplicable stray NATO bombings is going to "accidentally" get him. Qaddafi is the region’s longest serving ruler, having been in office for 42 years thus far.
While Bashar al-Assad has only been in office since 2000 and while he does not seem to be in quite as dire shape as Saleh or Qaddafi, the current unrest in that country suggests that after 40 years of al-Assad rule in Syria something significant has changed. Another of the region’s ancient regimes is showing signs of real vulnerability.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is soon to turn 87. The first in line to his throne is 83. The next in line is a youthful 74. While the Saudi royal family does not seem to be at any immediate risk of losing their hold on their country, it is clear that there will soon be a fairly significant shift among their principal leaders.
Other regimes in the region are also teetering or threatened or deeply flawed or on permanently thin political ice including but not limited to those in Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Israel.
The old lions of the Middle East are exiting the stage. We would be hard pressed to call them a pride since none is departing in glory. But, while it seems unlikely any of them will be missed, that remains to be seen. We don’t know who will replace them, how long they will hold on to power or whether they will pursue policies that will distinguish them favorably or negatively from their predecessors.
What we do know is that watersheds like this create both opportunities and risks. New leaders offer the promise of new ideas. However, they are often weak and as a result, politically cautious. Multiple forces will be clamoring to influence them. A bidding war is about to begin for loyalties and internecine struggles are bound to take place behind the scenes by those trying to undermine this as yet faceless new guard.
For the United States and the other great powers of the world, this period of transition consequently offers hope and peril. Barack Obama is almost certainly going to be judged in the long run far more for how he handles this changing of the guard than for his great success in Abbottabad or his moves in Afghanistan or Libya or Iraq. The Middle East is so complex that the solution to no individual problem — not the Arab-Israeli problem, not the removal of bin Laden, not the Iranian nuclear threat — offers a magic wand-like panacea or even a sure game-changer impacting the myriad others that constantly bubble and fester. Rather mastery of this region will require multi-tiered, multi-faceted, multi-speed, diplomatic, economic, political and security initiatives.
Obama has a couple of things going for him. The promise of his Cairo speech, while as yet unrealized still hangs in the air. He has demonstrated a commitment to the region. And this week after fitful progress from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan to Iran to the Maghreb, he has had his first great success.
He — despite the continuity between his agenda and much of that of the Bush administration — is also still seen as someone who is open to new approaches. This will be the key. The principle players in this region are changing. But if we revert to the same script with the new cast, we will get the same old play with the same old, typically unhappy endings. After emphatically showing the strength that comes of continuity in U.S. policy, the next challenge and the more important long-term successes for Obama must come from showing that he has the even greater strength that will be required to offer something entirely new.
My own view is that requires as a pre-requisite an energy policy that will reduce our dependence on the region, a reversion to conducting the war on terror via ultra-targeted, intelligence led special missions like that we saw this weekend, an embrace of a new Palestinian state, and a much greater focus on working with the new leadership to produce an economic resurgence in the region with a special focus on creating jobs for those under 30. It will also require much greater vigilance on the proliferation front and the ability to use new major power partnerships in new combinations to achieve these goals and pressure those who refuse to go along. Central to those partnerships will be much greater roles for big emerging powers like India (which looks more important to the U.S. every day), China, Turkey, and even non-regional actors like Brazil or South Africa.
There will certainly be other elements. But the key is that now is the moment to begin the changes. And fortunately for Barack Obama, he has never been in a better position to act from a position of confidence and strength.