The United States has been screwing up the Middle East for 60 years. Obama has a brief window to get it right.
- By Kenneth M. PollackKenneth M. Pollack is Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and former Director for Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council.
Egyptians went to the polls en masse on Nov. 28 and Nov. 29 to vote in the closest thing that any of them has ever seen to real elections. Although the final word is not in — either regarding the results or the integrity of the elections — early reports suggest that the vote was mostly fair and free.
But Egypt is still a long way from stable, functional democracy. As Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon have demonstrated again and again, elections do not equal democracy. Egypt’s Islamists — who appear to have garnered as much as 65 percent of the vote — will dominate the new parliament regardless of the role they play in the new Egyptian government, and we do not yet know whether they will wield that power responsibly. Egypt’s armed forces remain the most powerful force in the country by far, and they have shown a Hamlet-like ambivalence — demonstrating an ardent desire to surrender power to a new civilian government and a similar determination to preserve their own prerogatives from the era of Egyptian autocracy.
The strong showing of Salafi movements, which appear to have captured approximately a quarter of votes, was the surprise of this round of elections. These Sunni extremists are growing in number and, if the system begins to break down, might try to seize control of the government like modern-day Bolsheviks. Some of Egypt’s most popular leaders are dangerous demagogues who could plunge the country into all manner of problems. Democracy is a long road, with many perilous intersections, and Egypt has barely started on its way. What’s more, Egypt will likely require considerable political, military, and even economic support from the United States and the rest of the world if it is to make that critical, dangerous, transition successfully.
What is true for Egypt today is even truer for the wider Middle East. The events that began in Tunisia in December 2010 — and spread to Egypt and then Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Syria, and beyond — shook the political, social, and intellectual foundations of the Middle East. The tremors can still be felt, and no one is quite certain when the aftershocks will end, or when another wave of popular unrest might occur. In some countries, like Egypt and Tunisia, and perhaps Morocco, Libya and Jordan, a move toward real democracy has started. That is difficult enough, but the situation is even more dire in countries such as Syria and Bahrain, where old elites are fighting the popular forces of change with all of their might.
Between these countries lies a dozen other Arab states, where both the unrest and the government responses have been more limited. However, there is no reason to believe that they will remain untouched by the forces of the great Arab Awakening forever, or even for very long. Change is coming to the Middle East, but the ultimate result of that change is impossible to discern.
Unfortunately, the United States does not have the luxury of waiting around to see how things play out and then make sense of what has occurred. Although the shock of the initial events of the Arab Spring has ebbed, many of the miseries that gave rise to it persist and remain compelling motives for many people across the region. For that reason, the storm of unrest that spread from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf may have subsided, at least in some parts of the region, but its story has just begun.
Whether we like it or not, the changes sweeping the Middle East will affect America’s vital national interests as well. We hate to admit it, but we must face the fact that our economy — and the economy of the wider world, with which we are inextricably intertwined — is addicted to oil. And the price of oil, and thus the welfare of our economy and that of the rest of the world, is deeply affected by what happens in the Middle East.
We may want to turn inward and concentrate on setting our own house aright — to focus on nation-building at home, as President Barack Obama put it — but we cannot afford to ignore the events of the Middle East. The Middle East is not Las Vegas: what happens there, does not stay there.
Elements of a New American Middle East Strategy
In the wake of the earth-shaking events of the past year, and to secure U.S. interests in that part of the world, what U.S. policymakers must do is easily said, but hard to do. Indeed, Americans have determinedly resisted doing it for decades. But now that the events of 2011 have revealed the world as it truly is, and not as Americans have tried to insist that it was, perhaps the United States can finally commit itself to doing them.
To this end, the United States must embrace a long-term commitment to help the countries of the Middle East pursue a process of political, economic, and social transformation. This process should grow from within, rather than be imposed from without. It should reflect the values, traditions, history, and aspirations of the people of the region themselves, not a Western best guess at them. And it should also recognize that change and stability are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing — and ultimately mutually essential. This will be a difficult course to pursue, but it is ultimately the only good path to follow.
Defining a New Narrative
While it is unquestionably true that the people of the Middle East want to secure their own futures, it is also true that they want to know that the United States supports them and will help them when they ask for assistance. Many suspect that the United States still backs the region’s moribund and repressive regimes. For all of them, the United States must articulate and consistently hew to a new strategy that supports transformation in the Middle East.
But the message is equally important for the extant rulers themselves. Some hope simply to withstand the popular furor and, when passions have cooled, go back to the way things were. If they are going to be brought around to making more meaningful change, they need to understand that this is unacceptable to Washington and will place them squarely at odds with what will become a new, long-term American strategy toward the region.
Other Arab leaders fear that the United States will define its interest in change in such a way that will set the old political elite at odds with Washington. For them, the United States needs to articulate a vision of change that is compatible with their own interests (broadly defined), and that lays out a path forward that they could be persuaded to tread, even if grudgingly at first.
Saudi Arabia is clearly paramount in this area. King Abdullah himself appears to recognize the need for change within his oil-rich kingdom, and has begun a number of initiatives to overhaul the Saudi educational, economic, judicial, and social systems, although Riyadh has been notably slower to introduce reforms in the political sphere. Despite this, the Saudis clearly fear that the Obama administration now plans to throw its support behind revolutionary regime change across the region — something very frightening to the Saudi ruling family, both in terms of what they believe it would mean for themselves and for their allies. To some extent, they even fear that the United States will go so overboard in embracing transformation that it will forget traditional threats like Iran, and will decide that countries that are not reforming at revolutionary speeds should become the principal target of American pressure instead.
For Riyadh in particular, then, it is vital for the United States to develop a new strategic narrative that paints developments in the region and the future of U.S. policy toward it in terms that are compatible with Saudi interests and fears, and that indicate how the United States will adjust to the changes sweeping the region, continue to address traditional threats like Iran and Salafist terrorism, and will do both in ways that Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies can accept — even if reluctantly.
The United States should define the new regional struggle as one based on internal politics and the aspirations of the people of the region. It should accept that the region is now clearly divided. On one side are the states that have acknowledged the desires of their people for a better future and are taking concrete steps to improve their peoples’ lives. On the other side are the states that are not, and are employing the failed methods of the old Middle East: repression, violence, fear, totalitarian control over information and expression, and the creation of internal or external scapegoats on which to blame their problems — all to deny their people the better future they dream of.
Not accidentally, such a framework places the new Egypt, the new Tunisia, the new Libya, and hopefully the new Iraq squarely in the camp of those states in which such a change has begun, even despite the challenges that beset them. Despite their daunting problems, all are trying to democratize, all are responding to the desires of their people for better lives, more or less. It also places Iran, Syria, and groups like Hezbollah — which is slowly gaining control over Lebanon — in the camp of those states decidedly on the wrong side of history. In so doing, it should rally popular support for Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Tunisia and further alienate Iran and Syria from Arab public opinion. Indeed, recent public opinion polls demonstrate that this is already happening: Iran is no longer viewed by the Arab public as championing resistance to the old status quo, and is instead viewed as supporting its repressive clients in Syria and Lebanon and practicing similarly autocratic policies at home.
This strategic framework places a number of other countries exactly where they need to be — right in the middle. Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, Bahrain, Algeria, and others have in the past made mostly half-hearted forays at reform. The United States should convey that it wants to help them move into the first camp. Indeed, all of them have been frightened by the waves of unrest, and this ought to serve as an important motivation to adopt meaningful change. An American willingness to help, if not push, such change should also keep them on the straight path and bring them more fully into the progressive camp farther down the road.
Reconciling Ends and Means
But can the United States actually affect this kind of change? It is clear that, today, the country faces very significant financial problems. Although the foreign aid budget had virtually nothing to do with those problems, the issue of spending cannot be ignored. Today, every nickel the U.S. government spends will be scrutinized, and there is little stomach for disbursing large amounts of new aid.
Part of the answer to this problem is that the United States can and should emphasize providing assistance to Middle Eastern states that costs little or nothing at all. To some countries, the United States can provide technology and know-how at little cost. Another thrifty way to help the Arab states is with diplomatic assistance — from mobilizing NGOs and inclusive civil society to creating new international institutions, to addressing troublesome international issues. Some assistance can and should come in the form of military aid, such as maintaining training programs with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and other states, and building a similar relationship with Libya. In most cases, such military assistance could employ forces that already exist, and much could be paid for by the governments themselves. The new Libyan government, for example, might use frozen Libyan assets to pay for U.S. arms and training for new security services and police.
But some commitment of U.S. resources will inevitably be warranted and required to push forward the changes occurring in the Middle East. Even small new aid packages could have an outsized impact on countries struggling to change, especially when they form the kernel of larger packages from U.S. allies and international organizations. Moreover, it is vital to remember the optics of U.S. policy at this crucial juncture: The people of the Arab world believe that the United States gave generously to the bad old regimes. If Washington were to suddenly cut its assistance to the Middle East precisely when the people of the region rose up and threw off their autocratic shackles, they will conclude — now, and for a very long time to come — that the United States was only interested in supporting repressive autocrats that did their bidding and had no real interest in helping the Arab people themselves.
Wasthington cannot lose sight of the importance of the changes that have now begun in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring. They are too important to the vital national interest to allow a few billion dollars — an insignificant fraction of the total U.S. budget, let alone the national debt — to become the difference between success and failure.
Out with the Old
Throughout the Cold War and over the past 20 to 30 years, the United States has seen the Middle East largely through the traditional lens of political power. It was the governments of the region that mattered, and conflicts between states that posed the greatest threat (even if those conflicts manifested themselves in competing attempts at internal subversion). Because the United States had allied itself with those states that largely benefited from the prevailing geopolitical arrangements, Americans saw the status quo as highly beneficial and any threat to it as correspondingly dangerous. Our great Arab allies — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco — all liked things the way they were. The United States — intent on ensuring that the oil flowed and that Arab states were officially or unofficially at peace with Israel — also liked the way things were. Even Israel, after its victories in 1967 and 1973 and its failed attempt to rearrange the Levantine status quo in its favor in 1982, had itself become a status quo power.
Consequently, the United States became the great champion of the status quo in the Middle East and defined its adversaries — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Libya (until 2004) — as those states seeking to overturn the status quo. In some sense this was correct, because those states were attempting to subvert the prevailing geostrategic realities to create new ones, centered on their own interests.
The great problem inherent in this construct was that the people of the Middle East saw the preservation of the status quo as condemning them to eternal misery. Maintaining the status quo against all foreign and domestic threats meant keeping the people of the Arab world down. It meant preserving the stagnant economic, social, and political systems of the region that were the source of their frustration. Thus preserving the status quo meant dismissing the aspirations of the people of the Middle East.
This, more than anything else, is why so many Arabs admired Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and even Osama bin Laden. They, at least, seemed to be fighting for change — for overturning the status quo. And although most Arabs did not like what they stood for, they loved what they stood against — the traditional order that oppressed them.
Because the United States supported the traditional order for geopolitical reasons, this also put it on the wrong side of Arab public opinion. Washington’s support for the status quo was based on its focus on the region’s geopolitical dynamics, but for the people of the Middle East, whose central concern was the region’s stagnant economies and callous autocracies, that same defense of the status quo became a defense of their oppressors. It was a principal (albeit not the only) cause of the region’s pervasive anti-Americanism.
Today, this strategy is categorically the wrong one for the United States to pursue, if it ever was the right one. More than anything else, the great Arab Awakening has meant that the people of the region can no longer be dismissed. After the wave of popular upheavals that rolled across the region in 2011, no Arab or external government can ever again afford to ignore the wishes of its people.
The old status quo is gone. Parts of it might be preserved for some time in some places, but it will never be re-created. The only wise path that the United States can take at this point is to accept that change is coming to the region, and to help the people of the region shape that change to their ends. If the United States comes to be seen as a willing partner of the Arab peoples in their quest to build a new kind of Middle East, then over time, we might find a new status quo emerge — one that is truly peaceful and prosperous, and therefore stable. And if the United States helps in that effort, perhaps it, too, can be transformed, from the most hated and feared foreign power to one of the most beloved.
Certainly, Washington has nothing to lose. The strategy of the past condemned it to endless crises and conflicts in the Middle East, consuming more and more blood, treasure, and time as the years passed. And for what? In return, the United States reaped a volatile oil market and worsening anti-Americanism. It was not a very good deal. The Arab Awakening has offered the United States a second chance. It represents a new opportunity to remake America in Middle Eastern eyes, and become the country it imagines itself to be.