Marc Lynch

The hollow Arab core

"So the Arab core grows hollow," laments former Bush administration Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams in the Weekly Standard today. Most of the essay is an unexceptional restatement of neo-conservative tropes: Obama is weak, Arabs only respect power, Turkey has become a radical Islamist enemy… you can fill in the rest of the blanks. But ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

"So the Arab core grows hollow," laments former Bush administration Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams in the Weekly Standard today. Most of the essay is an unexceptional restatement of neo-conservative tropes: Obama is weak, Arabs only respect power, Turkey has become a radical Islamist enemy… you can fill in the rest of the blanks. But the lament about the hollowness of the Arab core deserves more careful attention. Why has the Arab core grown so hollow? After all, the Arab core — in his definition, mostly Egypt and Saudi Arabia — has been closely aligned with the United States for many decades, and its leaders cooperated very closely with the Bush administration on virtually every issue. This points to a contradiction at the core of the approach favored by Abrams. The cooperation by these Arab leaders, in the face of widespread and deep hostility towards those policies among much of the Arab public, contributed immensely towards stripping away their legitimacy and driving them towards ever greater repression. The approach outlined so ably by Abrams isn’t the solution to the problem of this "hollow Arab core." It is one of its causes. And the problem with Obama administration’s regional diplomacy thus far has been that it has changed too little.. not too much.

To explain the feebleness of the Arab core compared to Turkey and Iran, Abrams focuses primarily on the advancing age of Hosni Mubarak and Saud al-Faisal. Twenty years ago, he argues, these were men to be feared. But now they are unable to muster the same persuasive powers and have no obvious replacements. As a result of their dwindling powers, he suggests, Qatar’s relatively young Foreign Minister and "clever, unprincipled, energetic actors" such as Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu can drive the agenda. This is an oddly personalized view of diplomacy. Qatar’s diplomacy may be clever, but its ability to deploy its staggering wealth probably makes others inclined to appreciate its cleverness. Turkish leaders may be clever and energetic, but they also command a country with a powerful military and robust economy, membership in NATO, and real and growing soft power appeal across the region.

The advancing age of a few individuals is not on its own a satisfying explanation for the declining influence of Arab leaders. States like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have lost influence not only because of their leaders’ advancing age, but also because of the deep unpopularity of many of the policies they have been led to defend by the United States. A more vigorous Hosni Mubarak would not make Egypt’s role in enforcing the blockade of Gaza more attractive to most Arabs. Abrams, who has long been a vocal advocate of democracy promotion in the Middle East, would likely agree that the stultifying repression in these countries has impeded the emergence of new leaders. But he, like many neoconservative advocates of democracy promotion, rarely addresses head on the reality that the policies pursued by these friendly autocrats in support of U.S. policy objectives contribute deeply to the unpopularity of those regimes. The Arab core has been hollowed out in large part because of, not in spite of, its role in American foreign policy.

The Bush administration sought to polarize the Middle East into an axis of "moderates" — grouping Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and other like-minded Sunni autocrats with Israel — against "radicals" such as Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. The Arab leaders on which the U.S. relied mostly went along, cooperating to a considerable degree in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and siding against Hezbollah in the 2006 Israeli war with Lebanon and against Hamas during the 2008 Israeli attack on Gaza. But Arab public opinion was largely on the other side, with broad majorities of the population in most of those Arab countries angrily denouncing both the Israeli wars and their own leaders for the positions they took in line with American preferences. To contain this popular anger and to continue to help American policies (such as Egypt’s enforcing the blockade of Gaza), those Arab regimes became increasingly repressive. It is not an accident that after all the Bush administration’s rhetoric about democracy promotion, it almost completely abandoned such efforts by early 2006 after the electoral victory by Hamas, and its legacy was a Middle East considerably less democratic than when it took office.

It is also not an accident that the two most vital, energetic forces in the region today, Qatar and Turkey, are the two countries which have tried the hardest to break away from the Bush administration’s polarized world view. Each attempted to play the role of a bridge across the regional divides, maintaining ties with both sides in order to depolarize regional politics. Both are close American allies with strong military ties and both have had good relations with Israel in the past. At the same time, both maintain good relations with actors in the so-called "radical" camp and have made major efforts to reach out to Arab public opinion rather than to try to silence or repress it. As relatively new actors on the scene, they have been palpably impatient with a moribund old order and unconcerned with finding a way to fit in with the entrenched, calcified lines of conflict in the region.

The failure of the Obama administration thus far is not that it has been insufficiently aggressive, a "fierce and certain ally [which] gives moderates strength and radicals pause." It is that it has not changed enough. It has too often remained locked in the Bush administration’s framework of moderates and radicals, and has failed to truly take advantage of the opportunities offered by these energetic new "bridge" actors such as Turkey and Qatar. The growing Arab disenchantment with Obama is rooted in the widespread belief that American policies have not changed very much from the Bush years despite the improved rhetoric.

When Obama came to office promising a new beginning and a move away from the polarizing rhetoric of his predecessor, Turkey and Qatar offered an intriguing model for engagement across both sides of the divide. They could have been valuable interlocutors for the United States in pursuing a grand bargain with Iran based on common interests across the region or for exploring peace opportunities between Israel and Syria (as the Turks had already been trying to accomplish, with some success). The U.S. might have sought their help in brokering an intra-Palestinian reconciliation and reunifying the West Bank and Gaza.

But for the most part, the Obama administration chose to fall back on the conventional policies of the past: Palestinian reconciliation remained in the hands of an enfeebled and partisan Egypt, the grand bargain with Iran faded from an agenda dominated by the nuclear question and sanctions, and the Turks are now seen as more of a problem than an asset. Breaking through some of these intractable problems will require not going back to the failed approach of the Bush administration, but rather rediscovering the genuine conceptual changes which Obama originally brought to the table.

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