An expert's point of view on a current event.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

What should America do about the Arab Spring? Not much.


As the upheavals that have made 2011 a historic year in the Arab world look to stretch into 2012, a few regional trends are coming into clearer focus: The Arab world is going to be more democratic, more Islamist, and more volatile than ever.

As the upheavals that have made 2011 a historic year in the Arab world look to stretch into 2012, a few regional trends are coming into clearer focus: The Arab world is going to be more democratic, more Islamist, and more volatile than ever.

The challenge for the United States is how to navigate this new regional environment. There is no shortage of advice about how the United States should be handling the changes. Almost every pundit calls for Washington to do more — talk more, threaten more, spend more, advise more. Foreign Policy contributor Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy is representative of this trend. In his "America’s Second Chance and the Arab Spring," after appropriately humble bows to the idea that reform should "grow from within, rather than be imposed from without," Pollack then calls for Washington to "articulate a vision of change … that lays out a path forward that they [the Arab governments] could be persuaded to tread, even if grudgingly at first." How to persuade them? Pollack lays out an activist blueprint for Washington to use aid, diplomacy, the bully pulpit, and pressure on allies and enemies to follow his reform path.

I do not disagree with Pollack’s contention that "the changes sweeping the Middle East will affect America’s vital national interests." But just because something is important to the United States does not necessarily mean that the United States can affect it. In fact, the record of the last decade indicates that the more resources the United States pours into a country (see: Iraq) in an effort to make it a stable, pro-American democracy, the further away that goal recedes.

Rather than approach this fluid moment by jumping in with both feet, Washington would be better advised to take the sage advice that the White Rabbit gave Alice in Disney’s 1951 animated classic Alice in Wonderland: "Don’t just do something, stand there." Although American interests are at stake in the Middle East, there is no immediate threat to any vital national concern. We can count on the structure of the regional system to thwart efforts by any regional power, Iran or some other state, to play a hegemonic role. America can afford to wait and see how the democratic and Islamist wave plays itself out. Self-restraint is not a typical American virtue, particularly when it comes to telling other people how to organize their own politics. But given America’s track record in the Middle East, it is called for now.

What We Learned This "Spring"

Four important regionwide trends have become clear one year into the upheavals of the Arab world. The first is the increasing sense that there is no viable alternative to democratic politics (if not completely democratic) as the basis for regime legitimacy and stability. This does not mean the triumph of democracy in the Arab world, much less the triumph of liberal democracy. It does not necessarily mean stable governments; in many cases, it means just the opposite. Nor does it necessarily mean "good government." But it does mean, even in nondemocratic regimes, greater moves toward elected representative bodies. Authoritarian regimes will be more subject to the pressures of public opinion and less stable and predictable than in the past.

This is true even in oil states. No major oil-exporting state suffered a regime change in the upheavals of 2011 except Libya, and that required outside intervention. As long as oil prices remain relatively high (as they are now), oil exporters will have the means to maintain patronage networks and fend off, with greater or lesser degrees of success, demands for political reform. Saudi Arabia placated its citizens with promises of $130 billion in spending over the next few years, including salary increases and a new unemployment benefit. Kuwait gave every citizen 1,000 dinars (about $3,600) and a year’s worth of basic food items. (That kept things quiet at the beginning of 2011, when regional upheaval was at its height, though it did not prevent political mobilization later this year that led to the resignation of the prime minister and new parliamentary elections in early 2012.) Algeria increased government workers’ salaries and subsidies for food. Good old-fashioned patronage politics helped all the Arab oil producers (save Libya) avoid the challenges their oil-poor neighbors have faced.

But the demands for greater political voice are not going to go away. Even the richest oil exporters will have to face them. The push for democracy will run up against the privileged position of entrenched elites in both oil and non-oil states — military elites, minorities with disproportionate power, ruling families — but those holding power will not be able to make arguments against democratic reform that will be taken seriously by their publics. They will be fighting rear-guard actions. Their success or failure will depend on the skill of their leaders and circumstances, but the trend will be clear. The idea that there will be a credible anti-democratic argument — based on Islam, culture, or the hereditary principle — to legitimate an Arab regime is fading fast.

The reason that only democratic arguments will be available to legitimate regimes is due to the second trend that has become clear this year: the growing acceptance by Islamist groups of the idea that democratic politics is both tactically wise and ideologically compatible with an Islamist state. The Muslim Brotherhood and its variants (al-Nahda in Tunisia, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco) have been moving in this direction for some time. So have Shiite Arab political groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere. The surprise of 2011 has been how willing some Salafi Islamist groups — extreme religious conservatives — have been to embrace democratic politics. The most obvious case is Egypt, where the al-Nour Party did extremely well in the first round of parliamentary voting, winning some 25 percent of the vote and 20 percent of the seats. But Salafi involvement in democratic politics has also been a reality in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Yemen for some time now. Even in Saudi Arabia, important Salafi activists have signed petitions calling for an elected legislature.

This is a major change in the Salafi movement, which in the past was vehemently anti-democratic. Whether this change among Salafis is purely tactical (and there are plenty of Salafis who still argue against democracy) remains to be seen. But the general movement among Islamists of all ideological stripes toward democratic politics undercuts the one serious alternative to democracy as the basis for regime legitimacy in the Arab world. Now, the only Islamists who argue against democracy are al Qaeda, the official clergy of Saudi Arabia, and the Shiite advocates of velayat-e faqih, who are now increasingly limited to the Iranian supreme leader and his circle. This is not a winning coalition in the battle for regional hearts and minds.

The third, most obvious, trend of 2011 is the success of Islamists at the ballot box. Islamist parties won pluralities in the Tunisian and Moroccan elections and might secure an absolute majority of the seats in the new Egyptian parliament, if trends from the first round of voting hold up. This is not necessarily a bad thing for their societies. Islamists might provide better governance in Arab states than their more secular predecessors. They might be real democrats, willing to accept rotation in power based on regular elections. They might make such mistakes in power that their citizens, over time, turn away from them. We will have to see how they govern. But Islamists most certainly will be less willing to cooperate with the United States on a whole range of U.S. foreign-policy goals in the region than the autocrats they are replacing. Islamists are suspicious of American goals in the region and American cultural influences in their countries. There is no getting around the fact that a more Islamist Arab world will be one that is less willing to cooperate with the United States.

The fourth trend that became clear in 2011 is that the Arab world remains a political community. The push for integral unity that characterized politics from the 1940s through the 1960s, whose high point was the 1958-1961 United Arab Republic, is long past. Arabs, however, still look to one another for political inspiration and experimentation. The diffusion effect of the Tunisian protests, accelerated by old (television) and new (social) media, has given new evidence of the importance of Arab political identity across borders. This does not mean that foreign-policy issues were the drivers in the uprisings the region witnessed this year. It does mean, however, that on foreign-policy issues, Arab public opinion will be affected not just by domestic politics but by regional politics as well — the Palestinian issue, the fate of other Arab democracy movements, solidarity against outside pressure. How far this will go remains to be seen, but a more empowered Arab public opinion will have a regional, not just a local, view of problems.

American Policy in the New Arab World: What Not to Do

Given these new regional realities, how should the United States readjust its Middle East policies? If it were to follow the advice of Pollack cited earlier, and with him most American observers of the region, Washington should be developing all sorts of means to affect, even guide, the domestic political development of Arab states. It should be using foreign aid, military-to-military relations, international organizations, democracy-promotion programs, and rhetoric to push the Arab states toward liberal, democratic political reform. Domestic politics in the Arab world should be Washington’s major focus, equal to if not superior to more classic definitions of American regional interest — oil access and Arab-Israeli peace. As Pollack argues, this is a "second chance" for America in the Middle East.

Following this path would be a mistake. Americans have amply demonstrated that they are not very good at remaking the domestic politics of Muslim states. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq, where America has committed the greatest amounts of its power and resources, has turned out as Americans would have liked. (All those who think America can help build a strong, competent state in Yemen after Ali Abdullah Saleh exits the scene, for instance, are directed to reread the preceding sentence.) America’s proclivity to assume that all democratic movements share its overall policy goals should have been exploded by the results of the Iraqi elections of 2005 and 2010 and by Hamas’s victory in Palestine in 2006, but the enthusiasm with which the American political class met the Arab upheavals of 2011 indicates that these naive assumptions die hard. The likelihood that Islamists and populists will do very well in free elections in the Arab world — as they have in Tunisia and Egypt just recently — will complicate U.S. relations with these countries to the extent that U.S. policy focuses on pushing these new democracies toward social and political liberalism and "Washington Consensus" economic policies. If America is focused on remaking the domestic politics of transitioning Arab states in its own image, U.S. policy will inevitably fail.

Not only should the United States not make the domestic politics of Arab states the focus of its foreign policy, but it should also not try to tailor its policies toward public opinion in these countries. This is counterintuitive, because I readily concede that public opinion will be more important in the foreign policies of Arab states, even those that remain authoritarian, as a result of the events of 2011. It is not that public opinion is not important. It is that it is fickle and thus not worth chasing for short-term gains. The returns are not worth the investment.

This is not something particular to the Arab world. Public opinion everywhere on foreign-policy issues is fickle, easily led by governments and reactive to immediate events. And the United States, because of certain policies into which it is locked, is always going to be taking positions that will run against Arab public opinion. Whatever gains it might make will shortly be lost by other policies it will adopt, as President Barack Obama has already learned the hard way.

The obvious obstacle in front of an American policy aimed at ingratiating the United States with Arab public opinion is Israel. Given demographic and political trends in Israel, we can expect more hard-line Israeli governments in the future, not fewer. Islamists in general have a very negative view of Israel. They have not gone through the painful process of defeat and loss of territory that secular and local nationalist movements have regarding Israel. They are going to be harder on Arab-Israeli questions than preceding governments. Thus we have a likely future of hard-line Israeli governments facing Islamist Arab governments, or at least Arab governments more concerned about their own public opinion than in the past. America will always side with Israel. It cannot do otherwise, given its politics. So any effort to tailor American policy toward Arab public opinion will always come a cropper on this issue.

But the Arab-Israeli conflict is hardly the only such obstacle. The United States advocates liberal policies on a range of social and political issues. Even if the U.S. executive suppresses America’s natural liberal inclinations, its Congress will not. The American political class will also opine, loudly and often, about the superiority of America’s social mores and not hesitate to tell Arabs how they should conduct their affairs. Islamist governments and movements in the Arab world will vigorously disagree with American positions on women’s issues, the role of religion in the public sphere, and a host of other things. Social issues are a minefield in American-Arab relations as the Arab world becomes both more democratic (thus increasing the number of political entrepreneurs looking to strengthen their positions by stirring up controversy) and more Islamist.

Americans as a country are also wedded to an economic model that, to some extent, has been rejected by the Arab uprisings of 2011. Tunisia and Egypt were the Arab countries most often praised by the World Bank and the IMF for adopting Washington Consensus economic policies (though both were foot-draggers compared with neoliberal success stories elsewhere, such as Turkey). Their presidents were also the first two Arab leaders to fall. A Washington preaching neoliberal economic policies toward democratic Arab regimes might be right on the merits, but is unlikely to win many converts on the street.

Public opinion is going to be more important in Arab states’ foreign policies as those states become more democratic. Even the authoritarians will be more concerned about it. The United States should be careful not to alienate it gratuitously, but a policy based on the idea that America should make appealing to Arab public opinion a primary policy goal is bound to fail. America just cannot win their hearts and minds.

An Argument for a Modest and Self-Restrained American Policy

If we back away from the domestic politics of Arab states (as well as those of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan) and look at the region in classic balance-of-power terms, we need not be so concerned about American regional interests. This is a multipolar region where balancing dynamics operate. Those balancing dynamics are complicated by the appeal of cross-border identities and ideologies, a factor that can be exploited by ambitious regional powers (as with Nasserist Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s or Iran’s ties with Islamist groups in the Arab world today). But the modern history of the region indicates that no local power can achieve a dominant position and thus put at risk American interests in oil access. If the United States, the most powerful country in the history of the world, could not impose its hegemony on the region, then it should not be too worried about Iran, even an Iran with a few nuclear weapons, doing so. In this case, system dynamics work in America’s favor.

Those systemic dynamics are strengthened by the fact that the most powerful state in the region militarily, Israel, and the richest state in the region, Saudi Arabia, are opposed to regional hegemonic plays and are both allied with the United States. Each is an uncomfortable ally in its own way: Saudi Arabia for the obvious reasons and Israel, increasingly, because of its obstinacy regarding a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But their power helps to serve American geopolitical interests in the region during a period of enormous change and uncertainty. Turkey’s re-entry as an active player into regional politics also works in America’s favor. While the AKP government will occasionally cause headaches, particularly in its stance toward Israel, having another strong (both domestically and internationally) state playing the regional game makes it even more unlikely that Iran, or any other state, can achieve a position of regional hegemony.

Thus, the United States should approach regimes in the region, new and old, autocratic and democratic, with a minimalist agenda based on state-to-state interests. New democratic regimes will be as concerned about balancing dynamics as their old authoritarian predecessors. They will turn to Washington for help in their own balance-of-power games (to some extent, this is already happening on Syria). If one state chooses to adopt a hostile position toward the United States, its neighbors will probably seek out U.S. help. America can afford to take a less involved, less intense interest in the region and step in as needed to prevent the worst outcomes — which can be done without a large U.S. land-based military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else. The term of art in the international relations scholarship is "offshore balancing." That should be the overriding guide to American Middle East policy, not intense involvement in the domestic politics of regional states.

I am not advocating a complete U.S. political or military disengagement from the region. Maintaining U.S. bases in the small Gulf states is a relatively cost-effective way of sustaining a military capability in an important area. (Bahrain is becoming more problematic on this score; the United States has no interest in having bases in unstable countries and getting caught up in their domestic politics.) Washington should engage with all regional governments, even Iran, on a regular basis. It should encourage balancing dynamics, bolstering those threatened by America’s regional enemies. If circumstances are propitious (though I think this will be rare in the immediate future), Washington should push for progress on the Arab-Israeli front.

But America should avoid plunging into the domestic affairs of Arab states, even when it thinks it has influence there. Egypt is the perfect example. America’s $1.3 billion in annual aid to the Egyptian military certainly gives the United States some leverage over it. But America should not use that to try to micromanage what will inevitably be a complex and drawn-out process of negotiations among the Army, the newly empowered Islamists, other factions in the new parliament, and the body selected to write a new constitution about just what the relationship between the Army and new political order will be. The United States should simply make it clear that continued aid to the Egyptian military depends on Egyptian foreign-policy decisions toward America and on Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

Of course, the ground rules of U.S. foreign policy have changed, even for an offshore balancer. The United States needs to communicate those ground rules to allied Arab governments and their publics: Washington cannot provide aid to militaries that brutally suppress nonviolent popular demonstrations as a matter of regular policy. Washington will issue statements in support of democratic reform and human rights across the board, affecting allies and adversaries equally. If allies do not like that, tough for them. But these minimal guidelines are far different from the interventionist programs being put forward by both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists in an effort to guide the politics of the Arab world.

The United States is well positioned to restrain itself in this period of flux in the Middle East. It needs only to make the choice to do so. U.S. vital interests are not threatened. America’s power to prevent such threats is still significant. Regional balance-of-power dynamics work in America’s favor. The United States can afford to let developments play out, not getting too exercised by the Islamist wave in the region but not encouraging it through active democracy promotion either. America can husband its resources rather than waste them in the pursuit of chimeras, like liberal democratic Arab states at peace with Israel and strongly allied with the United States. It can take the moral high ground in a way that neoconservatives and liberal interventionists do not appreciate, by not interfering in the domestic politics of Arab states. America can confidently stand aside and wait for regional states, driven by regional dynamics, to come to it for assistance and support. A decade of failed efforts to remake the politics of the region should be enough. Washington needs to learn the wisdom of the White Rabbit and just stand there in the Middle East.

F. Gregory Gause, III is professor of political science at the University of Vermont and non-resident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

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