With the possible exception of Tunisia, where a popular uprising may produce a good result, and where a new constitution and a power-sharing arrangement have been agreed upon, the popular uprisings of 2011 break down into one of two outcomes: the bad and the ugly. The breadth of regional change is so great and the constraints on effecting change are so severe, the best we will be able to do is to influence internal developments at the margins. And there is no one-size-fits-all approach. We will need to deal with situations differently as our interests demand.
First, the bad: In Egypt and Yemen, the uprisings that led to the end of two authoritarian regimes — those of presidents Hosni Mubarak and Abdullah Salah, respectively — have been either coopted and controlled by more traditional forces, or they have failed to produce better governance and genuine reforms. In Bahrain, the Sunni ruling family, with the support of Saudi Arabia, suppressed the majority Shia and some Sunni calls for reform that would have produced a real constitutional democracy with respect for individual rights and greater representation regardless of sect. And in Libya, a NATO military operation removed President Muammar Qadhafi and his regime. But for three years now, Libya’s factional, regional, and tribal divisions have prevented the formation of a coherent central government.
And these were not the ugly outcomes of major civil strife and massive violence. In Syria, full-scale civil war prevails with estimates of as many as 130,000 dead and scores of thousands injured; in Iraq, violence has surged against the backdrop of an authoritarian Shia regime in Baghdad and the growing influence of Sunni jihadis. Iraqi and Syrian sectarian tensions have also spilled into Lebanon, for years a nonstate with a central government unable to control its own territory. Sad to say, the warning of the fourth-century historian Tacitus seems to have come to pass: The best day after the death of a bad emperor is always the first day.
For the past three years, the United States has tried to find its footing in a region it can neither transform nor leave. Washington’s capacity to significantly influence the internal developments in these societies is very limited. And the key features with which it now has to contend in this region — identified below — will make America’s task all the more difficult.
The Dissolution of Power
The period between 1970 and the beginning of the Arab spring in 2011 was an era of consolidation of state power and control in counties as diverse as Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. While these authoritarian governments proved durable, they were not durable enough to surmount the challenge of sustained popular uprisings. And, in Egypt and Tunisia, the militaries refused to repress popular protests.
The speed with which the regimes collapsed indicated the weakness of their overall control and legitimacy. And the demise of these regimes has ushered in a decentralization and dissolution of power that will likely continue in the near future. By 2007, this trend was already evident in Iraq, where the Kurds established their own ministate, and where a Shia majority controls the levers of power at the expense of an aggrieved Sunni minority. The trend was also evident in Lebanon and in the West Bank and Gaza, where Fatah and Hamas compete for control of the Palestinian national movement and represent a “Noah’s Ark,” where there are two of everything — constitutions, ministates, and security services. Even in Egypt, where the military has reasserted itself, there is little prospect of policies that will be able to deliver good governance and economic reform.
The Survival of the Arab Kings
It is noteworthy that the Arab kings — in Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia — and the emirs of Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman, survived the Arab Spring. The reasons vary: oil wealth capable of co-opting and preempting dissent, a popular sense that these rulers had Islamic legitimacy, and a perception that the kings were far less cruel. The inhabitants of these lands had far fewer grievances and had suffered much less at the hands of their rulers; as they watched what the Arab Spring became, they were loath to bring one to their neighborhoods. The durability of these regimes should not, though, obscure the challenges they face. And the paradox for America is clear: Having not pushed for meaningful reforms in these places, America is now more identified with the nondemocratic kings than ever before. Indeed, the Saudis and the UAE, to whom we have sold billions in military goods, have become even more important to us as stable polities in an unpredictable region.
The Rise of the Non-Arabs
In the Middle East today, there are three truly consequential powers, and they are all non-Arabic: Israel, Iran, and Turkey. Whatever divides these countries, they all have domestic political stability, great economic potential, and strong militaries. Israel and Turkey have long-established relationships with the United States; Iran may well aspire to one, if the interim agreement leads to discussions and the amelioration of tensions with America on other regional issues. If U.S.-Iranian relations do improve significantly, it may well cause serious problems in Washington’s relations with the Arab Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.
The issue is less about how these three non-Arab countries will impact regional politics and more about the fall of key Arab states. Three Arab regimes have traditionally dominated the struggle for power in the Arab world — Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. All have been greatly weakened. As well, they will likely be preoccupied with internal affairs — playing less of a role on the regional stage.
The Prospects for Democratization
Since 1950, only 22 countries in the world have maintained their democratic character continuously.1 The democratic club is tiny within the perspective of time — the ultimate arbiter of what is of value in life. It took 150 years for the United States to reconcile the promise contained in the Declaration of Independence with the reality that the U.S. Constitution validated slavery until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1866.
Indeed, time will be required. But the trend lines do not look good. The United States should avoid getting drawn into choosing sides in these internal conflicts and understand the limitations of its influence. And we should understand what real democratization requires: first, leaders capable of rising above their narrow partisan or institutional (military or bureaucratic) affinities, to think about the interests of the nation as a whole; second, institutions that reflect popular legitimacy and are perceived to be representative and functional; and finally, a respect for debate on the most volatile issues without politics spilling into the streets and leading to massive demonstrations and violence.
Shrinking Space for America
America’s capacity to influence the internal politics of societies in the midst of profound transitions is quite limited. After involving 140,000 troops and spending trillions of dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we could not fundamentally alter the politics of those two nations. Given that reality, it’s almost inconceivable that the United States can do much from the sidelines in the reshaped Middle East.
Egypt is a clear example. We provide the government of Egypt with $1.3 billion a year and yet our capacity to use that assistance to redirect the policies of the current Egyptian leadership has been virtually nonexistent. Under these circumstances, whether we reduce aid, restrict it, or provide it, we have not been able to get the ear of the generals controlling the country. And our inconsistent statements — first, we were seen to support a Morsi government; then, we refused to call the military’s move a ‘coup’; then, we backed the military’s road map for a constitutional referendum; then, we restricted aid — have left Egyptians confused and alienated.
American policies are driven by a president who is more focused on the middle class (his constituency, and the group with whom his legacy lies) than the Middle East. And those policies — at least in regard to playing a more active role in Syria or Egypt, or on the issue of promoting democracy in the region — are risk-averse rather than risk-ready.
And, like those of most great powers, our policies are inconsistent and anomalous, even though they may serve narrow U.S. interests. We intervene in Libya but not in Syria, where strong allies — such as Iran and Russia — as well as air defenses and a credible military are too risky for us; we support an Arab Spring in Egypt, but fail to call for reform in Saudi Arabia, where we do not want to see disruptive change. We set red lines on Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, but then defer to Congress on the use of military force — in large part because the president knows in the wake of Afghanistan that there is no public support, and he wants to avoid military action that could undermine his desire for a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue.
Finally, we need to understand that American values (support for democracy, gender equality, and human rights), policies (pressing for change in Egypt but not in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain), and interests (a need to maintain bases in Bahrain and not cause disruption in the flow of oil by supporting movements that might cause instability among the oil producers) are at war with one another. And it is unlikely, given the challenges and complexities of the region, that we can harmonize them. There is no cookie-cutter approach to this region. America is stuck in a region it cannot leave or transform. We need to focus on what we can achieve and avoid overreach to avoid what we can’t. That means articulating our values without preaching, encouraging countries such as Egypt to continue toward a democratic transition and to find ways to improve its economy. And in Syria, we should continue to provide humanitarian aid and pursue efforts to push for a political solution. We may continue to delude others that we can be a force for democratization in the Middle East, but we should not delude ourselves. We are limited to the margins: articulating our values and providing economic assistance, etc. Though we think we should and can fix things; we can’t.
1 The list of these 22 countries is posted on shma com.email print