The Arab Spring: Implications for US Policy and Interests
"Democracies make for stronger and stabler partners. They trade more, innovate more, and fight less. They help divided societies to air and hopefully resolve their differences. They hold inept leaders accountable at the polls. They channel people’s energies away from extremism and toward political and civic engagement….
So for all these reasons … opening political systems, societies, and economies is not simply a matter of idealism. It is a strategic necessity." -Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, November 7, 2011
The Obama Administration has rightly insisted that each country involved in the Arab Spring has its own dynamic and that in terms of US policy there is no cookie cutter approach. Still, there is a need for a comprehensive look at how the Arab Spring affects long standing US interests in the Middle East. This paper assesses how events sweeping the Middle East since early 2011 impact on US objectives regarding political and economic reform, prospects for the Middle East peace negotiations, the long term energy balance, security imperatives in the Gulf, and progress in counterterrorism.
More than 20 Middle East Institute Scholars held a two-day conference in July to address these crosscutting issues and followed up with another session in November. Some sessions included invited guests. Scholars have contributed as well in writing and by commenting on drafts. Still the report is a composite rather than a consensus report because not all Scholars participated in all parts of the discussions; and, needlessly to say, not all Scholars agreed on all the issues. The report seeks to capture points of substantial agreement as well as of divergence.
- The Arab Spring has shown the limits of American power in the Middle East. No longer does the US have the prestige and resources to dominate Middle East affairs to the degree it has since the British withdrew from east of Suez in 1971. Neither the US nor Europe has the great financial resources needed to shape prospects in the Arab Spring countries other than marginally; significant investment will also have to come from elsewhere, particularly the Gulf states and China - countries that do not share to the same extent the Western interest in reinforcement of democratic values. Still the US has its experience, political and economic presence and global leadership to bring to bear.
- On political and economic reform, it remains to be seen what the nature of the democratic political systems will be that emerge following elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. However, two near certain developments must be kept in mind. First, elections will empower Islamist parties, as has already been seen in Tunisia, with the victory of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. Second, democracy will give rise to Arab governments likely to be more independent of US influence but in the long term could also give rise to new areas of shared interests and values.
- On the Middle East peace process, the immediate prospects look worse than before. The Arab Spring has sparked Israeli apprehensions that the relatively stable region of the past couple of decades has shifted against them. The Israeli government finds itself more isolated than ever. The Palestinians have found new energy but it is unclear how that can play into progress towards a negotiated settlement with Israel.
- On energy, the Saudis and other major producers have been able to compensate for the disruptions caused by the Libyan events. In the long term, however, world energy demand necessitates the development of both Iraqi and Iranian energy reserves – the second and third largest on the planet. For the US, while shale technology and renewable energy offer an opportunity to lessen dependence on oil imports, conservation still remains the best oil-saving tool. A strong US commitment to the security of the Gulf will remain vital to oil market stability for the foreseeable future.
- In Gulf security, the US role remains paramount. Though differences with the Saudis and other Gulf states over the uprisings in Bahrain and Egypt in particular have caused tensions, unifying factors -- such as the desire to maintain an orderly oil market and common interests regarding Iran, Yemen, Libya and Syria -- will nevertheless likely prevail.
- On terrorism, the Arab Spring uprisings underscore the bankruptcy of Islamic extremist philosophy sanctioning violence as the only way to attain societal changes. In fact, the Arab Spring movements are oriented toward universal values and rooted in the demand for jobs, justice and dignity - not far in spirit from life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Still the upheavals provide opportunities, exemplified by the situation in Yemen, for Islamic extremists to gain ground.
- Overall, the Arab Spring may usher in an era of realignment the outlines of which are only emerging. The immediate prospects are for: continuing instabilities as regional states sort out their governance and economies and recalibrate relations with their neighbors and other countries; rising influence for countries which have the resources to back up their policies; and the continuation of a preponderant but attenuated role for the US.
- The long-term prospect includes also the possibility for a freer Middle East. Over a hundred million Arabs (a third of the Arab world) are freer today because they have escaped from long entrenched dictatorial regimes in the past 10 months. The problem is whether this new freedom can be sustained through the creation of liberal institutions and economic problem solving. In the near term, prospects are for instability as Arab Spring states sort out their governance and economic problems and recalibrate their relations with neighbors and others. In the long term, a more democratic, prosperous and accountable Middle East offers the promise of a region with better governance and less abusive of human rights, and thus a net positive outcome for U.S. interests
The drivers of the Arab Spring events have first and foremost been the mobilized masses enabled by technology and youth, the role played by the military and regime security forces, and the intervention by outside forces. For years, the Arab Spring states have thwarted the development of alternative leadership outside the governing regimes. What has happened is that technology has enabled citizens to challenge repressive security forces: no longer does it take established leaders to organize the masses but only savvy techies who have organizational skills, along with the presence of live media coverage such as al-Jazeera’s. In addition, the longevity of the leadership in all the Arab Spring countries has left no doubt as to who has been responsible for each country’s plight. The result has been revolutions from the street with alternative political leadership struggling to emerge amidst the protests and fighting. These theoretical underpinnings are well established by Jack Goldstone, Muhammad Hafez and Ted Robert Gurr.
In many ways the Arab Spring began in Tehran. The protests following the corrupt elections in June, 2009, braved the way for the Arab protests by pioneering the use of social networking and IT technology and grounding actions in the principles of non-violence. The still unfolding situations in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria as well as in Iran roughly fall into the four categories.
Egypt and Tunisia, where the military’s largely neutral role deprived the regimes of an essential tool of suppression, and opposition protestors did not request or receive outside involvement. In both cases, the restraint of the military is in part a tribute to the soft power effect of the significant US and other Western training and assistance over decades.
Libya and Bahrain, where outside intervention has proved decisive so far. In Libya, NATO and Arab forces committed for the protection of civilians took a broad view of their mission and provided the firepower, and the technological and training assistance that allowed the Libyan-led resistance to succeed. A strongly worded UN Security Council Resolution and Arab League and GCC support gave political legitimacy. In Bahrain, the GCC force evinced the strong support of the GCC states, in particular the Saudis, for the Khalifa regime, even though the troops numbered only a couple thousand and were deployed to remote areas to protect infrastructure.
Syria and Iran, where the military and security establishments have entered the fray on the side of the regime. There has been no significant foreign intervention in support of the opposition, and the two regimes are among the most entrenched in the Middle East. The displacement of either regime promises to be very difficult and truly game-changing events if they were to occur.
Yemen, where the military is deeply divided and there has been no significant foreign involvement despite claims to the contrary. A MEI scholar described Yemen as a failed state but not a failed society because of the pattern of weak central control going back centuries. Now complicating these historical political patterns are such severe unemployment, high birth rates and shrinking water supplies that a failed society is possible.
The common causal threads connecting all the countries are well known: economic hardships and inequities, unaddressed political grievances, and longevity of rulers who resisted evolutionary change and sought to become “hereditary republics.” These drivers have produced the conditions leading to events of the past 10 months: the development of alternative elites, masses available for mobilization and reasonable opportunities for success.
The Arab Spring and US Interests
President Obama addressed at the State Department May 19, 2011, the impact of the Arab Spring on US interests. Not surprisingly, he described US interests well in line with definitions of his last several predecessors:
For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.
He added “Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind … and a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.” Because “the status quo is unsustainable,” he advocated relations based not only on “mutual interests and mutual respect” but also on a set of principles as a means to seize this “historic opportunity.” These principles include opposition to the use of violence and repression against the people of the region; support for “a set of universal rights including free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders;” and support for “political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.”
He concluded that
Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest. Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal…. It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy.
Secretary of State Clinton expanded on Obama’s ideas in remarks to the National Democratic Institute November 7 stating, “Fundamentally, there is a right side of history. And we want to be on it. And—without exception—we want our partners in the region to reform so that they are on it as well.” She also recognized the complicated relationship to US national interests remarking:
Our choices also reflect other interests in the region with a real impact on Americans’ lives—including our fight against al-Qaida, defense of our allies, and a secure supply of energy. Over time, a more democratic Middle East and North Africa can provide a more sustainable basis for addressing all three of those challenges. But there will be times when not all of our interests align. We work to align them, but that is just reality…. As a country with many complex interests, we’ll always have to walk and chew gum at the same time.
While no MEI Scholar took great exception to the Administration’s statements about US interests, the shading of views informed much of the discussion on the individual topics: political and economic reforms, the Middle East peace negotiations, energy and economic relations, security in the Gulf, and counterterrorism and the prospects of political Islam. The following summaries cover the Scholars’ perspectives on the effect of the Arab Spring on each of these areas and provide implications for US interests and policy.
Political and Economic Reform
MEI Scholars’ views on this topic permeated all other discussions. The basic questions were:
• What are the implications for domestic policy of the countries in the region?
• Is the advent of greater pressure for liberal democracy—or at least more accountable and less repressive government—a positive sign for stability?
• How hard and how fast should the United States push regional countries to move toward democratization?
• To what extent should the U.S. contemplate military intervention in bloody and deteriorating situations, such as Yemen?
Implications for Domestic Policy. The Obama administration’s concept that there are no-one-size fits-all answers is apt without doubt to the implications for political and economic reforms. Despite the similarities of long time repressive regimes and energized masses, the political and economic baselines of each country vary widely. Moreover, the countries fall into three groups: those regimes for which the overthrow of the old regime has occurred – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; those where the struggle is uncertain - Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran; and those across the Arab world from Morocco to the Arab peninsula where the Arab Spring has caused governments and rulers to adjust course. The basic model that comes nearest to being all encompassing is the “virtuous circle” advocated in the UN’s Arab Human Development Reports (2002-2005 and 2009) of reinforcing democratic political practices and free market economic changes that lead to prosperity. What is obviously true is that the process will take years and perhaps decades, and that progress will be checkered and possibly stymied.
Among the three North African states, the easy part may well prove to be the overthrow of the old regimes. The hard part is the requirement for skilled political leadership to guide reforms and buy the patience of the public while they take effect. Tunisia has the best chance of effecting democratic and liberalizing economic reforms. A small country with 10 million people who are well educated and largely homogeneous with long exposure to the West, Tunisia has come through the Arab Spring’s first electoral test with flying colors in an election October 23 for a constituent assembly tasked with forming an interim government and writing a constitution. Tunisia also has the advantage that its economic problems can be fixed with relatively small amounts of money with a prospective payoff not that far away, and its society has not been severely traumatized by Arab Spring events.
Libya has the advantages of oil wealth and a small population but is burdened by a lack of institutional structure on which to build, complex tribal and regional rivalries, and the challenge of being a “post conflict” state where the revolution has been bloody and destructive. While Libya may achieve a kind of unstable equilibrium post-Qadhafi, the situation will likely remain fluid for some time.
Egypt, the most difficult case of the three, has a large population (83 million), ethnic and minority divisions, and no great oil income on which to rely. The required outside resources to get the Egyptian economy back on its feet -- in the hundreds of billions of dollars -- must substantially come from countries such as the Gulf states and China that do not have a special interest in promoting democracy. In the words of one MEI Scholar, the situation is “murky.” Unresolved are definitional questions such as the structure of government including especially the role of the military, the rights of minorities and the role of Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The questions form a formidable challenge for the next year or more.
Three states still in conflict – Bahrain, Syria and Iran – have decent prospects once the governance issues are sorted out because they have relatively educated, cosmopolitan populations who could bring their skills to the world market place. The most straightforward case is Bahrain, where skills are already competitive and the issue is largely of governance. It is hard to see any lasting peace that does not involve substantial governmental reform that gives the Shia greater political and economic rights; on the other hand, such reforms now seem difficult to make because of the fear of Iranian intrusion.
Regime changes in Syria and Iran would be real game changers that would reshape the Middle East from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf. The chances appear greater in Syria than in Iran but in both cases any judgment would hinge on many unknown and unknowable factors. Contemplating the nature of a post-Alawite government in Damascus is not easy. MEI Scholars were of mixed views as to what manner of power constellation might emerge. Panelists recalled that a pre-Alawite Syria was fraught with multiple coups for years, and recurrence of instability and uncertainty would not be comfortable for any of Syria’s neighbors. Continued Turkish engagement could be constructive. (Iran is discussed in “Iran and the Gulf Security” below.)
Yemen is a case apart because it lacks both effective governance and significant resources, and there is no apparent solution to its manifold problems. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has described his rule as “dancing on the heads of snakes.” As one Scholar remarked, “even the Saudis do not have money to fix Yemen.” Yemen will likely continue to deteriorate because of the crushing effects of the youth demographic bulge, dwindling natural resources, the ruinous economy, the incipient secession movement in the South, the on-again off-again Houthi rebellion in the North, the al-Qaeda challenge, and the growing refugee problem from the failed state of Somalia.
In Yemen and Syria the best guess is the leadership will go, and it is just a question of time and circumstances. In Bahrain and Iran, outside factors and divided popular support portend a longer time line for any resolution.
In the GCC, besides Bahrain, the pattern is largesse and reform. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah has decreed programs for housing, jobs and other programs amounting to $136 billion and announced that women can participate in municipal elections and in the Majlas as-Shura (Consultative Council). The so-called Day of Rage protests called for in March failed to provoke much support and the occasional demonstrations among Shia in the Eastern Province have met with a forceful government response. While there may be a rapid change in the Saudi leadership in the next few years, all Scholars agreed that the stability of the Kingdom would not be affected. The Saudi pattern of largesse appertains to Kuwait, UAE and Qatar as well. In Oman, where the Arab Spring found unexpected resonance in the country the UN selected as a model of economic development spanning the past 40 years, Sultan Qaboos has overseen recent elections to the Omani Consultative Council, and announced reforms underwritten in part by a GCC grant of $10 billion to both it and Bahrain. MEI Scholars shared the view that the Arab Spring will likely produce reforms but no game changing upsets in the GCC.
In Morocco and Jordan, the monarchs have instituted some political reforms in response to protests calling for a more democratic and accountable political system rather than a change of regime. Both countries suffer from high unemployment, large youth populations, and scarce resources (particularly in Jordan’s case). Widespread dissatisfaction will likely continue to drive protestors into the streets. As in Egypt or Tunisia, Islamist parties in both countries will probably benefit from a more open political posture by the regimes.
In Algeria, an especially authoritarian, elitist, corrupt and military-backed regime has put down protests and promised reform. Memories of the robust Islamist uprising against this Francophone autocracy in the 1990s have blunted the enthusiasm for regime change among many Algerians; for others, however, grievances now are even greater than those during that period. Stability remains a question.
In Iraq, the Arab Spring provoked demonstrations calling for better government performance. Prime Minister Maliki gave his ministers 100 days to provide better services or face dismissal. When the time expired, he extended the period for another 100 days and the issue has now drifted into obscurity. In the Kurdish north, the Arab Spring gathered more traction with major protests resulting in several deaths and a reinforcement of the appeal of the Goran (Change) party and other groups challenging the established PUK and KDP parties.
More significant than the effect of the Arab Spring domestically in Iraq have been the consequences abroad. In response to popular sentiment, Maliki allied his government with the Shia in Bahrain, antagonizing further the GCC states and the Sunnis in Iraq. Maliki has also supported the Assad regime in Syria on the grounds that threats to its stability provide opportunities for the Israelis to exploit.
Are reforms a sign of stability? On the face of it, the answer to this question would seem to be “no” in the short term and “a hopeful yes” in the longer term. Theoretically, democratizing states are among the most violent both internally and externally as they sort out issues of internal governance and recalibrate external relations; however, established democracies are relatively peaceful and do not go to war with each other easily. The MEI Scholars agreed that the answer would vary greatly across the spectrum of Arab Spring states.
Should the US push democratization or intervene militarily? There was near unanimity on the issue of military intervention. Unless vital US interests were at stake, the US should not take on alone new military ventures; in most cases, given our overburdened military and stretched finances, they would likely have to be coalition enterprises.
MEI Scholars were divided on the discussion of democracy promotion. Some argued US relations should be based squarely on “mutual interests and mutual respect” with little attention to values while others argued along the lines of Obama’s and Clinton’s speeches that democratic reforms were at the heart of US interests. MEI Scholars were asked to rank the importance of promoting democracy on a scale of one to five; the answers averaged 2.5, less than the middle ranking of 3 on the point spread. The discussion also produced more agreement than this result might suggest because many of the differences stemmed from semantics as to what promotion of democracy entailed.
IMPLICATIONS FOR US INTERESTS AND POLICY
For decades US diplomacy has benefited from what is called the “autonomy gap,” that is, the rulers could largely do what they wanted with only passing regard to public sentiment or even much worry about public exposure. Democratic reforms link policy much more directly to popular opinion. Thus, convincing the head of government will less and less suffice, and more and more the US will have to take into account Arab public opinion when considering its policy options. Of course, this is of greatest consequence to policies relating to Israel.
For younger Arab generations, US association with discredited regimes has often been construed as support for corruption and misuse of power. For long-established leaders, the US call to be on the “right side of history” has been seen as a reason to walk away from friendships and alliances previously understood to be in our mutual interests and unshakeable. In pursuing approaches that varied from country to country, the Administration has been viewed at times as simply not knowing what it wants, or not knowing how to get where it thinks it wants to go. Despite these drawbacks, the fact remains that US policy will have to continue to balance competing interests and values, as Secretary of State Clinton outlined in her November 7 speech to the national Democratic Institute.
While skeptical about the efficacy of many attempts of democracy promotion, MEI Scholars endorsed the tools of soft power—English language instruction, cultural diplomacy, people-to-people exchanges, US-style education (especially in science and technology), and the like—as among our best assets in complementing the work of diplomats and pro-democracy NGOs. Some Scholars in particular singled out the need for diplomats to get out of their Embassies, to enlist the “whole of government” resources including military assets, and to promote respect for human rights, effective law enforcement capacity and a fair, impartial system of justice.
MIDDLE EAST PEACE NEGOTIATIONS
The MEI Scholars who participated in this discussion included several who have participated in policymaking and/or studied the Arab Israel issue for decades. They addressed the following questions:
• How have the protests and uprisings affected Israel’s strategic situation and policies? How have they affected the circumstances and positions of the Palestinians?
• Have they hindered or advanced the ability of the Palestinians, Israelis and other key players in the region to make peace?
• Where should the peace process rank in the list of US priorities?
Israel’s Strategic Position and Policies
The Arab Spring presents Israel with a new strategic environment. It brings to the fore Israel’s propensity to prioritize security concerns over long-term political considerations. In MEI Scholars’ opinion, lamentably lost are strategic political considerations about what to do concerning the Palestinian territories, the whole settlement enterprise, and the compromises necessary to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
The Arab Spring has called into question Israel’s relative stability of the past several years. In Egypt, the prospect now is for a popular government more critical of Israel. There is no question that the Egyptian public is hostile to Israel, believing that Israel has not maintained its part of the treaty and that Mubarak circles illegally benefitted from the 15-year natural gas agreement they signed in 2005 to sell gas to Israel. Moreover, the possibility that the Muslim Brothers’ rising influence in Egypt might be a boon for Hamas greatly worries Israel.
The situation in Jordan is less troubling since demonstrations aim at reform but not at ending the Hashemite monarchy or Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel. The situation in Syria is a huge question mark. There could be a benefit if a different government there attenuated Syria’s links with Iran, but no one can predict what will happen.
Internally, Israel may be entering a period of flux despite a vibrant economy. Some conditions of the Arab Spring apply: corruption, much of it the result of illegal and extra-legal support for the settlements enterprise; declining education opportunities; weakening democratic institutions; and the widening gap between the rich/super rich and the middle class. Partially sparked by the Arab model, discontented Israelis have established tent cities and held massive demonstrations to demand social justice.
Even with personal approval ratings in the mid-thirties, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not appear in danger. The reason in large part is the weakness of the opposition; the center and left are dispirited and disorganized with no leader in sight. Thus, Netanyahu’s foreign, security and settlements policies are not under serious challenge, despite the fact that public opinion polls in Israel consistently show a clear majority favoring a two-state solution with Jerusalem the capital of both Israel and the new state of Palestine.
Palestinian Circumstances and Position
In the West Bank, the economy has been growing (above eight per cent), institution building is at the point that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has announced it could administer a state, and public security is quite good. The PA’s drive for Palestinian membership as a state in the United Nations despite US and Israeli opposition has boosted popular support for President Mahmoud Abbas, which had previously sunk to all time lows due to a lack of progress in ending the occupation.
Emboldened by the Arab Spring, Palestinian popular groups have been organizing peaceful demonstrations against the occupation. So far, little has become of them because the PA, Hamas and the Israelis all fear non-violent protests could get out of hand, resulting in casualties, growing frustration and anger, with the potential danger of a third intifada. Israel would likely consider such challenges as potentially existential and apply force as necessary to suppress them, even risking intensified political isolation. The Arab Spring also served as an impetus for the stillborn Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement in April as celebrants poured into the streets in West Bank and Gaza. So far Palestinians remain deeply divided.
Help or Hinder Peace Talks?
This past May in Washington both Obama and Netanyahu made major public declarations on Israeli-Palestinian peace. The President spelled out his vision of a “viable Palestine and a secure Israel” declaring that the borders of the two states should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. He proposed that negotiations resume based on this and additional principles and focused on borders and security, leaving refugees and Jerusalem for later.
Netanyahu emphasized Israel’s security needs, introduced demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and insisted on continued construction of settlements. He stressed that Israel must have a military presence along the Jordan River; that refugee resettlement must be only in Palestine, not in Israel; and that Jerusalem would never be divided. Netanyahu distorted the President’s position by emphasizing that Israel would never go back to the “indefensible” 1967 borders, a proposal the President had never suggested. (There is debate in Israel over the meaning of “defensible borders” and “strategic depth” in an age of sophisticated ballistic and cruise missiles.)
The differences between the two leaders highlighted why there are no serious peace negotiations despite several proposals on the table. The Arab Spring events add to the reasons it is unlikely that significant movement will occur soon. The controversy over Palestinian membership in the United Nations further isolates Israel and Washington and angers Congress.
The recent Quartet proposals in the wake of the Palestinian application for UN membership seem likely to join the long list of previous timetables that produced no result. They call for a series of steps leading to a two-state solution by the end of 2012. Moreover, the American presidential election season could further hamper progress as it has in the past.
While Netanyahu’s government has accepted the Quartet’s proposal, the prospects are not good because it has steadfastly opposed the types of compromises on all four core issues (borders/settlements, security arrangements, refugees and Jerusalem) necessary to reach a deal. The acceleration of settlement activities in East Jerusalem and surrounding areas makes getting to peace harder and endangers ever reaching an agreement.
While the Palestinians have not accepted the Quartet’s proposal, demanding a suspension on Israeli settlement activity before entering again into negotiations, they still seem open to compromises on the core issues. They, however, have angered the Obama Administration by failing to take advantage of the hard bought temporary Israeli settlement freeze in 2009 and of the Administration’s push to reach an agreement in the year leading up to September 2011. Pressing their initiative to join the United Nations and continued refusal to participate in the proposed Quartet framework exacerbate these tensions.
The Palestinian initiative at the UN is the culmination of three years of effort, including encouragement by President Obama when he addressed the UN General Assembly in 2010. Now opposed by the US and Israel on the grounds that Palestinian statehood should be negotiated between the parties, the PA application could lead to a threatened US veto in the UN Security Council. If so, the result would be a further disruption in the peace negotiations. In the likelihood of failure in the Security Council either because of a veto or for lack of the necessary nine affirmative votes, the Palestinians still have recourse to the UN General Assembly, where they likely would have to settle for “non-member state observer” status along with the Holy See in the General Assembly itself. One effect of the Palestinian initiative at the UN is that the PA has shown it too can “create facts on the ground” that can shape the negotiating context.
IMPLICATIONS FOR US INTERESTS AND POLICY
All Scholars agreed there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and generally thought present Israeli policies are taking the country toward a dead end. Since Arabs will inevitably be the majority population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the facts of demography will force choices: (a) a single democratic non-Jewish bi-national state; (b) a single non-democratic Jewish state with an oppressed majority; (c) continuation of Israel (already 20% Arab, not having the same rights as Jews) and of occupation; or (d) two states, Israel with a large majority Jewish and the other state Palestinian with a shared Jerusalem.
America’s long-standing political and security support has been premised on a clear expectation: a prosperous, strong and confident Israel would negotiate peace with benefits for both sides, in the mold of the treaty with Egypt in 1979. Instead, Israel now is using its military strength to pursue its settlement and occupation policies to the extent that they endanger a two-state solution. The US is widely seen as the enabler of Israeli policies and as Israel’s only close friend. This perception contributes to alarmingly low US prestige and approval ratings in the Arab world -- just five percent in Egypt and ten percent in Jordan.
An historian among the Scholars argued that Israel’s best chance to remain a democratic and Jewish state is to reach a deal for peace with its neighbors even if it is at some cost to its hyped security concerns. In these circumstances, he challenged whether it is in US interests to give categorical assurances of Israeli security, which ultimately depends on accommodation with the Palestinians. In this view, Israel may indeed have to face an existential moment before a redirection could occur.
For their part, the Palestinians should understand the limits of their efforts to “internationalize” the conflict and to make clearer their willingness to negotiate in response to more tangible US assurances on final status issues or Israeli reciprocity through restraint on settlements. Additionally, it is hard to envision the U.S. or Israel ever supporting Israeli compromises with a unified Palestinian government whose minor partner, Hamas, refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The US should therefore search for a new approach to Palestinian reunification that would overcome Hamas’ rejectionism. The Palestinian leadership must also start preparing its people for further painful compromises that will have to be made, for example on refugees, as part of an ultimate compromise peace with Israel.
What can the US Do? Netanyahu has publicly chided and opposed the President’s proposals from the start. The Palestinians have concluded that American willingness to use its potential influence on Israel is next to nil, and the PA has chosen another route. Together with the impact of the Arab Spring on Israel’s strategic situation and on intra-Palestinian matters, it is questionable that any solely American initiative could succeed. One positive element of the Quartet proposal is that it is not solely American.
Nevertheless, the MEI Scholars believed the US should not abandon the field and “wait until the situation is right.” Israel and Palestine cannot solve the problem alone and the situation is getting worse and potentially dangerous. Time is not our friend. The United States should lead a major international effort to inform publics, politicians, lawmakers, religious groups and opinion makers about why the present course is not sustainable and why a solution with Israel and a new state of Palestine living side by side in security and peace is the only outcome that would bring an end to their conflict and ensure a Jewish and democratic state. Some scholars advocated that the Administration should explain in the US why a more assertive American leadership, possibly including talking to Hamas, should be considered and why such diplomacy is necessary to protect US interests. While the Middle East Peace Negotiations must remain high among US priorities, it is unlikely to have a top ranking as the US goes into the 2012 elections.
ENERGY AND ECONOMIC RELATIONS
MEI Scholars’ addressed the following core questions regarding the impact of the Arab Spring on energy security.
• Will current political events translate into long-term instability with concomitant persistent effects on energy markets?
• How vulnerable are transit choke points?
• What are implications for the world economy?
Effects on the Energy Markets
So far the Arab Spring has caused minimal disruptions of the oil market because Gulf producers, principally Saudi Arabia, have made up for supply losses from Libya. On the economic side, disruptions have been largely confined to the countries involved in Arab Spring events. Nonetheless, these events pose the question of how much disruption from such events can the market absorb before the repercussions are widespread.
The facts are these: The planet currently consumes more than 88 million barrels of oil a day, an unprecedented level of consumption. Demand is expected to grow by approximately 50 percent over the course of the next 25 years, overwhelmingly from the emerging economies of Asia. Moreover, the oil-producing countries of the Middle East are rapidly themselves investing in the modernization of their social, commercial, and governmental infrastructure, increasingly using more of their hydrocarbon products, and leaving less for the marketplace. Thus, the supply-demand equation is tightening, with surplus capacity about 2-3 million bpd, almost entirely among the GCC oil producers.
Disruptions come at a cost. Saudi production has been able to make up the 1.5 million bpd loss in Libyan production while continuing to accommodate growing demand from the East. Still a MEI expert estimates the Arab Spring events added $10-15 per barrel to the price of crude. Technological advances in the oil industry will also buy the planet time, but not indefinitely. Overall, concern about market volatility may hasten the search for non-petroleum based energy, leaving producers without consumers, a key concern of long-term Saudi planning.
Choke Points and Implications of the World Economy
A large percentage of the world’s oil transits the Straits of Hormuz, the Bab al Mandab and the Suez Canal. They constitute serious vulnerabilities to the supply of oil. However, their criticality is matched by the attention they receive in military planning.
As to implications for the world’s economy, key to providing the planet the energy it demands is developing both Iraq and Iran’s untapped resources. Neither Iraq nor Iran has resumed their respective production levels of thirty years ago (before the Iran-Iraq War and the 1979 fall of the Shah in Iran). The question of Iraq’s development is inextricably tied to export routes, and whether and how those routes can be made secure. International investors remain wary. A recently signed agreement by Iran, Iraq, and Syria to supply the European market heavily depends on pipeline development. OPEC has provided Iraq production quota exemptions up to four million barrels a day (Iraq is currently at 2.5 million bpd), so Iraq has time to build its production capacity.
A realistic energy analytical calculus also needs to include Iran. Iranian energy (particularly natural gas) potential is prodigious (estimated at 5.3 billion barrels in oil equivalent) but production is declining and is now about 4.5 million bpd. Iran’s potential is unlikely to be taken seriously into the global energy calculus so long as Iran’s nuclear aspirations remain provocative. Current sanctions severely restrict foreign investment and sorely needed modernization of Iran’s oil sector.
The Scholars also addressed demographics: the extremely young populations (about 60 percent are under 25) demand jobs, and greater economic opportunity. In North Africa, growing unemployment may result in labor migrations, perhaps affecting Europe most, at least in the short term. In the Gulf, the floor of labor costs is set by the South Asians who work for lower wages than any of the indigenous populations. With little to no relief in sight on the employment front, the possibility of lifting subsidies is highly questionable. In sum, panelists emphasized the need to include Iran as part of the regional and global energy reality, and the essential need to get US oil consumption under better management.
IMPLICATIONS FOR US INTERESTS AND POLICY
First, as the West continues to wrestle with its economic woes, the burden increasingly falls on the oil producing countries and their wealth to finance the growth of the non-oil-producing countries as they seek their way in search of jobs, justice, and dignity.
Second, if the United States can demonstrate it can put its financial house in order, it will have more credibility in prescribing economic reforms for others. While shale technology and renewable energy offer the US an opportunity to lessen dependence on oil imports, conservation still remains the best oil-saving tool.
Third, stability in the GCC oil producing states is requisite to stable energy markets. The Gulf faces significant domestic challenges in the future. These include a youth bulge, housing problems, rising unemployment rates and growing demands for more political participation. While the US may encourage the GCC states to be on “the right side of history,” change must be indigenous and not seen as dictated by external demands.
Finally, a strong US commitment to the security of the Gulf will remain vital to oil market stability for the foreseeable future.
IRAN AND GULF SECURITY
If the Mediterranean theater of the Arab Spring - Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria - has been the main focus of events, the Gulf theater is no less important. While the issues in the Mediterranean center around domestic reforms and to some extent the implications for the Middle East peace process, the issues of the Gulf theater center on questions intrinsic to US security and economy. This panel took up perspectives on the following questions:
• What is the future of the Iranian Green Movement in light of the Arab world uprisings?
• Have current events weakened the ability of the Gulf states to cope with the challenge of Iran?
• What is the future of US-Gulf security cooperation?
• How have events in the Arab world affected the US-Iran balance of power, especially regarding the nuclear issue and Iraq?
Iran and the Green Movement
Secretary of Defense Panetta has predicted that the Arab Spring will inevitably reach Tehran but there is little indication that the time is soon. The leaders of the Green Movement are under house arrest and the apparent popular discontent awaits new leadership to mobilize. In short there is strong alienation but not a clear alternative leadership; there are discontented masses, but repression hinders mobilization; and the circumstances await a precipitating cause.
The Iranian regime has tried to portray the Arab Spring as being inspired by Iran’s own revolution in 1979. However, its harsh treatment of the protestors and opposition after the 2009 elections has sharply undercut this argument. The regime has been securitized, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) making further inroads in politics, the economy, the judiciary, education and military affairs. Its areas of responsibility are broad, including taking over military activities in the Gulf, running Iran’s nuclear program and taking on new economic responsibilities to compensate for the effects of sanctions.
Politically, the conflict between Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad has dominated politics of the past year. Khamenei remains at the top of the heap, overruling Ahmadinejad’s decision to dismiss the Minister of Intelligence and taking other steps to rein him in. However, the Supreme leader has quelled parliamentary moves to impeach Ahmadinejad, likely because he finds his aggressive approach to the West and populism at home useful. Nonetheless, he has bruited the possibility of a parliamentary government that would eliminate the office of the presidency. Currently, political maneuvering in preparation for the 2012 parliamentary elections strongly colors all Iranian politics.
The Iran economy is a mixed picture; it continues to grow at about three percent annually despite sanctions because of relatively high oil prices. Nonetheless, the economy is hurting as sanctions curtail banking, trade, oil and other sectors. In addition, Ahmadinejad’s handling of the removal of subsidies is sparking inflation, now about 15 percent and expected to go higher, and unemployment, which also is about 15 percent, but as high as 30 percent among youth.
Iran and the Gulf States
There is little evidence the Iranian regime is a model that any of the Arab Spring states want to emulate. Still, events in Bahrain provide opportunities the Iranians could well exploit if reforms fail to address the grievances of its Shia majority. While Iran appears to have offered mainly moral support to the Shia protestors until recently, the discovery of an alleged new plot apparently aimed at Bahraini targets could signal a more active role.
The Saudis themselves see a menacing Iranian hand behind events in Bahrain. In their view, Bahraini events not only threaten the rule of the Khalifa family in Bahrain but threaten the security of the predominantly Shia, oil-rich Eastern Province just across the causeway. The Saudis led the way in organizing the GCC force of a couple of thousand troops deployed to the interior of Bahrain, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting Bahrain’s infrastructure. In the view of MEI Scholars, the Saudis are resolute in preventing Iran from gaining a stronghold in Bahrain.
The IRGC’s alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to Washington al-Jubeir raises Saudi apprehensions, and the Saudis have vowed to take “a measured response” to hold Iran accountable for any actions. That vow has included careful but tight security for Iranian pilgrims for the Hajj and the introduction of a resolution in the United Nations Security Council condemning Iran for attacks on internationally protected persons. The Saudis’ real advantage lies in the Kingdom’s preponderant role in the oil market; certainly driving oil prices down would hurt the Iranians more than the Saudis and the other GCC oil producers; nonetheless, this is an unlikely course because of the cost to the Saudis and other GCC producers themselves.
MEI Scholars who had visited the Gulf recently agreed the Saudis still strongly blame the US for Iran’s rise, and that Saudi fears of an ascendant Iran is a driving concern in Yemen, where the Houthi located on the Saudi border have been accused -- without much evidence -- of receiving Iranian assistance; in Iraq, where the Saudis still do not accredit an Ambassador because of their views about the Iranian ties of Prime Minister Maliki; and in Syria, where the Saudis have been highly critical of President Bashar Al Assad’s crackdown on protestors, in part because they see a chance that Syria could be peeled away from its alliance with Iran.
Not far behind Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in intensity of views about Iran is Kuwait, where Iranian agents have been implicated in recent spy cases. In the UAE, the significant Iranian trade ties of Dubai and other emirates temper forceful anti-Iranian resentments stemming from Iran’s occupation of the islands Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tumbs. Qatar and Oman are the two outliers; Qatar shares the world’s largest oil field with Iran, and Oman historically has preserved strong political and trade relations with Iran given their shared responsibility for the Strait of Hormuz. Oman has been an intermediary several times with Iran, including in gaining the release of the three American hikers held by the Iranians.
Despite these shadings of view, the GCC has stood strong in alleging Iranian interference in Bahrain and in condemning Iranian plotting. The GCC states have gone so far as to invite Jordan and Morocco to join in what would be an alliance of monarchies aimed not only at solidarity against Iran but also solidifying common interests in other regards as well.
The bottom line is that the Arab Spring has not impaired the GCC’s ability to cope with Iran. In fact, Arab Spring events and Iranian plotting have spurred GCC countries to bolster their defenses to new heights.
Militarily, relations are excellent, built on decades of American arms sales and training that ensures interoperability of Gulf forces and the large US military presence in the Gulf. In the past year the US has signed an arms deal worth $60 billion, the largest arms sale in US history, with Saudi Arabia, as well as inked deals with the UAE (worth $17 billion), Kuwait and Qatar. Pending currently is a $53 million sale to Bahrain justified as equipment to be used for external defense.
Politically, relations have been mixed. Saudi Arabia, as well as some of the other GCC states, was sharply critical of US “abandonment” of Mubarak. However, MEI Scholars believe common interests in working together to meet the Iran threat, bring stability to Yemen, preserve an orderly oil market, and support popular governments in Libya and Syria trump the differing US-Saudi views on Iraq, Egypt and promotion of democracy in general. Intelligence cooperation, as shown in the revelation of an alleged Iranian plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the US and the al-Qaida plots originating in Yemen against the US, remains firm and tested.
US Balance of Power and Iran
The US policy of engagement and pressure, recently renamed pressure and persuasion, has so far not produced a change in Iran’s political calculus about its nuclear ambitions. President Obama has vowed to tighten them even further in the wake of the latest Iranian plotting, which should have the effect of facilitating enforcement compliance by reluctant governments.
Nonetheless, MEI Scholars have difficulty seeing exactly how sanctions can ultimately produce the desired result.
The preferred possibility is the diplomatic track, where Ahmadinejad has indicated in September that Iran would consider suspending production of uranium enriched at the 20 percent level if the West could assure a supply of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for the Tehran Research Reactor. However, the Iranians have not followed up in discussions at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or through the P5 plus 1, the forum for previous discussions with Iran. The Iranian assassination plot may have in fact jettisoned this initiative.
The plot likely stems from IRGC frustrations with setbacks to the Iranian nuclear program, including the killing of several Iranian nuclear scientists, the effect of the Stuxnet virus, and other unattributed “active measures.” These measures have in effect bought some time for negotiations, though the November IAEA report paints a credible portrait of Iran’s drive to obtain at least the capability to produce nuclear weapons. As one Scholar put it, the report makes clear there is a gun but it is not clear yet that there is a smoking gun.
IMPLICATIONS FOR US INTERESTS AND POLICY
A diplomatic solution would likely take the form of Western acceptance of limited Iranian enrichment in return for stringent international monitoring and inspections. A US official has ventured, however, that such a deal would be the “endgame” and so far we are not even “in the game” yet.
Other possibilities beyond the diplomatic track include domestic change in Iran, which does not seem imminent; military action, for which there is no enthusiasm; and a containment policy, which the Administration has rejected, that would seek to constrain a nuclear-capable Iran.
The choice among these options could fall to the next Administration, depending on the success of measures to stall the Iranian nuclear programs.
Counterterrorism and the Prospects for Political Islam
The Arab Spring has been a rebuke to extremist ideology calling for violent overthrows of Western-backed regimes. The MEI Scholars looked at the following questions:
• Will the death of Bin Laden and the demands for democracy create a new overarching political narrative to supersede that of al-Qaeda?
• Will the Arab Spring decrease or increase the threat of Islamist takeovers?
• How will the turmoil affect CT cooperation between the US and key governments, especially Yemen?
A New Overarching Political Narrative?
After the events of the Arab Spring, Bin Laden’s death, and the global pressure the United States and its allies have applied to al-Qaeda’s networks, al-Qaeda’s narrative is discredited and its organization is much weakened. Nonetheless, it is not eradicated; nor is such extremist ideology likely to be. The most likely possibility is that its narrative will mutate to sustain new extremist groups, especially if governments do not meet Arab Spring protesters’ expectations.
American counterterrorism policy is currently framed in the context of disrupting, dismantling and ultimately defeating al-Qaeda central and its affiliates. Al-Qaeda has suffered two severe blows in rapid succession. The first is the “Arab Spring” uprisings, which caught the US by surprise, and the second is the death of Osama Bin Laden, a direct result of American policy. While acknowledging that the full implications for counterterrorism policy of these events are unclear, MEI Scholars reached a consensus on several conclusions.
First, the Arab Spring protesters largely rejected or ignored al-Qaeda’s violent ideology. In Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and initially in Yemen and Syria, the protests were generally peaceful. Even in Libya, whose protests in Benghazi rapidly evolved into an armed rebellion, al-Qaeda had no connection to the violence, despite the Qadhafi regime’s attempt to link the two. This rejection of al-Qaeda and the general preference for non-violence are profoundly good news for American policy because they weaken al-Qaeda. Moreover, the death of Bin Laden served the demands for justice, but its ultimate effect on al-Qaeda depends both on the continuing success of American counterterrorism policy and on whether the Arab Spring ultimately leads people away from extremism or back into it.
Second, the bad news is that al-Qaeda seeks to take advantage of the Arab Spring’s inherent instability to find a role for itself. This attempt is most obvious in Yemen, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was already a highly organized and dangerous presence in some relatively ungoverned tribal areas. When the capital convulsed into pro- and anti-government clashes, AQAP moved to strengthen its grip in remote areas. Even in its countryside strongholds, however, AQAP cannot supplant the strong tribal ties that constrain its influence. Overall, the decentralized al-Qaeda organization still possesses the power to project force in transnational and local attacks, as do its proxies and sympathizers such as the Haqqani Network, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Somalia’s Al-Shabab movement and Nigeria’s Boko Haram organization.
Third, given this reality, counterterrorism operations will remain a fact of life in American foreign policy as the United States attempts to build on the success of its programs. Kinetic military operations, such as the recent killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen, will no doubt continue.
Fourth, there was also recognition of the need to focus on countering radicalization and violent extremism. Some of this effort should bolster programs that delegitimize extremist narratives. The bulk of the effort should go toward providing alternatives for disaffected youth in the Middle East and South Asia, and addressing “upstream factors” on those most vulnerable to radicalization such as unemployment and lack of government accountability. The key to success is the recognition that terrorism is a symptom of underlying issues at a local and regional level. Broad categories such as “jihadist” or "radical” lead to a misapplication of possible remedies.
The threat of Islamist takeovers?
There is no question that Islamists in many Arab spring countries stand to gain from the changes underway. Already, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia has won a large plurality of seats in the recent elections for a constituent assembly, and is poised to lead a coalition government. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized and most popular single political entity in the run-up to Egyptian parliamentary elections. In Libya, rebel fighters now demanding a share of post-liberation control include Islamist elements previously banned by the Qadhafi regime. In Yemen, the Islamist Islah party has taken an important role in opposition activities. In the Levant, a major center of protest in Syria has been in Hama, the city where Hafez Al-Assad’s forces massacred tens of thousands of Islamists three decades ago. Were Al-Assad’s Bashar, to eventually fall, it’s quite possible that Islamist elements would organize a substantial turnout for any subsequent elections.
There are good reasons both for worry about a strengthening of radical Islamists, and for calm about the impact of more moderate Islamists’ coming to power. Where extremists have been released from prison or come to power through the barrel of a gun, there is ample cause for concern that their commitment to imposing a purist Islamist state will outweigh their fellow countrymen’s calls for democracy and toleration. For example, we don’t know how committed to democracy some of the Libyan rebel fighters truly are, and whether they will create troubles for the Transitional National Council as Libya strives to form political parties, write a constitution and hold elections. On the other hand, Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda who “play by the rules” and demonstrate a commitment to accountability, democracy and pluralism should not overly worry policymakers. There are clear differences between political Islamists and jihadists extremists.
MEI scholars agreed that the large majority of Arabs reject violence and harsh interpretation of Islam by Jihadist Salafists, and that the broader Salafist trend will remain in a minority in the Arab Spring countries.
Counterterrorism Cooperation with Key Arab Spring States
A further emphasis of U.S. counterterrorism policy aims to build foreign partners’ capacity. This effort supports programs to improve the rule of law and governance in those countries in which the Arab Spring is resulting in abrupt changes of government. Recognizing that weak states serve as breeding grounds for terrorism and instability, the United States, working with its partners, should continue to champion respect for human rights, while building effective law enforcement capacity and a fair, impartial system of justice.
What are the key elements of the evolving political dynamic over the next year? The first is that the United States has limited ability to shape events to ensure a desired outcome. In many countries, the United States is suffering from a remarkably low approval rating. Part of this attitude is the unavoidable result of close American support for the former regimes, as well as U.S. support for Israel. In general, we should expect violent jihadists to look for a foothold in the new circumstances. If extremists do emerge, there is no reason to expect them to be affiliated with al-Qaeda. It is more likely that radical Islamists would pose more of a threat to democratic development in the country concerned than an immediate threat to the United States. Over all, support for human rights and good governance will likely yield a better atmosphere for countering violent extremism than any attempt at imposing Western style democracy.
In Yemen in particular, AQAP will take advantage of the chaos and will continue its attempts at attacking Saudi Arabian and American interests. It is likely that the eventual replacement of President Saleh will have little effect on the willingness of the central government, or what is left of it, to cooperate with the United States. While dangerous, AQAP is by no means the most powerful or even one of the most powerful forces within Yemen. Yemen will seek to achieve a new balance of forces over the coming year or so, a situation that does not invite American intervention except in the context of regional efforts to stabilize the situation and provide economic and technical assistance.
On balance there is no reason to expect that regional cooperation in counterterrorism will suffer significantly in the near term. Individual countries will be focused on dealing with their specific situations, but the need to control violence from radical elements will be a common theme. As long as the United States can hold to its central principles while adjusting its programs to local circumstances, the Arab Spring holds more promise than threat. The one game-changer in this assessment would be another deployment of American combat forces in large numbers in response to a successful terrorist event or even a series of events. The greatest challenge to U.S. policies will be to maintain useful humanitarian, economic development and good-governance programs in the face of falling American foreign policy budgets.
IMPLICATIONS FOR US INTERESTS AND POLICY
MEI Scholars held a variety views. Counterterrorism should be the tool of choice, if specific threats to the United States or our allies arise. A consensus emerged that the US should recognize that economic conditions in each country would play an important role in whether the population becomes radicalized or not. In many cases, the best counter to radical ideology may be addressing the call for jobs, justice and dignity. The U.S. should seek to strengthen accountability and a system for redress of grievances so disaffected citizens don’t feel their only recourse lies with extremist ideology and tactics. Capacity building in civil society, and technical assistance and investment in local economies, even in small amounts, help counter radical appeals over the long run. Overall, the Arab spring should provide further opportunities for cooperation with individual governments on counterterrorism and countering violent extremism, provided the U.S. takes into account local sensitivities about American foreign policies.
CONCLUSION: AN ERA OF REALIGNMENTS
US Power and the Rise of Others
MEI Scholars agreed that we are entering a new era. Some characteristics are apparent.
- The United States, bolstered by the size of its economy, its historically unmatched capability to project power anywhere around the world, and its soft power assets such as its agenda setting and convening authority, will remain the preponderant outside power in the Middle East. But it will have an attenuated reach stemming in part from its own policy errors, especially the costly war in Iraq that propelled Iran to the fore, and in part from the rise of other states.
- China will have a larger role but the extent of its influence has limits because it is unwilling and unable to take on major military commitments. Financially, the oil rich GCC states, if they cooperate, are a match for Chinese resources, and technologically and culturally, the West has a much stronger hand.
- In the Arab Spring events, Qatar showed the role that a wealthy small state can play; Turkey emerged as a stronger player and a key US ally in Middle East diplomacy; and the GCC states have generally stepped into more prominent regional leadership roles. Diminished for the moment is Bahrain, where the ruling family, the Shia, the Sunnis and Bahrain’s reputation as a financial hub have all been hurt; Yemen, whose problems seem insolvable even if Saleh departs; and Syria, whose fate remains undecided.
- The transition states of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have the bragging rights that come from the fact that more than hundred million Arabs (roughly a third of the Arab world) are now freer than they were at the beginning of 2011. How events play out in Egypt will be especially important to the new era given Egypt’s central role in the Arab world.
- The game changers, Syria and Iran, remain to be determined. Overall the prognosis is for turbulence rather than smooth sailing.
US Interests and Policy
In these circumstances, MEI Scholars reached no rigid conclusions as to the effect of the Arab Spring on US interests. The Arab Spring events have brought to the fore the conflict between interests and values in US policy in the Middle East. Given the diversity of the nature of US relations and breadth of interests in the Middle East, resolution of these conflicts should rightly remain a case-by-case judgment within a broad framework along the lines that President Obama laid out last May, and Secretary Clinton in November.
- MEI Scholars, in discussing the components of US interests - protection of Israel, security of the Gulf and access to its oil, political and economic reform including encouragement of democratic transitions, counterterrorism and non-proliferation – suggested the dominance of counterterrorism of the past decade overemphasizes its importance in the Arab Spring era.
- Some Scholars also thought that the US would be prudent to engage allies in the Middle East and elsewhere in at least contemplating policy responses to a nuclear-armed Iran.
- Some Scholars viewed US policy on the peace process as bordering on the dysfunctional as it seems not to aim to encourage Israeli accommodation to compromises that would be in Israel’s own long-term interests, and is antagonistic to the Palestinians and the Arab states whose populations will have increasing influence because of democratic reforms the US encourages. If the latest Quartet initiative does not bear fruit, a major feature of the new era may well be a reformulation of the parameters now shaping Arab-Israeli relations and the US role in them. The result could be increasing isolation for Israel and increasing independence of Arab decisions made in rooms where the US is not present.
- The default position of a hub-and spoke security strategy in the Gulf – something US Central Command calls “bilateral multilateralism” – may be the best we can do. It gives the US a crucial role in Gulf defenses and has facilitated notable progress toward coordinated GCC air and naval defenses. Current Gulf worries that budget cuts and US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan will drive the US into “self-isolation” should be laid to rest. Successfully integrating Iraq into a Gulf security structure beyond the hub-and-spoke approach awaits improvement of political relations between Iraq and the GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia.
Broad policy recommendations favor a balance tilted toward diplomacy. Limitations of US political and economic resources dictate diplomacy over force except in cases of overriding national interest, coalition building over unilateralism, and listening and persuasion over didactic approaches. In short, America’s strengths should be backed by strong diplomacy sensitive to local needs as well as attuned to US interests.
In sum, after 10 months the promise of the Arab Spring remains real but its fulfillment uncertain. Also unclear is the complexities of how the US “will walk and chew gum at the same time” when US interests do not align. In the long term, a more democratic, prosperous and accountable Middle East offers the prospect of a region with better governance and less abusive of human rights, and thus a net positive outcome for U.S. interests.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.