March 28, 2011

America's Middle East Future

By Michael Brenner, published in The Huffington Post:
"The Middle East never will be the same again" is the declaration of every observer's lips. True -- but in itself that tells us very little as to the consequences and implications for the United States from the political cataclysm shaking the region and reshaping its politics. Restraint in predicting what those implications will be is praiseworthy. Anyone who boldly claims to know the specific and concrete effects is talking through his turban. Yet it is imperative that we begin to think rigorously about what the future holds. So let's begin with a rough taxonomy.

1. Those countries that have experienced political turbulence can be placed in three categories: A) Popular action has toppled both the existing autocratic and his regime; B) popular action has toppled the autocratic but important elements of his regime remain in place -- at least for now; C) popular action has been repressed with no structural political concessions.

2. How stable is the outcome of countries in each of the categories. For those in Category B, irresolution means that the outlook is cloudy by definition. Interim outcomes in the other two categories still leave relatively wide confidence margins as to what the future will bring.

3. Foreign policy outlooks and attitudes are liable to change where there is a discrepancy between public opinion and the orientation of government elites. This holds even where the opposition has been suppressed since there will be incentives for leaders to reduce points of friction and grievances among the general populace.

4. American preoccupations have centered on securing support for its four principal objectives: prosecuting its 'anti-terrorism' campaign; avoiding rifts with Israeli; maximizing pressure on Iran; and securing undisrupted access to the region's oil. On all of these, Washington has placed strong emphasis on short-run risks rather than satisfying these objectives over the long-run.

5. Democracy promotion has been a means to these ends rather than an end in itself.

6. Contradictions among these objectives have gone unrecognized or dealt with on an expedient basis. That will prove much more difficult to do in the future.

Here are some of the new 'givens' in the new context.

1. American credibility, already low, has hit rock bottom. This holds for government elites (e.g. Saudi Arabia) and for public opinion everywhere. We are widely distrusted; Washington's words and those of President Obama in particular will be viewed with pronounced skepticism and will nowhere be taken at face value. The U.S. will receive fewer benefits of the doubt.

2. The political power of fundamentalist Islam has been greatly exaggerated. In no country has it been the primary force as either ideology or organized movement. Whatever role they may play in the future, it would be a cardinal error to fix on fundamentalist groups as a main point of attention and as a measure of whether things are going in a positive direction.

3. The dangers posed to the United States by terrorist groups, too, have been greatly exaggerated. This is true not only as regards the assumption as to some link between Islamic fundamentalism in general and al-Qaeda in particular. It holds as well for official estimates of the latter's capability and threat. The terrorist factor should be given less weight than is done currently.

The notion, affirmed yesterday be Secretary Gates, that the 'war on terror' suffers a serious setback with the weakening (or fall) of Mr. A.A. Saleh in Yemen is striking evidence of this obsession. AQAP has very limited ability to attack major American interests; it has been an enemy of convenience for Mr. Saleh just as the 'war on Communism' was years ago; he under no foreseeable circumstances will give priority to doing our bidding; and disorder itself is the danger insofar as AQAP is concerned. Expressed worries about losing the help of Gadaffi's intelligence services in chasing after al-Qaeda in the Sahara is an even clearer demonstration of the extremity of our obsession.

4. Our ability to maintain the 5 party coalition in support of Israeli's draconian plans for Palestine is in jeopardy. Egypt (above all), Saudi Arabia and Jordan will come under increasing popular pressure to change their policies, and will be more susceptible to it, than in the past. Brutalization of the Gazans, forcing Fatah into humiliating concessions, and holding hands with the Israeli ultras will be harder for our Arab allies to tolerate. That should be welcomed as occasion to rethink our supine kow-towing to the Netanyahu government. Id we don't, our high wire act could end in tragedy.

5. The Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry has deepened and become more embittered -- largely due to events in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia. Doubtless this will solidify already strong backing for our hard line approach toward Tehran. Whatever thoughts there may have been among Sunni governments about negotiating a modus vivendi with Iran are now beyond the pale. In the short run, the Obama administration may see this as desirable given its commitment to coerce Iran into abandoning its nuclear problem and its hopes for reform change.

On reflection, though, a Middle East beset by the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict cannot serve our interest in regional stability. For its strengthens the hands of the ultras in Tehran, complicates the challenge of achieving political reconciliation in Lebanon, lays the basis for more violet and more anti-American uprisings by Shi'ites in the Gulf, and adds to the already powerful inertial forces moving Iraq further away from the United states.

6. The gap between American rhetoric and American actions has widened to the point where it no longer is bridgeable. America as the beacon of democracy rings hollows after our string of equivocations, half steps, selectivity and cynical calculation. American diplomacy thereby has lost an asset. A candid reversion to realism has its own liabilities. The American public is deeply attached to the idealistic notion of the U.S. as a principled country that acts in the cause of virtue, enlightenment and morality. If Washington is widely seen as abandoning its native idealism, domestic political support for the inescapable hard policy choices that lie ahead will be unpredictable.

Do not expect President Obama to address frankly any of this tonight.
In our opinion Obama’s remarks on Libya qualify as his most lucid foreign policy to date, although that isn't saying much. Supporting Libya’s opposition is a vital political and moral interest during the Muslim revolutionary wave, equally important to security and economic factors during fourth-generation warfare (and globalization). He needed to give this speech beforehand to better shape impressions, and it still isn’t very detailed, but he appeared more connected than any other war speech. Someone must have told him to nix the stern and solemn act.

Now the end of his speech contradicts everything he says by leaving out those countries suffering under U.S.-allied regimes. Libya’s critics automatically point to Washington’s double-standard. So far these movements haven’t found a friend in America, only a conspirator of the government.

And leaving them out is explicitly intentional.

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