Paul Pillar

One Middle East, Many Different Challenges

I have been missing from these spaces (for which I apologize) the last couple of days as the latest northeastern snowstorm—which, unlike the previous ones, squarely hit the Washington, DC area—has taken its toll. While I have been dealing with such immediate challenges as seven-hour commutes, two-day power outages, and loss of Internet connectivity, many others have been trying to fathom the wave of unrest in the Middle East. The recent events there are indeed of immense import, at least potentially, and we should do all the fathoming we can. But let me offer some perspectives on, and a corrective to, the directions much of the commentary has taken.

First, the outcomes of these events are unpredictable. There is always a large market for prognostication amid such happenings. Those who respond to the market could be considered either courageous or foolhardy. Either way, their prognostications need to be taken as at best educated speculation. The catalyst for major unrest often is some localized, personal event that happens to catch fire—literally, in the case of the self-immolation that served that function in Tunisia. Whether unrest subsequently leads to major political change or is squelched also often hinges on localized, personal, unpredictable behaviors such as whether low-level members of a palace guard abandon previous loyalties.

Second, there is no generally applicable principle about what strategies and policies of Middle Eastern governments (or urgings to those governments by the United States or other outsiders) are more, or less, likely to lead to political change. It is certainly not something as simple as the idea that tough repression works in keeping governments in power and milder forms of control do not. If it were, why did Ben Ali fall when his less repressive Maghreb neighbors in Algeria and Morocco have not suffered similar fates? It is hard enough to come up with such principles when looking backward at past events. People still disagree over what policies might have kept the shah of Iran (or his dynasty) in power. It is all the harder to arrive at valid principles when looking forward at future events. This is partly because exercising power at least in part through repressive measures rather than popular support is one of those riding-the-tiger situations that is both unstable and offers no safe way to move to a more stable position. It is also partly because of the country-to-country differences that invalidate any would-be general principle.

Third, the contagion effect—the idea that unrest and/or political change in one Middle Eastern country leads to similar happenings in other countries in the region—probably is weaker than the voluminous commentary about it suggests. The attraction of postulating and talking about such an effect is related to the attractions of prognostication and general, region-wide principles. The concept also appeals to our spatial sense of phenomena flowing geographically across a map. Salient events in Middle Eastern countries clearly have put some thoughts into the heads of people in other countries in the region, especially through an Al Jazeera effect in which mass media play a critical intermediary role. But the most important influences on events in any one Middle Eastern country are to be found in that country itself. The Middle East is not Eastern Europe, where the critical common thread that unraveled was Soviet domination.

Fourth, whatever political change does occur can take—and insofar as it involves change in several countries, probably will take—disparate forms, some of which would be favorable to U.S. interests and some of which would not. What form it takes in any one instance is another of those unpredictable elements, as suggested by the motley alliances of protest appearing in Middle Eastern streets and by the course of some revolutions of the past, in which those who initially toppled the old regime were subsequently displaced by others. Americans may look back at some upheavals in Middle Eastern countries as change in the right direction but look at others as they look at the Iranian revolution—thinking about whom to blame for “losing” the country in question.

Fifth, based on all of the above, the challenges the Obama administration faces today regarding unrest in the Middle East are individual country-by-country challenges more than a single region-wide challenge. To importune the administration either to give more encouragement to the forces of change in the region or to do the opposite is simplistic advice that ignores important constraints and objectives that are more peculiar to individual countries than to the region as a whole. Analysis with a solely region-wide focus ignores the same objectives and constraints, including ones having to do with domestic U.S. politics.