Paul Pillar

Toward a Strategy for the New Middle East

The wave of popular unrest in the Middle East has stimulated armchair strategists to offer over-arching advice on how the United States should deal with what may be a substantially changed region. As with any other fast-moving foreign policy challenges (or opportunities), policymakers will necessarily be focused more on what is here and now than on what is over-arching. They are properly concentrating on not making damaging mistakes this week or this month rather than sitting back and thinking deep thoughts about their rendezvous with history. Nonetheless, something of historical significance has indeed been playing out in the Middle East for these last three months and shows little sign of dying out any time soon. So some deep thinking may be useful in providing a context for dealing with the here-and-now problems that turbulence in the region has been putting on the policymakers' agenda.

Grand strategizing on this subject needs to proceed with several cautions. One is that there is an awful lot about where the Middle East is headed in the months and years ahead that we do not and cannot know. A second caution is that although the United States can influence some of that history in the making, it cannot mold it or determine the main lines of the story. It would be hubristic to believe the United States can shape what happens in the Middle East more than it has to adapt to what happens there. A third caution is to resist the tendency to overgeneralize and oversimplify. That tendency is an almost unavoidable side-effect of the over-arching stuff. But we need to remember that despite the region-wide sweep of much of what we are witnessing (and despite the contagion effect that I admit I underestimated when unrest first broke out in Tunisia), country-to-country differences may be as significant as what characterizes the Middle East as a whole.

Amid all that can be said about what is new in the Middle East, we need to think first about what has not changed, which in many respects is as important as what has. The economic and social structures in the region are not being transformed overnight, however rapid are some of the political changes at the top and on the surface. Political culture also is not changing overnight, although it can slowly evolve in response to new distributions of power and the creation of new institutions. These aspects of the political, economic, and social fabric of the Middle East—including political habits developed in an authoritarian environment, economic structures that discourage entrepreneurship and dynamic growth, and social structures in which religious identity in particular plays a significant role—limit the possibilities or at least the pace of fundamental change, however exuberant may be the demands voiced in the street.

Also still unchanged are many of the entrenched interests associated with old regimes and political orders. Deposing a ruler does not by itself dispose of those interests or overcome the entrenchment. This is especially true in the Middle East, where political power and economic privilege are intertwined in ways that are very difficult to disentangle. In Egypt, for example, one has to wonder—and Egyptian military officers no doubt are wondering—what democratization would mean for the military's heavy role in the Egyptian economy, which works to the benefit not only of the military as an institution but also to the officers.

Something else that has not gone away is the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its dimensions, especially the issue of Israeli occupation of disputed land on which Palestinian Arabs reside. However much some may hope that events elsewhere in the region would reduce the salience of this conflict, it is as salient as ever in the minds of Middle Easterners. It continues to be the single conflict that most broadly shapes Arab sentiments, and it colors attitudes in the region toward a host of other issues.

Finally, the history that had transpired before the current dramatic events, and the memories formed by that history, have not gone away. They, too, color attitudes toward many other things. Especially relevant to the making of U.S. policy are memories of U.S. actions and postures in the region, and in particular bad memories such as the Iraq War. Those parts of history underlie the high potential for much of what the United States might do in the region to be unwelcome and counterproductive.

Turning to what has changed, at the top of the list is a newly found sense of popular empowerment. People in the region are thinking less in terms of inshallah and more in terms of what is in their hands. Related to that are suddenly heightened hopes and expectations. The prospect of substantial change, in politics and in their daily lives, now seems more possible, and more worth hoping for and working for, than it did just a few months ago.

Beyond popular attitudes and aspirations, there really is more likelihood of further political change in the months ahead. Political change almost always comes in stages rather than all at once. Revolutionary change begets more change as revolutions progress and evolve and as different interests contend for power and influence. In Egypt, a popular revolt has so far accomplished only the first stage of a hoped-for more sweeping revolution. Whether or not the hopes are realized, Egypt is sure to be in flux six months or a year from now, and quite possibly beyond.