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.

To the extent that the Middle East becomes more democratic, then a significant and long-lasting change will be that national policies will more directly affect popular sentiments than they have hitherto. Some of those policies will affect relations with the United States. In many places, more democratically determined policies will mean less of a welcome for some of the things the United States does, especially things that involve the use of military force. It also will mean stronger criticism of U.S. policies regarding Israel and the Palestinian issue.

What is the net effect of all of this for U.S. interests in the Middle East? That last observation about the direction of more democratically determined national policies suggests some impact on one set of U.S. interests, which has to do with bilateral cooperation with Middle Eastern governments. Some instances of cooperation, especially ones involving the deployment of military forces, might be curtailed. But the most important forms of cooperation, and specifically counterterrorist cooperation, have shown themselves elsewhere in the world to be remarkably resilient in the face of substantial political and ideological differences between governments, and they are likely to prove so again in the Middle East.

The United States has an interest in regional stability in the sense of an absence of overt armed conflict, and this is unlikely to be affected—certainly not in any way that is at all foreseeable or predictable. Many of the same military and strategic realities as before will persist. Egypt, for example, may exhibit a more overtly unfriendly tone toward Israel, but this does not imply that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is in jeopardy or that there would be any prospect of a new Egyptian-Israeli war. The governing strategic reality, which everyone recognizes, will be continued Israeli military superiority.

Oil, of course, is a big U.S. interest in the Middle East. Other than short-term localized disruptions such as are occurring now in Libya, that interest also is unlikely to be fundamentally altered by the ongoing and prospective political changes, for two basic reasons. One is the globalization of the world oil market. The other is the fact that those with oil cannot drink it.

Especially since 9/11, the Middle East's role as an origin of extremism and terrorism has appropriately been considered one of the biggest U.S. concerns or interests regarding the region. This is where the best news grows out of the popular upheaval and prospects for greater democracy. The accomplishment of significant change already, at least in Tunisia and Egypt, has already dramatically refuted one of the central tenets in the extremists' message, which is that violence is necessary to bring about such change. Al-Qa'ida and other groups of similar ilk have been wonderfully irrelevant to the change that already has transpired. And to the extent that Middle Eastern countries become more democratic, this will further cut the roots of terrorism by providing peaceful channels, as an alternative to the violent ones, for acting on grievances and pursuing political objectives.

The overall standing and esteem of the United States in the Middle East also is an important U.S. interest—not as a popularity contest, but for a couple of other reasons. One is to limit and preferably to reduce anti-Americanism that is involved in anti-U.S. terrorist violence. The other is to make it politically more feasible for regimes—and this will be all the more the case to the extent that more democracy means those regimes have to respond more to the popular will—to cooperate openly with the United States. This is the set of interests that is most susceptible to being influenced by the United States' own policies and actions. And it is the set of interests on which, more so than with any other interests, the effects of the history now being written have yet to be determined.

The main conclusion for U.S. policy is that the United States should welcome the political explosion in the Middle East as being on balance in U.S. interests. To the extent that words or deeds of the United States might either retard or encourage region-wide changes to the existing political order, it should aim for encouragement. In practice this may sometimes mean not doing things that would screw up the process. The United States should try to stay on the right side of history.

The United States should help to maintain the sense of popular empowerment—the feeling of the people being able to make change happen by themselves—that was such an important part of what took place in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The change in public attitudes that this sense of empowerment embodies is perhaps the most important change of all that we have witnessed so far, because it can do more than anything else to reduce the alienation between individuals and their countries that is endemic in the Middle East and that underlies stagnant economies, cynicism about political participation, and resort to extremism. The United States needs to avoid scrupulously anything that would compromise the sense of empowerment by making a U.S. role in political change too conspicuous. This will sometimes mean hanging back from direct involvement more than would satisfy many political appetites in the United States.

In the interest of not reintroducing more cynicism, the United States should respect popular sovereignty and the results of new democratic processes, even when specific outcomes may not be to its liking. It should be prepared and willing to do normal business with a wide variety of actors that are new either to the political process or to positions of power. Although the United States tactically needs to be mindful of the major differences among Middle Eastern countries as it manages its responses to revolutionary situations, strategically it should consistently respect democratic outcomes. It should not peremptorily determine who is to be its friend or its enemy, and it should not choose friends just on the basis of their ideologies.

In the new Middle East, it will be even more important than before to expend the necessary effort and political capital to resolve the Palestinian issue. Movement toward popular sovereignty in Arab countries, far from being a distraction from this issue, has made even more glaring the lack of Palestinian popular sovereignty. Indefinite perpetuation of the status quo in the occupied territories would mean being on the wrong side of history.

The shape of the new Middle East, and the extent to which it really will be new and different, will depend on events yet to play out. There will be a tendency to overreact to many of those events. Some will be interpreted as either an end to a wave of democratization or as evidence of the wave's unlimited power. Neither such interpretation is likely to be valid. There will be plenty of material in the months ahead for further analysis and strategizing, but enough has happened already to have a sense of history's direction.

Image by Jonathan Rashad