There is nothing harder than making policy during a crisis, except perhaps making policy in the midst of a revolution—let alone several simultaneous revolutions. By that standard, the Obama Administration has actually done quite well. It is not that they could not have handled a number of specific issues differently, or that there are not important issues that they still have to address. Only to say that given the challenges of this situation, they deserve a lot of credit for ushering Mubarak out in Egypt, ensuring that the Egyptian military plays a constructive role (at least so far), moderating the behavior of the regimes in Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen, and and making clear that the United States will not condone violence anywhere. All of this could easily have gone much worse had it not been for determined American pressure.
The biggest piece that has been missing so far, however, has been for Washington to articulate a new strategic vision for its policy toward the transformed Middle East. Understandably, the U.S. government has been very focused on tactics. Moreover, the numerous statements by Administration officials addressing specific aspects of the crisis do not yet add up to a meaningful statement of overarching American policy. Such a statement is desperately needed, however, to guide all U.S. policy toward the region moving forward—to clearly delineate the transformation that the United States sees taking place and to define how Washington broadly intends to address that transformation. The U.S. government needs it, the people of the United States need it, and the people of the Middle East need it most of all.
Throughout the Cold War, and particularly during the past 20-30 years, the United States has seen the Middle East largely through traditional power political lenses. In this scheme, it is the governments of the region that matter, interstate conflict is the greatest threat (even if that interstate conflict manifests itself in competing attempts at internal subversion), and because the United States had allied itself with those states that largely benefited from the current geo-political arrangements, we saw the status quo as highly beneficial and any threat to the status quo as correspondingly dangerous. Our great Arab allies—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Jordan—all liked things the way they were, and because they ensured that the oil flowed and were officially or unofficially at peace with Israel, we also liked the way things were. Even Israel, after its victories in 1967 and 1973 and its failed attempt to re-arrange the status quo in its favor in 1982, had become a status quo power. Consequently, the United States became the great champion of the status quo in the Middle East and we defined our adversaries—Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, Libya until 2004—as those states seeking to overturn the status quo. In some sense this was correct, because while those states did accept the same state-centric view of the Middle East, they did not like the extant geostrategic order and were attempting to subvert it to create a new order centered on their own interests.
The great problem inherent in this construct was that the people of the Muslim Middle East saw the preservation of the status quo as condemning them to eternal misery. This, more than anything else, is why so many Arabs admired Hassan Nasrallah, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and even Osama bin Laden. They at least seemed to be fighting for change, for an overturning of the status quo. And although most Arabs did not like what they stood for, they loved what they stood against—the traditional order that oppressed them. Because the United States supported the traditional order for geopolitical reasons, this also put us on the wrong side of public opinion. Washington’s support for the status quo was based upon our focus on the region’s geopolitical dynamics, but for the people of the Muslim Middle East whose focus was on the region’s domestic political-economic dynamics, that same defense of the status quo became a defense of their oppressors. It was a principal (albeit not the only) cause of the region’s pervasive anti-Americanism.
Consequently, an important element of defining a new American strategy for the Middle East will also be defining a new vision—a new narrative—of the dynamics of the region and what the United States would like to see happen there. To do this, we should redefine the new regional struggle as one based on internal politics and the aspirations of its people. That, today, the region is now clearly divided between those states that have acknowledged the desires of their people for a better future and are taking concrete steps to improve their peoples’ lives through political reform, economic transformation, and social adaptation, and those that are not. Those that are not are those states employing the bad old methods of the bad old Middle East: repression, violence, fear, totalitarian control over information and expression, and the creation of internal or external scapegoats to blame their problems on, all to deny their people the better future they dream of.
Not accidentally, such a framework places the new Egypt, the new Iraq and the new Palestinian Authority squarely in the “camp” of those states moving in the right direction. All have their problems, but all are democratizing, all are responding to the desires of their people for better lives. Although it is a harder case to make because of public misperceptions about the Kingdom, Washington could rightly argue that Saudi Arabia also deserves to be part of this first camp. King Abdallah has acknowledged the unhappiness of the Saudi people and begun a far-reaching program of reforms that has greatly mollified Saudi popular unhappiness and given Saudis hope that their grievances will be addressed without the violence, upheaval and uncertainty of a revolution. King Abdallah’s popularity within the Kingdom and the absence of popular demonstrations attests to the fact that his government is also in the progressive, reformist camp—the camp of those attempting to give their people what they want.
Such a strategic framework also places Iran, Syria and potentially Libya (if Qaddafi survives) in the “camp” of those states decidedly in the wrong. In so doing, it should rally popular sympathy and support for Egypt, Iraq and the PA (three states we desperately need and want to support) and should help alienate Iran and Syria from Arab public opinion. It should further reassure the Saudis in particular that we will continue to see Iran as a major threat, but have done so in a way that rallies the Arab street to our side and against Iran and is consistent with our new emphasis on reform and transformation.
Some may object to this bifurcated description of the region, but it is unavoidable. Ultimately, the United States is going to have to explain what we want to see happen in the region and what we don’t want to see happen. That will mean picking sides whether we want to or not—pointing out who is doing the right thing, and who is not. The fact that Iran continues to define itself as our adversary and continues to act in ways that are deeply harmful to the interests of the United States and our allies means that we will have to explain to the people of the region why Iran (and perhaps Syria and Libya too) should not be embraced but rejected. Why it is the cause of many of the evils of the region that need to be opposed. This framework allows us to do so in way that puts us on the right side of history and public opinion, and puts Tehran very squarely on the wrong side of both.