Washington Loses Control

March 9, 2011 Topic: AutocracyDemocracySociety Region: Northern AfricaMiddle East

Washington Loses Control

The die is cast. If Washington abandons the protestors, it will become irrelevant in the Middle East.

The ongoing upheaval in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region reminds one of a Hollywood movie with the ending to be determined by the audience. In this motion picture, the United States has made its choice and the die is cast.

For over fifty years, the United States has backed dictators for short-term stability, and, no matter its rhetoric, has not encouraged popular movements. It was always evident that upheavals would come, but hopefully one at a time and not too frequently. The demonstrations that started in Tunisia and spread across the region have turned U.S. policy on its head. The wave of protests is the manifestation of years of pent-up anger. The people are fed up and are not going to take it any more; they are in charge, realities on the ground have changed and the process is irreversible.

The U.S. administration seemed to recognize much of this as events were unfolding but still sat on the fence as protests spread, hoping for “orderly change,” as if this was the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace! To its credit, the White House did not buckle under intense Saudi pressure to back Mubarak. With Mubarak gone and turmoil in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Yemen and even Iran, the administration finally appreciated the severity of its predicament. Washington faced a stark choice: support the change demanded across all of MENA or continue backing dictators, ultimately becoming irrelevant in the future of the region. The decision was facilitated by events in Libya; given Gaddafi’s unpopularity in the United States, his erratic behavior and his regime’s brutal attack on its own people, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had little choice but to come down 100 percent on the side of the protesters in Libya, with harsh condemnation of rulers who did not yield to the popular demands of their people.

The United States made its choice and the die was cast. Rapidly developing events pushed Washington into a 180-degree policy shift, abandoning dictators and short-run stability in favor of freedom and representative rule with the hope that any ensuing instability would be short-lived. Washington had little choice but to embrace the cause of the protestors. Support for dictators was no longer tenable after President Obama’s high-profile Cairo speech and the bloodshed in the streets of Cairo and Tripoli.

Knowingly or unknowingly, after nearly two months of uncontrollable events, the United States today finds itself caught up in a process it did not manage or foresee. Choosing sides in Libya was easy, but is the United States committed to supporting the side of protestors no matter the country, especially when it comes to Saudi Arabia or the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)?

On the one hand, if the United States supports any of the remaining Middle Eastern dictators, it will deservedly be labeled duplicitous as never before. While the label may mean little to the United States as it has unashamedly worn this badge of dishonor for years, conditions on the ground are not the same. If Washington turns its back on protestors in Saudi Arabia or even in Bahrain, it will risk unleashing Arab and Muslim anger as never before and will lose Arab and Muslim hearts and minds for many decades.

On the other hand, if the United States abandons the remaining dictators, especially King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, the administration may face unrelenting criticism from the U.S. business lobby. Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC have a large share of the global oil and liquefied-gas market (Qatar), and disruptions would have a much greater impact on global markets than anything we have seen. The GCC is a vast market for U.S. arms exports, with pending multiyear sales of over $60 billion to Saudi Arabia alone. It is a significant market for other U.S. exports as well and has important financial relations with the all-powerful U.S. financial industry, with about $1.5 trillion in sovereign wealth funds. 

The U.S. energy industry, the arms industry, the financial industry and the many influential lobbyists on the direct payroll of GCC rulers afford these dictators enormous political clout in Washington. They will not go quietly. King Abdullah has already made his views known: he had offered to make up the U.S. financial support to Mubarak if the now-former Egyptian president lost U.S. support; he denigrated all protesters as traitors and enemies of Islam; and most recently, on March 6, he outlawed all demonstrations in Saudi Arabia. What will the Obama administration do when faced with increasing protests in Saudi Arabia? What will Washington’s response be when widespread demonstrations erupt demanding an end to Al-Saud plunder, injustice and corruption?

The GCC rulers may still have a very remote chance of saving themselves if they undertake unprecedented reforms now: (i) irreversible steps toward constitutional monarchy, (ii) transformation of the economy to use oil for the benefit of all generations equitably, and (iii) real economic reforms that include efficient institutions and the rule of law. This is a difficult package for absolute rulers to embrace. There is no reason to believe that the Al-Sauds would adopt such change; small concessions à la Mubarak's original offerings would make matters even worse.

America cast its die with its strong rhetoric in support of the demonstrators calling first for the ouster of Mubarak and now Gaddafi. Whether or not the United States realizes it, there is no going back. Washington can no longer support the dictators of the Persian Gulf. Across the region demonstrators believe they hold a license to protest signed by the United States. The United States no longer determines events and has little choice but to act in support of the aspirations of the people. Arabs will overthrow their dictators. Once Saudi Arabia erupts, and it will, the Iranian youth will follow. There will be hiccups in the next few years and the changing of the guard will not be orderly. But what will follow will not be the Middle East with radical “Islamist” governments that pundits keep warning us about. The United States could win the hearts and minds of the Middle East by sticking to the current script, or it could become totally irrelevant if it gets cold feet and tries to backpedal. Amazingly, we may witness a total transformation of the Middle East with little intervention from the United States and other foreign powers, and with no American bloodshed. A first of sorts and in the Middle East, too!