America Must Change its Expectations in the Middle East
News that the proposed Syrian ceasefire has fallen apart, that the Muslim Brotherhood has put forth a candidate for the presidency in Egypt, that challenges to the new government in Tunisia have already arisen, that there remains a risk of civil war in Libya, and that there is a good chance Israel may unilaterally bomb Iran later this year should not be much of a surprise to those Middle East foreign policy pundits who mix a good dose of realism in with any grand illusions about what the future holds for the region.
The trouble is, some foreign policy wonks in the U.S. still cling to the notion that in spite of everything that has happened over the past 15 months in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), it will be possible to continue with business as usual — attempting to intervene in the domestic affairs of other nations and dispersing foreign aid in return for influence in the policy making decisions of the region’s governments.
Lost in this ‘olde world’ delusion is a recognition of America’s declining popularity and influence in the region, the increasing complexity of the political and economic landscape, and the political apathy and war weariness on the part of the American people.
The ‘new’ MENA is a cauldron of competing political forces (unleashed by ‘democracy’), armed militant/opposition groups, and the rise of extremist Islamists, who have managed to capture the imagination of voters through a combination of fulfilling basic needs not met by governments, effective political campaigning, and sheer demagoguery. Far from declining, political, economic, and socio-cultural risk has risen exponentially since the political change spawned by the Arab Spring came about.
Given this, what is required from America is an acknowledgment that the landscape and rules have changed, along with a willingness to embrace that change, rather than try to influence or reject it. That model has been firmly opposed by the new governments in the region — evidenced most decisively recently by Egypt, with regard to the detention of the American NGO workers. That kind of brazen act would of course never have occurred under Mubarak, under the ‘old’ model. If the U.S. needed some kind of ‘guide’ for what the future looks like — that, along with current events in Syria — is it. The genie is out of the bottle, and the results may be seen by all. We have collectively created a monster that cannot be controlled.
A good place to start, on the road to ‘recognition,’ is to acknowledge that the pendulum has tipped firmly in favor of Mr. Assad and that arming the groups opposed to him can only lead to much more bloodshed and a prolonged conflict with an uncertain outcome. Having failed to act early — really in any capacity — the window of opportunity is now gone.
What would be wrong with admitting that? Can anyone honestly imagine a sensible, favorable, timely outcome by arming the opposition groups? Would anyone honestly argue that the possibility of an Islamist extremist regime that could replace Mr. Assad on Europe’s doorstep is worth the risk of an even bloodier regime change? Is the US prepared to be drawn into another war in the region, should that occur? Is an uncertain regime change in Syria in Israel’s long-term interest?
I find myself wondering who in the foreign policy establishment in Washington is asking these types of questions and whether U.S. policymakers are seriously considering them when foreign policy is being formulated. If not, they need to start, in my opinion. America cannot, and should not, attempt to fight every battle and right every wrong, but it can and should attempt to influence scenarios that have a reasonable chance of success for the desired outcome.
In neither Syria nor Iran is that likely to occur. I am no apologist for either regime, but I do not see how the current approach in Syria, or the continuing attempt to change the behavior of the Iranian government with respect to its nuclear program, are likely to succeed.