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The Middle East Is On The Boil

Time has often seemed to stand still in the Middle East.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict ground on at a glacial pace.  Kemalist Turkey, Mubarak’s Egypt, Assad’s Syria: little changed from year to year.

This was a survival of the Cold War political system.  Since the French Revolution, world politics has been a combination of a roller coaster ride and a kaleidoscope.  There were ups and downs and wild lunges; and the patterns kept changing as countries broke up with old friends and made new allies.

During the Cold War, history slowed down.  The overarching US-Soviet rivalry froze the world into stasis; change came only slowly.  No country left NATO to join the Warsaw Pact or vice versa; the diplomatic agenda changed relatively little from year to year — or even from decade to decade.

With the end of the Cold War, history began to return to a “normal” velocity.  Countries got frisky; France has fallen in and out with both the United States and Germany several times since 1989.  The rise of China and India transforms the international scene in a way that was common before 1945 but rare during the Cold War.

2011 is the year when the thaw reached the Middle East — or at least North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.  Turkey has unveiled a new vision of itself and its place in the world; nobody knows what will happen in Egypt and Syria.  Israel has felt the ground move under its feet; it is too soon to tell but it is likely that new regional realities will force the deepest strategic rethink on Israel since the 1967 war.

Interestingly, the thaw has not yet reached the part of the region where the US has the most vital interests; the Gulf states remain much as they were, both in terms of their internal political structure and in terms of their foreign policy.  That will not last forever, though as long as the danger from Iran persists those countries are unlikely to make dramatic changes.

It is much too soon to know what the new dynamics of the Middle East mean for American foreign policy.  But foreign policy experts from older generations (and yes, Boomers, that includes you) are likely to struggle to come to grips with fundamental change in a region they thought they understood well.  Just as most American Soviet experts failed to foresee the fall of the USSR or analyze clearly how the new situation would affect American interests, so many Middle East hands failed to see how much could change so quickly in places like Egypt and Turkey.  A foreign policy apparatus that is used to a slow moving region will have to develop new instincts and new ideas to deal with new realities.

The new Middle East is going to cause some difficult moments for American policymakers, especially as they juggle our relationship with Israel and our other commitments and interests.  But on the whole a more dynamic and pluralistic Middle East is probably a net plus for the United States.  Our core interest in the region is that (other than ourselves) no other power acquires the ability to block the flow of oil from the Gulf to the world.  The rise of many dynamic and competing power centers in the region means that we have to dance faster and more skillfully, but it also makes the emergence of a balance of power that secures our basic interests more likely.

America is a minimalist power; we love elegant solutions to long term American foreign policy problems like the EU.  There, Europeans have embraced centuries old American goals as their own (no single country to dominate the continent, democracy, rule based open trade); although the current economic crisis is a problem, Europe mostly runs itself from an American point of view.  Ideally, Americans would like to see the same thing in other regions: South and East Asia and the Middle East in particular.

This is the prize that American policymakers need to keep in view going forward.  The goal is not to maximize American dominance, but to do what we can to steer the region towards a pattern of development that is broadly compatible with our global vision.  Assertions of American power may from time to time be necessary in this volatile and vital part of the world, but on the whole our interest is to help a new Middle East emerge.  The old one, after all, was not particularly nice.

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  • Toni

    In my lifetime there’s been the G.H.W. Bush “realist” school which counted MidEast stability as America’s supreme interest in the region, and the G.W. Bush “export democracy” school. Stability is no longer an option, and the Arab Spring seems to portend nations choosing their own form of government.

    Meanwhile, might the war-weary American electorate, consumed with its own economic and fiscal troubles, develop a bent for neo-isolationism?

    The sole constant is Arab and Persian hostility toward Israel and its continued existence.

  • Robert Speirs

    The trend in the Middle East may be “dynamic” but it is hardly “pluralistic”. The movement is towards authoritarian Islam, a typical “hunkering down” response to the continuing failure of the region to develop economically and produce well-educated, rational and sane citizens.

  • Anthony

    As an American Foreign Policy expert says “The United States must stand for values and freedoms that make sense not only to ourselves but to our partners and friends around the world” ie, Middle East.

    As we seek to build/maintain a sustainable global system in an era of accelerating change, American policymakers need to refashion century old American foreign policy goals (elegant or not) to our post cold war world and its tensions and contradictions – the world is much more complicated than it used to be (post 1945).

  • Steve

    A related question is whether the US diplomatic and policy making structure is well suited to deal with such a dynamic and rapidly shifting environemnt.

    Would be interesting to hear Prof. Mead’s ideas, as much of the machinery of the US foreign policy system was built in a very bureaucratic way that much like the other great (and greatly clunky) post-war bureaucracies. That worked in the stable cold war era, but may no longer be nimble enough.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Meanwhile, might the war-weary American electorate, consumed with its own economic and fiscal troubles, develop a bent for neo-isolationism?

    Not so much as a lending-weary China might stop financing American debt, reducing defense expenditures and creating an opening for more expansive Chinese presence in MENA. It’s a global village now. Complete with adolescents.

  • A
  • Kris

    A (#6):

    So if the good ol’ Turki pays lip service to the Palestinian Arab cause, we should heel, even if it means going against our ally Israel. But when (as per Wikileaks), King Abdullah and others were imploring us to strike Iran…

  • Kris

    “The Middle East Is On The Boil”

    Lance it.

  • megapotamus

    The region needs an unholy war waged against those who wage Holy War. Israel has fought and defeated their arab/muslim antagonists a half-dozen times so why do the same things keep recurring? Simple. When the Israelis have their enemies at their feet the US and so-called international community come and prevent the fatal stroke. The anti-semites and jihadis, largely overlapping, need a public military defeat that includes massive casualties, apocalyptic damage to their infrastructure and an explicit demonstration that Islam is a dead end, literally. Israel needs to take the initiative and make vicious unrelenting war on Egypt, Iran and any number of others, basically any politicial institution that advocates jew eradication, which is most all of them, potentially including Iraqi groups though not yet their government. Too much for you? Doesn’t matter. Anything less only emboldens the hardest of the jihadis and gives them time to arm and expand. As for the “liberalizers” in place in these nations they have one out. They must make war on the jihadis. No easy thing but even the most foolish Egyptian reformer must know that their heads are on the block BEFORE Israel’s. Of course Israel and the US should aid in the fight but any hint of islamism makes this a non-starter, so a Catch-22. Unholy war on the holy warriors. This is the only path. We could do it now with relative ease. Tomorrow, not so much.

  • Ellen

    The certainty in the Middle East is that the nations and peoples have been brought up to hate Israel, the US, and each other. They will probably continue to hate.

    All we can hope for is that people take over who think it’s too much work to kill Israel and the US. They will continue to kill each other, of course, as they have throughout recorded history. But that is their bona-fide cultural heritage, and hardly our business.

  • PacRim Jim

    The West is leaving Israel with two equally unpalatable choices: Surrender or use nuclear weapons. The first choice being unthinkable, better start digging, enemies of Israel.

  • anon

    # 6 & 7,

    A similar grand gesture by Saudi Arabia would be to recognize Israel without preconditions.
    Care to comment on how likely that is?

    The real issue is whether or not the current rulers of Turkey are crazy. We know
    they are sincere.

    But do the really want to risk a naval
    battle off Israeli shores?

    Do they have an aircraft carrier they
    haven’t told anyone about?

    Perhaps they haven’t gotten the word yet about the Repulse and The Prince of Wales with no air cover vs. land based bombers?
    3 frigates vs. the IAF = many dead Turkish

  • Pat D

    The Arab Spring is rapidly turning into Radical Islam’s victory, courtesy of Barack Obama,

  • SukieTawdry

    No, the old ME was not particularly nice. And the new one is not likely to be either.

    Sure we’d love to see the new ME “emerge” with an American point of view and a “pattern of development that is broadly compatible with our global vision.” Not gonna happen. We westerners have to stop kidding ourselves that we understand the region or its peoples because we don’t and, with rare exception, never have.

  • Jay

    The new MENA is emerging, but for certain players in Iran, Turkey, and Egypr that means a chance to bring back the old caliphate

    al-q’s phased plan is still relevant after all

  • boqueronman

    Oy vey! More Ivory Tower ruminations from the chattering class about how “we can to steer the region towards a pattern of development that is broadly compatible with our global vision.” And this sentence almost immediately follows this contradictory declaration: “the rise of many dynamic and competing power centers in the region.” So what’s being said here, that there will be regional power centers, but they won’t be powerful enough to prevent Big Power manipulation?

    No, for those interested in the current state of the ME I suggest a visit to any of David Goldman’s (aka Spengler) writings on the subject. Here is a small part of his latest on Egypt:

    “The misnamed “Arab Spring,” really a convulsion of a dying society, began with food shortages. Egypt imports half its caloric consumption, 45% of its people are illiterate, its university graduates are unemployable, its $10 billion a year tourism industry is shuttered for the duration, and its foreign exchange reserves are gradually disappearing. In August, the central bank’s reported reserves fell below what the bank calls the “danger level” of six months’ import coverage.” And he goes on to point out that a good portion of that reserve consists of other ME state loans.

    And what will then transpire in the foreseeable future? “Western economists can concoct all the economic recovery plans in the world, but a country that can’t teach half its people to read, and can’t produce employable university graduates, and can’t feed itself, is going to go down the drain… After sixty years of such abuse [by tyrannical misrule], Egypt simply can’t get there from here.

    Goldman predicts “a humanitarian catastrophe that makes Somalia look like a picnic.” To me it seems the “Arab Spring” shares certain important characteristics with the fall of USSR-style communism. Most importantly the over-educated foreign policy “bien pensant” had no clue as to what was coming. What is coming is likely to be a profound societal and economic shake-out of the region. The U.S. and its experts had little or no influence on the evolution of Russia to its present state. They will have even less influence in a xenophobic ME.

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