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.
The Middle East Is On The Boil
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