Hussein Ibish

A new Arab morning… for America

It’s hard to think of a type of crisis the Obama administration has not faced during the past two years.
President Barack Obama inherited a pair of difficult wars and a financial meltdown from the Bush administration. Toss in a major environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and you get a sense of the kind of chaos a young, relatively inexperienced president has had to cope with in the first half of his term. However, Obama has been successful in drawing down the Iraq war and redefining the strategy in Afghanistan, and the American economy appears to be slowly clawing itself away from the abyss.
But now, with the entire Arab world aflame, Obama has just been handed the most far-reaching foreign policy challenge – and opportunity – the United States has faced since the end of the Cold War. Anti-government protests are underway in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Mauritania, Djibouti and Morocco. There are rumblings in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. And things are starting to heat up again in Egypt and Tunisia, where it all began.
For decades the US has based its foreign policy in the Middle East on maintaining stability, above all, and preserving the status quo. Washington has been guided by perceived core interests: ensuring that the US remains the sole regional superpower, securing the flow and pricing of energy resources, and a commitment to Israel’s security. The George W. Bush administration toyed with the idea of introducing a “freedom agenda” into US policy toward the Arab world, even releasing a “Greater Middle East Initiative” document outlining this.
But the Bush administration’s approach was badly flawed. The Greater Middle East Initiative was drafted without Arab input, and was slated to be unveiled at a multilateral meeting at which no Arab state would have been present. Even Arab reformers for the most part viewed the document with deep suspicion. It smacked too much of a neocolonial dictate, was premised on an unrealistic one-size-fits-all model, and ignored the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. This occupation has created as undemocratic an order as can be imagined – involving the rule of millions of noncitizens by a foreign army. As long as it persists, the US will be unable to lecture Arabs credibly on democracy.
The Greater Middle East Initiative was more than anything else a product of the intoxication of the short “mission accomplished” period before the Iraqi insurgency began in earnest. The chaos that ensued in Iraq ended any possibility that policies would be based on the freedom agenda or the stillborn initiative. Even under the Bush administration, tension between the short-term interests of the US in energy, stability and Israeli security; and long-term interests through the promotion of democracy, human rights and better relations with Arab populations rather than regimes, was, as always, decided in favor of the former.
Now the Obama administration – which has placed enormous emphasis on repairing relations with governments, promoting stability and seeking regional agreements – is confronted with a sudden, unexpected and uncontrolled outpouring of popular Arab anger and rejection of the status quo, both domestically and regionally. The problem is that American interests haven’t changed, but American calculations have to, and quickly. The US will have to deal with the outcome of a wave of popularly-driven demands for change that could be threatening to its short-term interests, but should very well serve the long-term interests.
The challenge for the US is to be seen as unequivocally taking the side of the Arab peoples even when it comes to pressuring long-standing allies. Otherwise, there is every danger that change will be both out of American control and hostile to American interests.
In truth, the US has a limited ability to influence what happens in most Arab states. However, the wisest course for Washington is to issue bold statements and use whatever leverage it has, even when this is more symbolic than practical, to demonstrate a real commitment to Arab democracy and reform in spite of potential risks to short-term American interests. This is happening, whether the US or the West likes it or not. It is futile to try holding back the waves like an impotent King Canute, or stand on the sidelines issuing vague statements to the effect of, “We may or may not be trying to have it both ways.”
Obviously, American interests haven’t changed, and they still center on energy, stability, American power and influence, and Israeli security. But the best way to secure these interests is to do everything possible to avoid being seen as the guarantor of domestic and regional orders that are plainly anathema to the Arab peoples in general.
American influence can no longer be secured through military might alone, and the US is hardly in a position to start writing checks either. The best approach for the US to secure its interests in the long-term and ensure that the new Arab order is as friendly as possible to American concerns is to embrace Arab change. Washington must place itself squarely on the side of the Arab peoples’ demands for democracy, inclusivity, good governance and accountability.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.

  • Sami

    Abbas,One can not conduct free elections and write a constitution under occupation lest you think that the elections of Basheer and Ameen under the Israeli occupation was free and democratic.I read three points in your comments:1-The Arab masses are not ignorant(as if I said they were)2-All regimes are nervous.3-Masses do not want long lasting regimes.Please read my comments,where do I contradict your three points?Is it "neatly packaged" to note that all those who are "happy" about the dictator's fall NOW,have never either predicted it nor ever opposed those same dictators?

    March 2, 2011

  • Abbas Fawaz

    Mohammed Fawaz, not everything in this world is as neatly packaged as you make it to be. As you are doing now many observers were predicting a major win for the pro-Iranian parties in the 2010 Iraqi elections, but as it turned out the pro-Iranian alliance could only finish distant third. Most of the Iraqi people voted for the two moderate blocks who now form the broad coalition government. People are much smarter than you make them to be, they vote on issues rather than according to a narrow ideology. What we are hopefully witnessing is the region is an end to the one party rule and to the 10, 20, 30, 40 year ruler, that's what most people in the streets are calling for. Make no mistake every single regime in the region is nervous.

    March 1, 2011

  • Sami

    2-Now that it looks inevitable that the pro West dictators are falling one after the other,we read comments such as this comment calling for democracy.The only call for democracy coming from Ibish and the West was for democracy in Syria and Iran.They did not see it coming in Egypt or anywhere else.They are helpless in face of a popular uprising unlike in the case of a military coup.The West can buy the military coup financially or can threaten its military leaders by sanctions or another STL.But what can the West threaten the people with, in such case? Both Israel and the West are standing by idly and nervously.Add to this popular revolution the US armies departure from both Iraq and Afghanistan.The Taliban will return to power in Afghanistan and Iran will dominate the Iraqi political scene. The only issue that separates the West from the Arab people's wishes is the Palestinian issue.The West must reassess its policies towards the Palestinians.

    March 1, 2011

  • Sami

    1-"Washington must place itself squarely on the side of the Arab peoples’ demands for democracy, inclusivity, good governance and accountability."It is too late coming after 60 years of anti Arab policies.The American "interests"is to have a dictator in place who will comply when the president of the USA calls him to lower the oil price for example,or to protect the Israeli borders at any human cost as in the case of Gaza.Who would Obama call if the a parliament is in power? Democracy in the Arab world is not advantageous to the USA and to the West at large.Imagine a freely elected Egyptian president,who will certainly, void the Camp David agreement,receiving a call from Obama asking him to close the Rafah crossing because weapons are being smuggled through it to Hamas.Imagine this same Egyptian president receiving a call from Natenyahoo asking him to lower the price of natural gas pumped to Israel.Ibish never wrote a commentary calling king Abdallah, for example, a dictator.

    March 1, 2011