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Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a new series on the national strategies of today’s global power and other regional powers. This installment establishes a framework for understating the current state of the world.
The evolution of geopolitics is cyclical. Powers rise, fall and shift. Changes occur in every generation in an unending ballet. However, the period between 1989 and 1991 was unique in that a long cycle of human history spanning hundreds of years ended, and with it a shorter cycle also came to a close. The world is still reverberating from the events of that period.
On Dec. 25, 1991, an epoch ended. On that day the Soviet Union collapsed, and for the first time in almost 500 years no European power was a global power, meaning no European state integrated economic, military and political power on a global scale. What began in 1492 with Europe smashing its way into the world and creating a global imperial system had ended. For five centuries, one European power or another had dominated the world, whether Portugal, Spain, France, England or the Soviet Union. Even the lesser European powers at the time had some degree of global influence.
After 1991 the only global power left was the United States, which produced about 25 percent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) each year and dominated the oceans. Never before had the United States been the dominant global power. Prior to World War II, American power had been growing from its place at the margins of the international system, but it was emerging on a multipolar stage. After World War II, it found itself in a bipolar world, facing off with the Soviet Union in a struggle in which American victory was hardly a foregone conclusion.
The United States has been the unchallenged global power for 20 years, but its ascendancy has left it off-balance for most of this time, and imbalance has been the fundamental characteristic of the global system in the past generation. Unprepared institutionally or psychologically for its position, the United States has swung from an excessive optimism in the 1990s that held that significant conflict was at an end to the wars against militant Islam after 9/11, wars that the United States could not avoid but also could not integrate into a multilayered global strategy. When the only global power becomes obsessed with a single region, the entire world is unbalanced. Imbalance remains the defining characteristic of the global system today.
While the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the European epoch, it also was the end of the era that began in 1945, and it was accompanied by a cluster of events that tend to accompany generational shifts. The 1989-1991 period marked the end of the Japanese economic miracle, the first time the world had marveled at an Asian power’s sustained growth rate as the same power’s financial system crumbled. The end of the Japanese miracle and the economic problem of integrating East and West Germany both changed the way the global economy worked. The 1991 Maastricht Treaty set the stage for Europe’s attempt at integration and was the framework for Europe in the post-Cold War world. Tiananmen Square set the course for China in the next 20 years and was the Chinese answer to a collapsing Soviet empire. It created a structure that allowed for economic development but assured the dominance of the Communist Party. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was designed to change the balance of power in the Persian Gulf after the Iraq-Iran war and tested the United States’ willingness to go to war after the Cold War.
In 1989-1991 the world changed the way it worked, whether measured in centuries or generations. It was an extraordinary period whose significance is only now emerging. It locked into place a long-term changing of the guard, where North America replaced Europe as the center of the international system. But generations come and go, and we are now in the middle of the first generational shift since the collapse of the European powers, a shift that began in 2008 but is only now working itself out in detail.
What happened in 2008 was one of the financial panics that the global capitalist system periodically suffers. As is frequently the case, these panics first generate political crises within nations, followed by changes in the relations among nations. Of these changes, three in particular are of importance, two of which are directly linked to the 2008 crisis. The first is the European financial crisis and its transformation into a political crisis. The second is the Chinese export crisis and its consequences. The third, indirectly linked to 2008, is the shift in the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Iran.
The European Crisis
The European crisis represents the single most significant event that followed from the financial collapse of 2008. The vision of the European Union was that an institution that would bind France and Germany together would make the wars that had raged in Europe since 1871 impossible. The vision also assumed that economic integration would both join France and Germany together and create the foundations of a prosperous Europe. Within the context of Maastricht as it evolved, the European vision assumed that the European Union would become a way to democratize and integrate the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe into a single framework.
However, embedded in the idea of the European Union was the idea that Europe could at some point transcend nationalism and emerge as a United States of Europe, a single political federation with a constitution and a unified foreign and domestic policy. It would move from a free trade zone to a unified economic system to a single currency and then to further political integration built around the European Parliament, allowing Europe to emerge as a single country.
Long before this happened, of course, people began to speak of Europe as if it were a single entity. Regardless of the modesty of formal proposals, there was a powerful vision of an integrated European polity. There were two foundations for it. One was the apparent economic and social benefits of a united Europe. The other was that this was the only way that Europe could make its influence felt in the international system. Individually, the European states were not global players, but collectively they had the ability to become just that. In the post-Cold War world, where the United States was the sole and unfettered global power, this was an attractive opportunity.
The European vision was smashed in the aftermath of 2008, when the fundamental instability of the European experiment revealed itself. That vision was built around Germany, the world’s second-largest exporter, but Europe’s periphery remained too weak to weather the crisis. It was not so much this particular crisis; Europe was not built to withstand any financial crisis. Sooner or later one would come and the unity of Europe would be severely strained as each nation, driven by different economic and social realities, maneuvered in its own interest rather than in the interest of Europe.
There is no question that the Europe of 2012 operates in a very different way than it did in 2007. There is an expectation in some parts that Europe will, in due course, return to its old post-Cold War state, but that is unlikely. The underlying contradictions of the European enterprise are now revealed, and while some European entity will likely survive, it probably will not resemble the Europe envisioned by Maastricht, let alone the grander visions of a United States of Europe. Thus, the only potential counterweight to the United States will not emerge in this generation.
China and the Asian Model
China was similarly struck by the 2008 crisis. Apart from the inevitably cyclical nature of all economies, the Asian model, as seen in Japan and then in 1997 in East and Southeast Asia, provides for prolonged growth followed by profound financial dislocation. Indeed, growth rates do not indicate economic health. Just as it was for Europe, the 2008 financial crisis was the trigger for China.
China’s core problem is that more than a billion people live in households earning less than $6 a day, and the majority of those earn less than $3 a day. Social tensions aside, the economic consequence is that China’s large industrial plant outstrips Chinese consumer demand. As a result, China must export. However, the recessions after 2008 cut heavily into China’s exports, severely affecting GDP growth and threatening the stability of the political system. China confronted the problem with a massive surge in bank lending, driving new investment and supporting GDP growth but also fueling rampant inflation. Inflation created upward pressure on labor costs until China began to lose its main competitive advantage over other countries.
For a generation, Chinese growth has been the engine of the global economic system, just as Japan was in the previous generation. China is not collapsing any more than Japan did. However, it is changing its behavior, and with it the behavior of the international system.
If we look at the international system as having three major economic engines, two of them — Europe and China — are changing their behavior to be less assertive and less influential in the international system. The events of 2008 did not create these changes; they merely triggered processes that revealed the underlying weaknesses of these two entities.
Somewhat outside the main processes of the international system, the Middle East is undergoing a fundamental shift in its balance of power. The driver in this is not the crisis of 2008 but the consequences of the U.S. was in the region and their termination. With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has emerged as the major conventional power in the Persian Gulf and the major influence over Iraq. In addition, with the continued survival of the al Assad regime in Syria through the support of Iran, there is the potential for Iranian influence to stretch from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea. Even if the al Assad regime fell, Iran would still be well-positioned to assert its claims for primacy in the Persian Gulf.
Just as the processes unleashed in 1989-1991 defined the next 20 years, so, too, will the processes that are being generated now dominate the next generation. Still powerful but acutely off-balance in its domestic and foreign policies, the United States is confronting a changing world without yet having a clear understanding of how to deal with this world or, for that matter, how the shifts in the global system will affect it. For the United States strategically, the fragmentation of Europe, the transformation of global production in the wake of the Chinese economy’s climax, and the dramatically increased power of Iran appear as abstract events not directly affecting the United States.
Each of these events will create dangers and opportunities for the United States that it is unprepared to manage. The fragmentation of Europe raises the question of the future of Germany and its relationship with Russia. The movement of production to low-wage countries will create booms in countries hitherto regarded as beyond help (as China was in 1980) and potential zones of instability created by rapid and uneven growth. And, of course, the idea that the Iranian issue can be managed through sanctions is a form of denial rather than a strategy.
Three major areas of the world are in flux: Europe, China and the Persian Gulf. Every country in the world will have to devise a strategy to deal with the new reality, just as 1989-1991 required new strategies. The most important country, the United States, had no strategy after 1991 and has no strategy today. This is the single most important reality of the world. Like the Spaniards, who, in the generation after Columbus’ voyage, lacked a clear sense of the reality they had created, Americans have no clear sense of the world they find themselves in. This fact continues to define how the world works.
Therefore, we next turn to American strategy in the next 20 years and consider how it will reshape itself.
While the continuing public dialogue is one of concern over Nuclear armaments for Iran, it is as yet unclear how far China or Russia will go in the defense of Iran.
I have a sense that there are already military and/or civil assets from both China and Russia in Iran, and that any unilateral military action by Israel or USA will lead to a significant escalation. I also suspect that Washington is aware of this and will not move to take such action.
Ultimately I am concerned that the ‘action’ is more likely directed at the US population and that any ‘incident’ will be used as provocation to eliminate further civil liberties within the USA.
Iranian oil will move to India and China using gold for settlements.
Expect this to cause GOLD to have more upwards pressures and the demand for US dollars to decrease.
Considering a U.S.-Iranian Deal
By George Friedman
Last week, I wrote on the strategic challenge Iran faces in its bid to shape a sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to Beirut on the eastern Mediterranean coast. I also pointed out the limited options available to the United States and other Western powers to counter Iran.
One was increased efforts to block Iranian influence in Syria. The other was to consider a strategy of negotiation with Iran. In the past few days, we have seen hints of both.
Rebel Gains in Syria
The city of Zabadani in southwestern Syria reportedly has fallen into the hands of anti-regime forces. Though the city does not have much tactical value for the rebels, and the regime could well retake it, the event could have real significance. Up to this point, apart from media attention, the resistance to the regime of President Bashar al Assad has not proven particularly effective. It was certainly not able to take and hold territory, which is critical for any insurgency to have significance.
Now that the rebels have taken Zabadani amid much fanfare — even though it is not clear to what extent the city was ceded to their control, much less whether they will be able to hold it against Syrian military action — a small bit of Syria now appears to be under rebel control. The longer they can hold it, the weaker al Assad will look and the more likely it becomes that regime opponents can create a provisional government on Syrian soil to rally around.
Zabadani also gives outside powers something to help defend, should they choose to do so. Intervening in a civil war against weak and diffused rebels is one thing. Attacking Syrian tanks moving to retake Zabadani is quite another. There are no indications that this is under consideration, but for the first time, there is the potential for a militarily viable target set for outside players acting on behalf of the rebels. The existence of that possibility might change the dynamic in Syria. When we take into account the atmospherics of the Arab League demands for a provisional government, some meaningful pressure might actually emerge.
From the Iranian point of view, this raises the risk that the sphere of influence Tehran is pursuing will be blocked by the fall of the al Assad regime. This would not pose a fundamental challenge to Iran, so long as its influence in Iraq remains intact, but it would represent a potential high-water mark in Iranian ambitions. It could open the door to recalculations in Tehran as to the limits of Iranian influence and the threat to their national security. I must not overstate this: Events in Syria have not gone that far, and Iran is hardly backed into a corner. Still, it is a reminder to Tehran that all might not go the Iranians’ way.
A Possibility of Negotiations
It is in this context that the possibility of negotiations has arisen. The Iranians have claimed that the letter the U.S. administration sent to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that defined Iran’s threats to Strait of Hormuz as a red line contained a second paragraph offering direct talks with Iran. After hesitation, the United States denied the offer of talks, but it did not deny it had sent a message to the Iranian leadership. The Iranians then claimed such an offer was made verbally to Tehran and not in the letter. Washington again was not categorical in its denial. On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a meeting with the German foreign minister, “We do not seek conflict. We strongly believe the people of Iran deserve a better future. They can have that future, the country can be reintegrated into the global community … when their government definitively turns away from pursuing nuclear weapons.”
From our perspective, this is a critical idea. As we have said for several years, we do not see Iran as close to having a nuclear weapon. They may be close to being able to test a crude nuclear device under controlled circumstances (and we don’t know this either), but the development of a deliverable nuclear weapon poses major challenges for Iran.
Moreover, while the Iranians may aspire to a deterrent via a viable nuclear weapons capability, we do not believe the Iranians see nuclear weapons as militarily useful. A few such weapons could devastate Israel, but Iran would be annihilated in retaliation. While the Iranians talk aggressively, historically they have acted cautiously. For Iran, nuclear weapons are far more valuable as a notional threat and bargaining chip than as something to be deployed. Indeed, the ideal situation is not quite having a weapon, and therefore not forcing anyone to act against them, but seeming close enough to be taken seriously. They certainly have achieved that.
The important question, therefore, is this: What would the United States offer if Iran made meaningful concessions on its nuclear program, and what would Iran want in return? In other words, forgetting the nuclear part of the equation, what did Hillary Clinton mean when she said that Iran can be reintegrated into the international community, and what would Iran actually want?
Recall that in our view, nuclear weapons never have been the issue. Instead, the issue has been the development of an Iranian sphere of influence following the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq, and the pressure Iran could place on oil-producing states on the Arabian Peninsula. Iran has long felt that its natural role as leader in the Persian Gulf has been thwarted, first by the Ottomans, then the British and now by the Americans, and they have wanted to create what they regard as the natural state of things.
The United States and its allies do not want Iran to get nuclear weapons. But more than that, they do not want to see Iran as the dominant conventional force in the area able to use its influence to undermine the Saudis. With or without nuclear weapons, the United States must contain the Iranians to protect their Saudi allies. But the problem is that Iran is not contained in Syria yet, and even were it contained in Syria, it is not contained in Iraq. Iran has broken out of its containment in a decisive fashion, and its ability to exert pressure in Arabia is substantial.
Assume for the moment that Iran was willing to abandon its nuclear program. What would the United States give in return? Obviously, Clinton would like to offer an end to the sanctions. But the sanctions on Iran are simply not that onerous with the Russians and Chinese not cooperating and the United States being forced to allow the Japanese and others not to participate fully. But it goes deeper.
Iran’s Historic Opportunity
This is a historic opportunity for Iran. It is the first moment in which no outside power is in a direct position to block Iran militarily or politically. Whatever the pain of sanctions, trading that moment for lifting the sanctions would not be rational. The threat of Iranian influence is the problem, and Iran would not trade that influence for an end to sanctions. So assuming the nuclear issue was to go away, what exactly is the United States prepared to offer?
The United States has assured access to oil from the Persian Gulf — not only for itself, but also for the global industrial world — since World War II. It does not want to face a potential interruption of oil for any reason, like the one that occurred in 1973. Certainly, as Iran expands its influence, the possibility of conflict increases, along with the possibility that the United States would intervene to protect its allies in Arabia from Iranian-sponsored subversion or even direct attack. The United States does not want to intervene in the region. It does not want an interruption of oil. It also does not want an extension of Iranian power. It is not clear that Washington can have all three.
Iran wants three things, too.
First, it wants the United States to reduce its presence in the Persian Gulf dramatically. Having seen two U.S. interventions against Iraq and one against Afghanistan, Iran is aware of U.S. power and the way American political sentiment can shift. It experienced the shift from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, so it knows how fast things can change. Tehran sees the United States in the Persian Gulf coupled with U.S. and Israeli covert operations and destabilization campaigns as an unpredictable danger to Iranian national security.
Second, the Iranians want to be recognized as the leading power in the region. This does not mean they intend to occupy any nation directly. It does mean that Iran doesn’t want Saudi Arabia, for example, to pose a military threat against it.
Third, Iran wants a restructuring of oil revenue in the region. How this is formally achieved — whether by allowing Iranian investment in Arabian oil companies (possibly financed by the host country) or some other means — is unimportant. What does matter is that the Iranians want a bigger share of the region’s vast financial resources.
The United States doesn’t want a conflict with Iran. Iran doesn’t want one with the United States. Neither can be sure how such a conflict would play out. The Iranians want to sell oil. The Americans want the West to be able to buy oil. The issue really comes down to whether the United States wants to guarantee the flow of oil militarily or via a political accommodation with the country that could disrupt the flow of oil — namely, Iran. That in turn raises two questions. First, could the United States trust Iran? And second, could it live with withdrawing the American protectorate on the Arabian Peninsula, casting old allies adrift?
When we listen to the rhetoric of American and Iranian politicians, it is difficult to imagine trust between them. But when we recall the U.S. alliance with Stalin and Mao or the Islamic republic’s collaboration with the Soviet Union, we find rhetoric is a very poor guide. Nations pursue their national interest, and while those interests are never eternal, they can be substantial. From a purely rhetorical point of view it is not always easy to tell which sides’ politicians are more colorful. It will be difficult to sell an alliance between the Great Satan and a founding member of the Axis of Evil to the respective public of each country, but harder things have been managed.
Iran’s ultimate interest is security against the United States and the ability to sell oil at a more substantial profit. (This would entail an easing of sanctions and a redefinition of how oil revenues in the region are distributed.) The United States’ ultimate interest is access to oil and manageable prices that do not require American military intervention. On that basis, Iranian and American interests are not that far apart.
The Arabian Factor and a Possible Accommodation
The key point in this scenario is the future of U.S. relations with the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Any deal between Iran and the United States affects them two ways. First, the reduction of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf requires them to reach an accommodation with the Iranians, something difficult and potentially destabilizing for them. Second, the shift in the financial flow will hurt them and probably will not be the final deal. Over time, the Iranians will use their strengthened position in the region to continue pushing for additional concessions from them.
There is always danger in abandoning allies. Other allies might be made uncomfortable, for example. But these things have happened before. Abandoning old allies for the national interest is not something the United States invented. The idea that the United States should find money flowing to the Saudis inherently more attractive than money flowing to the Iranians is not obvious.
The main question for the United States is how Iran might be contained. The flow of money will strengthen Iran, and it might seek to extend its power beyond what is tolerable to the United States. There are potential answers. First, the United States can always return to the region. The Iranians do not see the Americans as weak, but rather as unpredictable. Challenging the United States after Iran has achieved its historic goal is not likely. Second, no matter how Iran grows, it is far behind Turkey by every measure. Turkey is not ready to play an active role balancing Iran now, but in the time it takes Iran to consolidate its position, Turkey will be a force that will balance and eventually contain Iran. In the end, a deal will come down to one that profits both sides and clearly defines the limits of Iranian power — limits that it is in Iran’s interest to respect given that it is profiting mightily from the deal.
Geopolitics leads in one direction. Ideology leads in another direction. The ability to trust one another is yet a third. At the same time, the Iranians cannot be sure of what the United States is prepared to do. The Americans do not want to go to war with Iran. Both want oil flowing, and neither cares about nuclear weapons as much as they pretend. Finally, no one else really matters in this deal. The Israelis are not as hardline on Iran as they appear, nor will the United States listen to Israel on a matter fundamental to the global economy. In the end, absent nuclear weapons, Israel does not have that much of a problem with Iran.
It would not surprise me to find out that the United States offered direct talks, nor to discover that Clinton’s comments could not be extended to a more extensive accommodation. Nor do I think that Iran would miss a chance for an historic transformation of its strategic and financial position in favor of ideology. They are much too cynical for that. The great losers would be the Saudis, but even they could come around to a deal that, while less satisfactory than they have now, is still quite satisfactory.
There are many blocks in the way of such a deal, from ideology to distrust to domestic politics. But given the knot that is being tied in the region, rumors that negotiations are being floated come as no surprise. Syria might not go the way Iran wants, and Iraq is certainly not going the way the United States wants. Marriages have been built on less.
”We want Gaddafi gone. And this is non negotiable. Now we are shooting at him; but the purpose of the shooting is to make him back off, not to crush him.”
It would appear that the ‘gone’ in this statement has been accomplished. Now one must wonder at the state of the Libyan people.
Many may posit that a ‘form’ of democracy will take hold, this may yet be the result. This will not be a one-stop-shop though. The issues that drove Gaddafi from office remain and the struggle over the spoils in Libya has only just begun.
The sense that more political and economic struggle remains is clear, as is the likelihood that this situation on the north African coast is not over nor is it limited to just Libya and Egypt.
Expect the unrest to continue in both Libya and Egypt and for the issues that these people are struggling for to cause further disruptions across north Africa. There are very real dangers for an expansion of a new form of colonial ‘association’ to take hold, there is a definite fear from many that are paying the price in lives and toil now that their efforts will be seconded by others waiting in the wings to hand over the spoils to European or American interests.
U.S. President Barack Obama gave a speech last week on the Middle East. Presidents make many speeches. Some are meant to be taken casually, others are made to address an immediate crisis, and still others are intended to be a statement of broad American policy. As in any country, U.S. presidents follow rituals indicating which category their speeches fall into. Obama clearly intended his recent Middle East speech to fall into the last category, as reflecting a shift in strategy if not the declaration of a new doctrine.
While events in the region drove Obama’s speech, politics also played a strong part, as with any presidential speech. Devising and implementing policy are the president’s job. To do so, presidents must be able to lead — and leading requires having public support. After the 2010 election, I said that presidents who lose control of one house of Congress in midterm elections turn to foreign policy because it is a place in which they retain the power to act. The U.S. presidential campaign season has begun, and the United States is engaged in wars that are not going well. Within this framework, Obama thus sought to make both a strategic and a political speech.
Obama’s War Dilemma
The United States is engaged in a broad struggle against jihadists. Specifically, it is engaged in a war in Afghanistan and is in the terminal phase of the Iraq war.
The Afghan war is stalemated. Following the death of Osama bin Laden, Obama said the Taliban’s forward momentum has been stopped. He did not, however, say that the Taliban are being defeated. Given the state of affairs between the United States and Pakistan following bin Laden’s death, whether the United States can defeat the Taliban remains unclear. It might be able to, but the president must remain open to the possibility that the war will become an extended stalemate.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops are being withdrawn from Iraq, but that does not mean the conflict is over. Instead, the withdrawal has opened the door to Iranian power in Iraq. The Iraqis lack a capable military and security force. Their government is divided and feeble. Meanwhile, the Iranians have had years to infiltrate Iraq. Iranian domination of Iraq would open the door to Iranian power projection throughout the region. Therefore, the United States has proposed keeping U.S. forces in Iraq but has yet to receive Iraq’s approval. If that approval is given (which looks unlikely), Iraqi factions with clout in parliament have threatened to renew the anti-U.S. insurgency.
The United States must therefore consider its actions should the situation in Afghanistan remain indecisive or deteriorate and should Iraq evolve into an Iranian strategic victory. The simple answer — extending the mission in Iraq and increasing forces in Afghanistan — is not viable. The United States could not pacify Iraq with 170,000 troops facing determined opposition, while the 300,000 troops that Chief of Staff of the Army Eric Shinseki argued for in 2003 are not available. Meanwhile, it is difficult to imagine how many troops would be needed to guarantee a military victory in Afghanistan. Such surges are not politically viable, either. After nearly 10 years of indecisive war, the American public has little appetite for increasing troop commitments to either war and has no appetite for conscription.
Obama thus has limited military options on the ground in a situation where conditions in both war zones could deteriorate badly. And his political option — blaming former U.S. President George W. Bush — in due course would wear thin, as Nixon found in blaming Johnson.
The Coalition of the Willing Meets the Arab Spring
For his part, Bush followed a strategy of a coalition of the willing. He understood that the United States could not conduct a war in the region without regional allies, and he therefore recruited a coalition of countries that calculated that radical Islamism represented a profound threat to regime survival. This included Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jordan, and Pakistan. These countries shared a desire to see al Qaeda defeated and a willingness to pool resources and intelligence with the United States to enable Washington to carry the main burden of the war.
This coalition appears to be fraying. Apart from the tensions between the United States and Pakistan, the unrest in the Middle East of the last few months apparently has undermined the legitimacy and survivability of many Arab regimes, including key partners in the so-called coalition of the willing. If these pro-American regimes collapse and are replaced by anti-American regimes, the American position in the region might also collapse.
Obama appears to have reached three conclusions about the Arab Spring:
- It represented a genuine and liberal democratic rising that might replace regimes.
- American opposition to these risings might result in the emergence of anti-American regimes in these countries.
- The United States must embrace the general idea of the Arab risings but be selective in specific cases; thus, it should support the rising in Egypt, but not necessarily in Bahrain.
Though these distinctions may be difficult to justify in intellectual terms, geopolitics is not an abstract exercise. In the real world, supporting regime change in Libya costs the United States relatively little. Supporting an uprising in Egypt could have carried some cost, but not if the military was the midwife to change and is able to maintain control. (Egypt was more an exercise of regime preservation than true regime change.) Supporting regime change in Bahrain, however, would have proved quite costly. Doing so could have seen the United States lose a major naval base in the Persian Gulf and incited spillover Shiite protests in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province.
Moral consistency and geopolitics rarely work neatly together. Moral absolutism is not an option in the Middle East, something Obama recognized. Instead, Obama sought a new basis for tying together the fraying coalition of the willing.
Obama’s Challenge and the Illusory Arab Spring
Obama’s conundrum is that there is still much uncertainty as to whether that coalition would be stronger with current, albeit embattled, regimes or with new regimes that could arise from the so-called Arab Spring. He began to address the problem with an empirical assumption critical to his strategy that in my view is questionable, namely, that there is such a thing as an Arab Spring.
Let me repeat something I have said before: All demonstrations are not revolutions. All revolutions are not democratic revolutions. All democratic revolutions do not lead to constitutional democracy.
The Middle East has seen many demonstrations of late, but that does not make them revolutions. The 300,000 or so demonstrators concentrated mainly in Tahrir Square in Cairo represented a tiny fraction of Egyptian society. However committed and democratic those 300,000 were, the masses of Egyptians did not join them along the lines of what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 and in Iran in 1979. For all the media attention paid to Egypt’s demonstrators, the most interesting thing in Egypt is not who demonstrated, but the vast majority who did not. Instead, a series of demonstrations gave the Egyptian army cover to carry out what was tantamount to a military coup. The president was removed, but his removal would be difficult to call a revolution.
And where revolutions could be said to have occurred, as in Libya, it is not clear they were democratic revolutions. The forces in eastern Libya remain opaque, and it cannot be assumed their desires represent the will of the majority of Libyans — or that the eastern rebels intend to create, or are capable of creating, a democratic society. They want to get rid of a tyrant, but that doesn’t mean they won’t just create another tyranny.
Then, there are revolutions that genuinely represent the will of the majority, as in Bahrain. Bahrain’s Shiite majority rose up against the Sunni royal family, clearly seeking a regime that truly represents the majority. But it is not at all clear that they want to create a constitutional democracy, or at least not one the United States would recognize as such. Obama said each country can take its own path, but he also made clear that the path could not diverge from basic principles of human rights — in other words, their paths can be different, but they cannot be too different. Assume for the moment that the Bahraini revolution resulted in a democratic Bahrain tightly aligned with Iran and hostile to the United States. Would the United States recognize Bahrain as a satisfactory democratic model?
The central problem from my point of view is that the Arab Spring has consisted of demonstrations of limited influence, in non-democratic revolutions and in revolutions whose supporters would create regimes quite alien from what Washington would see as democratic. There is no single vision to the Arab Spring, and the places where the risings have the most support are the places that will be least democratic, while the places where there is the most democratic focus have the weakest risings.
As important, even if we assume that democratic regimes would emerge, there is no reason to believe they would form a coalition with the United States. In this, Obama seems to side with the neoconservatives, his ideological enemies. Neoconservatives argued that democratic republics have common interests, so not only would they not fight each other, they would band together — hence their rhetoric about creating democracies in the Middle East. Obama seems to have bought into this idea that a truly democratic Egypt would be friendly to the United States and its interests. That may be so, but it is hardly self-evident — and this assumes democracy is a real option in Egypt, which is questionable.
Obama addressed this by saying we must take risks in the short run to be on the right side of history in the long run. The problem embedded in this strategy is that if the United States miscalculates about the long run of history, it might wind up with short-term risks and no long-term payoff. Even if by some extraordinary evolution the Middle East became a genuine democracy, it is the ultimate arrogance to assume that a Muslim country would choose to be allied with the United States. Maybe it would, but Obama and the neoconservatives can’t know that.
But to me, this is an intellectual abstraction. There is no Arab Spring, just some demonstrations accompanied by slaughter and extraordinarily vacuous observers. While the pressures are rising, the demonstrations and risings have so far largely failed, from Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak was replaced by a junta, to Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia by invitation led a contingent of forces to occupy the country, to Syria, where Bashar al Assad continues to slaughter his enemies just like his father did.
A Risky Strategy
Obviously, if Obama is going to call for sweeping change, he must address the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Obama knows this is the graveyard of foreign policy: Presidents who go into this rarely come out well. But any influence he would have with the Arabs would be diminished if he didn’t try. Undoubtedly understanding the futility of the attempt, he went in, trying to reconcile an Israel that has no intention of returning to the geopolitically vulnerable borders of 1967 with a Hamas with no intention of publicly acknowledging Israel’s right to exist — with Fatah hanging in the middle. By the weekend, the president was doing what he knew he would do and was switching positions.
At no point did Obama address the question of Pakistan and Afghanistan or the key issue: Iran. There can be fantasies about uprisings in Iran, but 2009 was crushed, and no matter what political dissent there is among the elite, a broad-based uprising is unlikely. The question thus becomes how the United States plans to deal with Iran’s emerging power in the region as the United States withdraws from Iraq.
But Obama’s foray into Israeli-Palestinian affairs was not intended to be serious; rather, it was merely a cover for his broader policy to reconstitute a coalition of the willing. While we understand why he wants this broader policy to revive the coalition of the willing, it seems to involve huge risks that could see a diminished or disappeared coalition. He could help bring down pro-American regimes that are repressive and replace them with anti-American regimes that are equally or even more repressive.
If Obama is right that there is a democratic movement in the Muslim world large enough to seize power and create U.S.-friendly regimes, then he has made a wise choice. If he is wrong and the Arab Spring was simply unrest leading nowhere, then he risks the coalition he has by alienating regimes in places like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia without gaining either democracy or friends.
“Obama and the Arab Spring is republished with permission of STRATFOR.”