The United States has confronted the upheavals in the Middle East on a piecemeal basis. Each country’s problems have been considered in relative isolation and without serious consideration of the impact on events elsewhere. Is this wise?
First there was Tunisia. Washington, though shocked, applauded. In Egypt, the United States was all over the place—supportive of Hosni Mubarak and the protesters alternately and even simultaneously. When it was all over Americans of all stripes praised the President for steering the ship of American policy along dangerous shoals between stability and democracy. But in the region, the view was very different. The Israelis and Saudis still see President Obama as having betrayed a loyal ally, and many Egyptian protesters see the America as having failed to rally strongly and early enough to the opposition cause. On a recent trip, protest groups refused to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
After Mubarak fell, speculation was rampant about who would be next: Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain? No one predicted Libya. It looked at first as if the revolutionary tide was unstoppable. But when Gadhafi broke the new rules, and confronted the rebels with all the force at his disposal, a moment of truth emerged. Obama called for Gadhafi to leave office, and did nothing. The global news media were filled with debates about a no-fly zone: in the United States some, led by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, argued against becoming involved in another Mideast war. Others, such as Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain, urged immediate U.S. action. As the rebels moved toward Tripoli, capturing in the process 50 percent of the populace, Washington watched. When the Gadhafi regime counter-attacked with a full-scale war against its own people, Washington waited. Some argued for intervention on humanitarian grounds to save the tens of thousands who would be killed if Gadhafi advanced. Others demurred that for the United States, intervention was too perilous. No one talked about the implications on the behavior of other regimes and other protest movements.
But others in the region got the message: The United States opposed force against protesters, but it would do nothing. Soon the Saudis were moving to help the Bahraini government to crush the opposition there. The Yemeni leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, also seemed emboldened to move against protesters to shore up his embattled regime of 32 years. There was much talk of the threat of Iran in Bahrain and of Al Qaeda in Yemen. The democracy movement was beginning to look like a false dawn. And most important of all factors working for Gadhafi was Japan. The world’s attention turned to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. Libya was fading fast in the world’s attention. Lucky Gadhafi, or so it seemed.
As Gadhafi’s forces and African mercenaries began to move back eastward across his country, outmanning the rebels at every stop, the dimensions of the emerging massacres the Libyan leader was inflicting on his people suddenly focused the attention of the international community. With the Islamic Conference, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and especially the Arab League slowly endorsing a no-fly zone, it seemed too late, especially because the Arab League had insisted on United Nations backing. These delaying tactics seemed to be communicating that no one liked Gadhafi, so even the Arab League would advocate stopping him, but by sending the issue to New York, it was clear that the international community would run out of time.
But for the United States, Arab League endorsement and impending mass deaths in Benghazi had an electrifying impact. At the last possible moment, Washington changed policies again, confirming American unpredictability. Now the United States was pushing a tough resolution at the UN and convincing the doubters to abstain, perhaps because the Chinese, Russians, Brazilians, Germans, and Indians thought not much could be done to alter the course of the war in favor of Gadhafi anyway. Why oppose the Arab League? Instead, the West’s ferocious response saved the Benghazi rebels and created the stalemate we currently face.
So now the regional message was new: the United States was against overwhelming violence to stop protesters, even a rebellion. It did not want too many killed, and Gadhafi had crossed a clear red line. It was too late for the Bahraini protesters, but now there are even new protests in southern Syria of all places. The chaos in Yemen has expanded to such a point where Saleh appears to be the most likely leader to fall next, with a host of headaches for American officials over the expansion of influence for both Iran and al Qaeda, the possibility of civil wars in both the north and the south, and more Saudi angst.
What do we learn from all this? First, the Obama Administration has tried to judge each country on its own, and it has weighed the wisdom of policies with an aim at promoting reform and democracy wherever possible. That is an admirable goal, but what we have not done is to weigh the impact of our actions on the region as a whole. We have not really taken into account how we can encourage or discourage protesters or those who would crack down on them by our actions in one place.
Second, there has also been a great deal of attention to the imperative of stability, a necessity for American security interests. The outcome is that our actions have defined our policies. In Libya, despite our reluctance to intervene, the country’s control of two percent of worldwide oil supplies, Gadhafi’s overreaching against his own people, and our lack of knowledge of the rebels, we finally did support a no fly zone on humanitarian grounds and in the light of the Arab League vote. In North Africa, we have strongly supported reform. In the Gulf, where oil and Iran loom so large, stability has reigned over democracy, as we see from Saudi Arabia, to Bahrain, to Yemen, where our problems are only likely to grow, and even Iraq, as American troops and officials gradually depart.
There is a new American policy, but we may not be quite ready to admit it for some time: Try to promote reform when there are no critical interests, but, especially in the Gulf, hold back and let the rulers survive unless they go too far in quashing protesters. It’s not pretty, but it may be the only practical approach our competing perspectives will allow.
Steven Spiegel is Director of the Center for Middle East Development and Professor of Political Science, UCLA. He wrote “Neighborhood Watch” in our Spring 2007 issue.