Achieving the Impossible

Toward a coherent policy on Middle East unrest. 

By From the May 2011 issue

(Editor's note: This is an updated version of the article that appears in our May 2011 issue.)

President Barack Obama's response to the spread of unrest across the Middle East has been an unpredictable combination of neutrality (Tunisia), reluctant involvement (Egypt), and force (Libya). Even after his speech to the nation on March 28, the president has yet to formulate a policy that explains his actions.

America needs a guiding philosophy. Indeed, Washington's approach to the Mideast uprisings should echo the Reagan Doctrine of the early 1980s, which served as a road map for America's plan both to roll back the influence of Communism in the Third World and to exploit opportunities to expand the reach of capitalism and democracy.

Similarly, the U.S. approach should look for ways to roll back the ideology of radical Islam, while occasionally seizing opportunities to spread our values. There can be no question that we are at war with the ideology that propelled Iranian militants to attack our embassy in Tehran in 1979. A variant of that same ideology drove 19 hijackers from al Qaeda to fly planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001.

If a country supports this ideology, embraced by both Shi'ites and Sunnis in their own way, we have little to lose by backing the protest movements that seek regime change. There are two regimes that currently fit this description: Iran and Syria.

In Iran, the world may yet witness a repeat of the demonstrations that erupted in the aftermath of the rigged elections of June 12, 2009. The prospect of another four years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets. Inexplicably, President Obama did little to support the nascent Green Movement, emboldening the Iranian regime to mount a brutal crackdown. Now, after nearly two years of dormancy, Iranians have reportedly drawn courage from other protests across the region, and the country shows hints of a new revolution. Obama, for his part, must throw America's full support behind these brave souls-with rhetoric, finances, technology, or even military assistance.

Iran, which the State Department has listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984, is pursuing an illicit nuclear weapons program and simultaneously supporting Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, and even al Qaeda. It's hard to imagine a regime worse than the one currently in power. Consequently, the United States has little to lose by supporting its downfall.

The full-blown protests that erupted in Syria in March afford Washington a similar opportunity. The United States has listed Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979. It supports Hamas and Hezbollah, and has also sent fighters into Iraq to attack U.S. forces. The regime in Damascus has long been Iran's partner in crime around the region.

For years, the Syrian government's brutality has deterred would-be dissenters. Amidst a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982, President Hafez al-Assad slaughtered some 20,000 people (a conservative estimate) in Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city.

With the memory of Hama lingering, it came as no surprise that the Syrian people remained on the sidelines as protest after protest rocked the Middle East in January and February. But after weeks of poking and prodding the regime to test its response, demonstrators took to the streets in the southern city of Daraa on March 18. Though the regime cracked down and killed four demonstrators, thousands returned the next day. They torched buildings and tore down posters of President Bashar al-Assad.

The protests now show no signs of abating. The regime has offered cosmetic reforms, but the people have not gone home. This is an opportunity. Indeed, if Assad falls, it's hard to imagine a regime worse than his.

While the specifics of how America can support the downfall of these regimes require additional thought, there should be little doubt that action is justified. Similarly, we should not hesitate when it comes to preventing U.S. allies from succumbing to our enemies.

A CASE IN POINT is the tiny Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain. As it has for decades, the majority Shi'ite population-accounting for about 70 percent of the kingdom's 1,000,000 subjects-demands that the government respect its rights. Demonstrations that tentatively began with calls for greater representation have evolved into an unabashed campaign to bring down King Hamad bin Khalifa. The shift came in mid-February, after Bahraini forces fired on peaceful protesters in Manama.

Bahrainis unquestionably deserve better. However, Iran has penetrated Shi'ite society there, and could exploit the unrest. If a Shi'ite government gains power in Bahrain, even via democratic vote, it could become an Iranian proxy. This would be a loss for America. First, while it is far from a liberal democracy, Bahrain has been a valued ally. Specifically, it provides a home to our Navy's 5th Fleet. It also serves as a geographical buffer for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional nemesis, on the Persian Gulf. Both are reasons to prevent Hamad's overthrow.

Another friendly autocrat under duress is Jordan's King Abdullah II. The Islamic Action Front, Jordan's arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, has mounted an increasingly vociferous protest movement against the regime that has forced the young monarch to make political concessions for greater representation. On the surface, this is a good thing. However, it likely means the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has had strong showings at the polls in the past. The rise of the Brotherhood could bring an end to Jordan's peace agreement with Israel, challenge existing trade agreements with the United States, and potentially herald the rise of Sharia law in a country where secularism has prevailed for decades.

Another concern is that a true democracy would automatically make Jordan's Palestinians, comprising some 72 percent of the population, a super-majority. Such a situation almost guarantees unrest with Israel, or even wider regional tumult.

The same risk of wholesale change applies to Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. has considerable oil and economic interests. Washington has invested in an alliance with the royal family, despite major differences in core values, and despite Saudi support for terrorist movements worldwide. Small protests erupted in March, but quickly fizzled. Nevertheless, the fact that they took place raised vexing questions about our complicated alliance with the oil-rich kingdom. These questions cannot easily be answered. The alternative leadership to the ruling family, which is both influenced by Islamist thinking and at home with Western materialism, may be a much less palatable cadre of ascetic hard-core Wahhabi Islamists. In other words, while the Saudis are dangerous allies, the next generation of Saudi leaders could be considerably more dangerous.

This is not to say that Washington should not change course later, particularly if a more pressing case for intervention can be made. In the meantime, it should encourage gradual but significant liberalization in these regimes. Indeed, doing so would ensure that America advocates for the people of the region while also advocating for its own interests.

FROM HERE, however, the calculus becomes considerably fuzzier. There are other countries where the leaders are not strong allies, but they are not jihadist regimes, either. There, U.S. interests are less obvious. To be sure, as Obama has argued, there is a case for humanitarian intervention, but there are many other conflict zones that could benefit from U.S. action.

Take the case of Libya. Rightly dubbed the "Mad Clown of Tripoli" by President Ronald Reagan, Moammar Gaddafi has blood on his hands. From supporting terrorist attacks like the 1986 bombing of a Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S. servicemen to the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, Gaddafi has been an enemy of America. Now he's killing his own people who have risen up against him.

Gaddafi, however, went through a partial transformation after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 over concerns that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Knowing that Libya was not dissimilar to Iraq, Gaddafi immediately dispatched diplomats to approach the British government about entering into discussions with the U.S. to prevent a similar invasion. By December 2003, Libya had agreed to destroy all of its weapons of mass destruction. The following year, the U.S. began removing Libya from the terrorism sponsors list.

Moreover, Gaddafi had become an ally in the fight against radical Islam. Specifically, he teamed up with U.S. intelligence to dismantle the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an affiliate of the al Qaeda network with deep operational and financial ties to some of its most senior leadership.

True, Gaddafi has ruled Libya for 42 years. And true, he was a brutal dictator. These factors, coupled with the brutality with which he responded to the uprising in his country, make a compelling case for intervention. But does Gaddafi's brutality outweigh the horror in, say, the Sudanese genocide in nearby Darfur? And did it outweigh the fact that Gaddafi had become a nominal ally in recent years?

Here it was critical to determine whether the U.S. had identified leaders who would be better alternatives. Indeed, it is critical to determine whether there are individuals more committed to democracy, egalitarianism, human rights, and other American values. Even after weeks of NATO intervention in Libya, there is still scant evidence to suggest that Washington had a clue about the nature of the opposition leaders based in the rebel capital of Benghazi in Libya's east.

It is also vital to determine whether such leaders, if they do embrace values that are compatible with ours, can maintain stability. In the case of Libya, after four decades of one-man rule, the country lacks durable political institutions. As such, concerns over a failed state there are very real. Given the risks, but assuming that the humanitarian worries were clear and undeniable, military intervention in Libya was best left to the Europeans, who do have vital national interests there (oil and regional stability).

The case of Libya is similar to that of Yemen. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been at the helm for 32 years, but his base of political support is now crumbling amidst a cycle of unrest and government repression. Yemenis rightly view Saleh as a brutal strongman. Washington, however, has enjoyed a quiet and important counterterrorism partnership with him. He has helped the United States combat al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, the most active of the terror network's affiliates.

As in Libya, it is also unclear who could replace Saleh. Yemen is an unruly place dominated by tribal politics. It is home to some 23 million people and some 60 million weapons. Additionally, jihadi groups have exploited Yemen's weak central authority. Saleh has kept Yemen relatively stable by placating influential tribal patriarchs and paying them patronage, while simultaneously cooperating with the West against the jihadis. This is a balancing act, and it has not been easy. Thus, Washington views Saleh as an indispensable guarantor of stability, albeit an imperfect one.

Would it be nice to see the people of Yemen and Libya enjoy the same political freedoms we enjoy here in the United States? Sure. Is that a likely outcome? Surely not. Indeed, Yemen is a sad example of our limitations in a region where poverty, poor education, radical indoctrination, and dictatorship are the unfortunate norm.

SHOULD THE UNITED STATES support democratic movements? Certainly we should look for opportunities to do so. However, the Arab Spring of 2011 could yield more dangerous Islamic republics and failed states than democracies. Accordingly, it is important to identify the countries more equipped for democratic success and do our best to ensure the desired outcome.

Tunisia, the country that sparked the regional protest contagion when it toppled 23-year dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in January, may have a better chance than most. The country has a strong middle class and its political culture is heavily influenced by the French. The Islamist Nahda party, while once strong, was effectively destroyed by Ben Ali. While Nahda is working to reconstitute itself, the Tunisian people appear more interested in secular democracy. At least, that's the predominant message coming out of the country right now. These are conditions we should support, albeit without making the U.S. a primary actor in the process.

Are the right conditions for democracy present in Egypt, one of the most important U.S. allies in the region? It's too early to tell.

On one hand, the country has strong government institutions that are capable of helping it make the transition, and the protesters in Tahrir Square who brought down Hosni Mubarak's 30-year reign were genuine reformers. On the other, the Muslim Brotherhood's message resonates strongly in Egypt, and the military appears reluctant to help shepherd the country to liberal democracy. This begs the question: Why did we support a revolution and risk access to the Suez Canal, a U.S.-brokered regional peace, and other important interests?

Looking back on the 18 days of protests that brought down Mubarak, it appears that Obama's spectrum of policies (beginning with support for Mubarak and ending with calls for his ouster) was ultimately driven by his desire to be on the right side of history. The protesters of Tahrir had every reason to call for an end to the regime, and it was important for the United States to have a presence at this historic moment in history. But it is still unclear what ultimately guided our decision-making during those fateful weeks. It is further unclear what guides our Egypt policy now.

The outcomes in Egypt and Tunisia are still unpredictable. In the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, states can often experience years of flux before reaching stability. The hope is that they will become stable democracies, but revolutions can also bring dictators to power. They can herald the rise of Islamists. And it is not uncommon to see hybrids like Islamist dictatorships and Islamist democracies.

President George W. Bush, despite his flaws, had it right about Arab democracy in his first term. His Freedom Agenda sought to encourage the seeds of democracy to take root and grow. Democracy, he reasoned, could gradually undercut the ideology of radical Islam while simultaneously weakening the dictators-for-life in the region.

Obama, upon coming to power, scrapped what was left of this policy. He began instead to engage hostile and despotic regimes, and treated them as allies. Now, as they crumble, he must decide which ones to salvage, and which ones to spurn.

The path forward requires a policy that never loses sight of U.S. interests, and is always designed to weaken our enemies.

We should look for opportunities to undermine enemy regimes. Additionally, we should back allied countries that could succumb to our enemies. From there, we must determine whether countries under duress could emerge as democracies without falling into chaos or Islamist hands.

These guiding principles, with the benefit of additional thought and debate, can help Washington determine which Middle Eastern countries are most deserving of U.S. attention. 

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About the Author

Jonathan Schanzer, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is a vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.