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U.S. Priorities in a Changing Middle East

Interviewee: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor, CFR.org, Council on Foreign Relations
July 27, 2011

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Ongoing political turbulence in the Middle East, notably in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, poses a continued challenge for an Obama administration confronting a daunting debt ceiling and deficit crisis as well as other issues. While the administration has stressed its support for democracy movements in the region, it should steer clear of a "one-size-fits-all" policy in response to the "Arab Spring," says CFR's Robert Danin. He stresses the importance of fostering economic development in the region to bolster political change, and working with Syria's neighbors and the international community to find a common position on Syria.

The upheavals of the Arab Spring have settled into a number of ongoing conflicts, particularly in Libya and Syria, with the fate of Egypt's revolution still in question. How should the Obama administration prioritize U.S. interests in these conflicts?

We must keep our focus on Egypt, first and foremost. As home to a quarter of the Arab peoples and perhaps the key galvanizer within the region, Egypt will be the critical trendsetter. A smooth and peaceful transition to a more representative government, with checks and balances, could have a positive demonstration effect. Similarly, a descent into greater sectarian conflict, a failed transition to effective civil governance, and no real improvement could precipitate more unrest and ultimately violence. The Obama administration understands that Egypt is central and is focused on that.

Obviously, Libya is now critical because we and the international community are engaged there militarily. We have drawn a line in the sand, and we now have lives and credibility at stake. This will have a regional demonstration effect of one sort or another. I would point to three other places critical for the United States: First is Saudi Arabia, given the West's energy dependency and Saudi Arabia's centrality to Gulf security. Second is Syria, the only Arab state fully aligned with Iran, which has become a widespread killing field for the regime against its own people. Third is Yemen, a potentially failed state that risks becoming a sanctuary for terrorists and anti-Western radicals.

The United States should not try to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy for the region. Our interests are too diverse and our influence too uneven. That said, on May 19, President Obama tried to articulate an American vision for its role vis-ŕ-vis the changes underway in the region. He firmly placed the United States on the side of democracy and change. He may come to regret those words, when the gap between rhetoric and action becomes evident. They raise questions about the restrained U.S. response to the brutal repression in Bahrain, for example. Many Arabs accuse the president of producing great speeches but poorly formulated or executed policies.

How has the U.S. intervention in Libya driven policy options in Syria?

The United States has been slow to react to developments in Syria and slow to condemn the regime's brutality. It is probably the case that NATO's military involvement in Libya detracts from our ability to focus on Syria. We do not have an obvious military option in Syria, nor should we explore one. But there needs to be greater attention focused on Syria, and greater international community mobilization around a common position, much as we have done via the Libya Contact Group. We also need improved outreach to key parties in the region about Syria, particularly its neighbors—Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, which, while not a neighbor, can play a critical role.

We also need improved outreach to key parties in the region about Syria, particularly its neighbors—Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, which, while not a neighbor, can play a critical role.

The fundamental problem in Syria now is that the longer the unrest continues, the greater the risk that the Assad regime will manipulate it and exacerbate the divisions that exist within a diverse population consisting of Alawites, Christians, Sunnis, and Kurds. Our goal now must be twofold: To drive a wedge between Assad and the Alawite community, to prevent the conflict from becoming sectarian. And to find carrots and sticks to encourage the Sunni merchant classes in Damascus and Aleppo, places that have remained quiet so far, to break from the regime. This could allow for a rapid transition from power.  My fear is the longer this drags on, the more difficult the situation will become, and the greater the chances for real civil war.

Let's say the United States gets what it wishes for in Libya, and Qaddafi steps aside. What would be the aftermath of that in Libya? What about a similar scenario in Syria?

Libya has become important, disproportionately so, because of the region's call for an international response and because of our subsequent efforts to dislodge Qaddafi. The international community met the challenge by authorizing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which precipitated the first real humanitarian intervention in the Arab world. This sent an important message of concern.

But the subsequent mission creep has led to a call for and effort to bring about regime change. We, in the form of NATO, are now fully engaged in Libya. As a result, we've committed ourselves to helping to sort out a broken state after Qaddafi is gone. Given that the country has no effective institutions by Qaddafi's designs, and the strong tribal makeup of the country, salvaging a post-Qaddafi Libya is going to be a major challenge.

We, in the form of NATO, are now fully engaged in Libya. As a result, we've committed ourselves to helping to sort out a broken state after Qaddafi is gone.

Syria's socio-economic makeup is fundamentally different. It has a middle class, an educated elite. It has a conscript army that could play an effective role if it manages to disassociate itself from the Assad regime. So the challenges of nation-building that I fear face us in Libya are much less so when it comes to Syria. Yet both places face the risk of real civil war.

What repercussions will the upcoming trial of Mubarak, his sons, and the former interior minister have in Egypt?

The trials in Egypt are important because they send a strong message about the accountability of ruling officials to the countries in which they officiate.Yet to be effective, it is critical that these trials be handled in a way that is fair, consistent, and not punitive. The best thing, it seems to me, is that Egyptians not rush this process, lest it appear to be an effort at retribution. What is important is that Egyptian institutions are put on the right track. So in one sense, the judiciary is on trial, along with the remnants of the old regime.

Is the United States making the best use of its options for nurturing democratic transition in the region?

The United States has a wide range of tools in its toolbox, but the challenge is how to be effective. There are two important things to keep in mind. First, this is going to be lengthy process. So how we help may be as important as what we do. The key principle is to let the peoples of the region find their own way. We should offer support to that, rather than try to direct or dictate what is to be done.

Second, any political successes ultimately will require sound economic successes. Direct economic support will never meet the region's needs. One byproduct of the Arab protests is that the very unrest that was sparked by difficult economic conditions has led to even worsening conditions. Countries where there was growth in 2010—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria—are now projected to shrink economically this year. Unemployment is rising. We must support investment and foster an economic climate that allows these countries to turn around quickly. Massive assistance, as was pledged to Egypt and Tunisia by the G8 at Deauville, is important. But what is necessary first is to halt the massive capital flight from the region right now, and increase direct regional and foreign investment. Here, the Gulf monarchies that so desperately want stability in their backyard have a critical role to play.

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