Getting the Middle East Right
ON A SUNNY WEDNESDAY morning in early June 2011, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution convened a symposium on the Middle East. It was a fairly large gathering, which was not terribly surprising given the speed of apparent change in the region. Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was gone, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had repaired to Sharm el-Sheikh, a war was under way in Libya, and Bashar al-Assad was in the process of militarizing the uprising in Syria. The political turbulence was not confined to these four countries, however. With the exceptions of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, every country in the Arab world had experienced unrest in the preceding seven months. The Saban Center’s director at the time, Ken Pollack—a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Clinton White House as well as the author of eight books—called the meeting of mostly Washington- based Middle East hands to brainstorm about the region and US policy. One of Pollack’s books helped shape the public discourse leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom; yet another less-noticed volume argued that the Middle East was headed toward a period of coups, internal strife, wars, and general instability. The objective of the meeting was to figure out how to forestall such a dystopian future. Since the uprisings began, the effort (and a good deal of posturing) to make sense of why they were happening and what would come next had been tremendous. Yet very little systematic thinking had focused on how Washington’s policy toward a region that had been based on the predictability and stability of authoritarian leaders should change.
The day’s agenda included panels on countries already in transition, how to foster reform in other places, the prospects for failing states, and how non-Arab regional actors were responding. Much of the formal and informal discussion focused on Egypt, a country in which the United States had invested close to $80 billion since 1948. To many of the gathered experts, Washington now had an opportunity to liberate itself from the outmoded policies and sunk costs associated with the Mubarak era. These sentiments were not new. In the years before Egypt’s January 25 uprising, Americans and Egyptians had come together at various times to figure out how to invigorate a relationship that officials in both countries called strategic but that had little sense of purpose. For all of the expertise brought to bear on the issue during the 2000s, the proposals lacked imagination. The most often discussed three alternatives included maintaining the approach that had sustained the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, ensured open access to the Suez Canal, and kept the Islamists on the defensive; promoting democracy; and shifting the relationship from one defined by aid to one in which trade was the centerpiece. None of these satisfied all the constituents of the relationship, so bureaucratic inertia preserved the status quo. The meeting at Brookings did not generate any new ideas, but a number of the participants asserted that with Mubarak gone and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces promising “to prepare the country for democracy,” Washington had an opportunity to “get Egypt right.”
It was entirely understandable that the policy community perceived change under way in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East as a chance to begin anew. Yet it also seemed out of step with what was transpiring in the region and the actual limits of American power. Arabs had risen up to demand dignity, representative government, and economic empowerment in response to the problems and contradictions they experienced within their own societies. The United States had few diplomatic tools and little in the way of financial resources to help make Arab dreams of more open, just, and prosperous societies a reality, though this state of affairs seemed lost in the conversation at Brookings that imagined Washington as an influential player in the Middle Eastern political transitions. It was entirely unclear that
Middle Easterners, especially Egyptians, wanted American help. In Tahrir Square, the United States was not a major preoccupation of protesters. And after Mubarak fell, Egypt’s activists, liberals, democrats, and revolutionaries were not necessarily interested in assistance from the United States. To them, Washington had been Mubarak’s primary ally and enabler. At another meeting that spring, Ahmed Maher—a founder of the April 6th Youth Movement, which had been a creative opponent of the Egyptian leader—suggested that the United States continue its assistance to Egypt as penance for supporting Mubarak for almost thirty years.3 It is true that Libyans looked to NATO for protection from Muammar al-Qaddafi and Tunisians welcomed whatever assistance well-meaning foreigners, including representatives of the US government, had to offer, but external powers were not central to the uprisings.
It was a special conceit of the policy community—both inside and outside the government—that the United States had a role to play in Arab efforts to build new societies and political systems after the uprisings. These sentiments may have been misplaced, but they came from a good place: the belief in democracy as the best form of gover- nance, that for too long Washington supported authoritarian leaders and looked the other way when those allies violated human rights, that democracies would generate greater wealth and more inclusive prosperity, and that democratic partners were better and more appro- priate allies for the United States. It was hard to argue with these assertions, though democracy in the Middle East would not necessarily have made the region’s countries better partners. Egyptian activists had argued that democratic government, which would actually reflect the will of the people, was the best way to resist what they regarded as predatory American policies in the Middle East. For their part, the Muslim Brotherhood believed that the close ties between Washington and Cairo had weakened Egypt and compromised its regional leadership role. Egypt was perhaps a special case. By the time Mubarak fell, the United States had become a negative factor in Egypt’s domestic politics.