Weakened U.S. in Stormy Mideast

Turbulence in the Middle East, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have weakened U.S. influence in the region, says CFR’s Richard Haass, who argues the White House should shun an overall regional strategy and tailor responses to individual situations.

April 29, 2011

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The recent revolutionary turmoil in the Middle East has underscored the limited ability of the United States to influence outcomes there now, says CFR President Richard Haass. "The [U.S.] ability to shape things in the Middle East is no longer what it was," says Haass, who notes that U.S. standing has declined partly due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt and challenges to the governments in Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere have also diminished U.S. influence broadly as well as in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian talks, Haass notes, and Iran’s position has been strengthened. The United States should not issue a general Middle East policy statement as some have called for, but tailor responses to individual countries and situations, he says, stressing the region’s political uncertainty and fluidity. About Egypt, for example, Haass says he is concerned that democratic forces may not prevail. "It’s probably too soon to be pessimistic," Haass says, "but I am certainly concerned about the future of Egypt. I don’t see where the optimism of many people is justified at least so far."

If you were still in charge of policy planning at the State Department and were asked your views about how the United States should deal the Middle East right now, what would you say?

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I would begin with the argument that there cannot be any singular or regionalized response. The U.S. approach to each situation and each country needs to be tailored to local circumstances, local interests, and available policy instruments.

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You’ve opposed the introduction of the U.S. military in Libya. Any changes in your views?

With Libya, I’m fond of saying, "we are where we are." The argument over whether we ought to have been involved in introducing a no fly zone is now, as they say in government, OBE, "Overtaken by Events."

Right now, the administration faces a conundrum where there is a significant gap between U.S. policy objectives -- in this case the removal of Muammar Qaddafi from power -- and what the United States is willing to do to bring that about. Whenever you have a gap between ends and means, you either have to moderate your ends or augment your means. The United States seems to lean towards increasing what it is prepared to do in Libya, but there are still limits on what the administration is prepared to do.

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The answer is not to do a lot more, but to settle for less in the short run. We should push hard for a ceasefire, and do what we can to save as many lives as possible, even if that means for the time being having Qaddafi remain in power and have the country effectively divided. Over time, we could perhaps use other policy tools to weaken Qaddafi’s hold on power as well as work with the opposition to increase our confidence that the opposition would constitute a demonstrably preferable alternative based both on what they are trying to do and what it is they could do.

In Syria, we have some regime-orchestrated violence against protesters in outlying parts of the country. What should the United States do about Syria?

What will really determine what happens in Syria are two things: to what extent the opposition is willing to go out in the streets, challenge the regime and put their own lives at risk; and, on the other hand, to what extent will this regime be willing and able to turn to its security guards and army and kill Syrian protestors in large numbers.

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I don’t believe the United States has a lot of influence in Syria. Perhaps in the margins, the United States can affect things by this or that sanction, or by this or that public statement, or by this or that assistance to the Syrian opposition. But the United States is only operating at the margins there. What will really determine what happens in Syria are two things: to what extent the opposition is willing to go out in the streets, challenge the regime, and put their own lives at risk; and, on the other hand, to what extent will this regime be willing and able to turn to its security guards and army, and kill Syrian protestors in large numbers. I don’t think anybody knows the answer to those questions, but that internal dynamic, far more than anything the United States could do, will determine whether the regime of President Bashar al-Assad survives.

One area where the U.S. does have influence is in Israel-Palestinian affairs. There was an announcement in Cairo that Hamas and Fatah had reached a preliminary agreement to form a united government. The Palestinians are looking ahead to the United Nations General Assembly session in the fall, when they may seek approval for a Palestinian state, despite U.S. and Israeli opposition. How does the United States handle this?

As you yourself said, this is a preliminary agreement. No one should be surprised if it ultimately turns out to be more "preliminary" than "agreement." I’m not persuaded this will ultimately prove to be all that meaningful. If it does, in an odd sort of way, I actually think it makes it easier for the Obama administration to deal with a General Assembly resolution should the question of a Palestinian state arise this fall. It’s much less difficult for the administration to oppose such a move if Hamas is an intrinsic part of it, given Hamas’ historic position of opposition to Israel. That still might be an unpopular position for the United States to take in the eyes of people in the Arab streets, but so be it.

If, however, this agreement doesn’t come to pass, or if the slim chance of Hamas changing its stripes occurs, then the administration will be put in a much more difficult position on how to respond. In the meantime, there is the question of what Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu is likely to say when he comes to the United States in May to address the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). What if he puts forward some creative ideas about the conditions under which Israel would be willing to accept a Palestinian state? I would hope that the United States would hold off putting out, for the time being, its own views on the subject until again we see what is up between Hamas and Fatah, and what the Israelis might say. I would much prefer the dynamic to be an Israeli-Palestinian one rather than one in which the United States introduces its own ideas.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority says that the negotiations with Israel will be conducted not by this impending united interim government but by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which has been officially negotiating with Israel ever since the Oslo agreement in 1993. He said that he’s in charge of the negotiations.

If you’re sitting in Israel, it’s hard to know what to make of this. It complicates the situation because you don’t really know whom your interlocutor is speaking for and what your interlocutor is truly able to deliver.

This takes place against a backdrop of enormous strategic uncertainty for Israel. You have a whole new political process in Egypt, and no one can know how that is going to play out and with what consequences for Egypt’s relationship with Israel. You’ve got a violent upheaval taking place in Syria. And you’ve got a degree of political uncertainty in Jordan. So suddenly, on Israel’s borders, you’ve gone from a situation of two secure "peaces" [with Egypt and Jordan], and at least one predictable border with Syria to a situation where you have two uncertain "peaces," an unpredictable relationship with Syria, and a continuing problematic relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon. This suggests that the Israelis are going to want to see how things work out before they will contemplate taking any far-reaching decisions.

So it would be wrong to press Israel right now to come forward with any significant concession?

It would be futile as well as ill-advised.

What do you think of speculations that the crackdown in Syria has weakened the resolve of Hamas to keep its distance from Fatah, or that the protests have also caused concern in Iran because Syria is Iran’s only major ally in the Arab world?

It’s probably too soon to be pessimistic, but I am certainly concerned about the future of Egypt. I don’t see where the optimism of many people is justified, at least so far.

What matters is not today’s snapshot. What matters is whether, over the next few weeks, Assad and his regime can reestablish control. And if so, with what concessions. Or, if it loses control, what begins to take its place. It’s way too early to begin drawing strategic assessments about the consequences of the unrest in Syria because we don’t know whether it will be a chapter in Syria’s history or a fundamental turning point.

History suggests it will be just a chapter.

I don’t know. It’s gone farther than I would have predicted. And there’s a sense that the people have begun to shed some of their fear. On the other hand, as I said before, what matters more than anything is the resolve and willingness of regimes to use force with impunity.

What’s your guess about whether Egypt will become a democratic state?

I see grounds for concern. The two strongest forces in the society right now -- or at least the two most organized -- are the army as well as groups that can be collectively clustered under the heading of Islamist [including the Muslim Brotherhood].

The liberal, secular civil society [that led the revolution in February] seems to be playing catch up. And I worry that the political process is moving at a pace where these more liberal, secular democratic elements may not have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field. I also worry that all of this is taking place against the backdrop of a seriously weakened economy. It’s probably too soon to be pessimistic, but I am certainly concerned about the future of Egypt. I don’t see where the optimism of many people is justified, at least so far.

I assume you’re also concerned about Yemen.

In Yemen, you’re going to have continued so-called ungoverned spaces -- places where terrorists can operate. Going forward you’re unlikely to have as much of a strategic partner in any new government. So you have to look at Yemen and say that the terrorist threat emanating from that country -- all things being equal -- is likely to increase in the coming months and years.

Some people have compared the upheavals in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 with the upheavals in the Arab world.

I’m actually pretty sure that comparison doesn’t hold.

The Saudis have urged Bahrain not to make concessions to their Shiites, who make up the majority of the population, and backed that up with1500 Saudi troops. How do you think that situation will resolve?

The Saudis have intervened in Bahrain. In so doing, they essentially short-circuited the political process. The question is: What do they do if the Shiites in Bahrain begin to push back against the authorities as well as the Saudis? It’s not clear to me what plan B is for the Saudis in Bahrain if things ever get to that point.

In Saudi Arabia, for the time being, things are relatively calm. But what would the effect be on the Shiites and others in Saudi Arabia if things in Bahrain began to unravel? The Saudis seem to have insulated themselves from events in the region, but I don’t think anything about that is permanent. In addition, you still have all the longer-term questions about the leadership and succession in Saudi Arabia. Again, that may introduce questions down the road rather than immediately, but it’s a useful reminder that, even the places that thus far have largely avoided the upheaval, have not put into place political or economic reforms that will inoculate them.

At the time of the first Gulf War, you worked with Secretary of State James Baker in setting up the Madrid conference to begin peace talks in the region. The United States was the leading force in moving events along in the Middle East then. Is the United States now a more secondary power in this region?

The U.S. position has deteriorated to some extent because its closest relationships are now with some very unsteady governments, or in some cases with a government that no longer exists, as in Egypt. Iran’s hand is far stronger. The United States is more dependent than ever on imported energy with prices that are determined in large part by what happens in the Middle East. The United States is stretched militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. All things being equal, the United States’ ability to shape things in the Middle East is no longer what it was. This reality didn’t arrive with the events of the last few months, but those events have brought that reality into sharper relief.


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