Peril and paranoia in the new Middle East

November 28, 2011

The year of the Arab Awakening is drawing to a close with an ominous air of peril and paranoia hanging over the Middle East. A movement of genuine promise for more legitimate and accountable government for the peoples of the Arab world is in danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of tyranny, corruption, fundamentalism and conflict. From Syria to Egypt to Libya, Palestine, Israel and Iran, resistance to peaceful change is manifesting itself in ways new and old – and all in the context of a global re-alignment of power that few in the region yet recognize. Preventing the four central challenges of the Middle East – Iran, the Arab Awakening, Energy Security, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – from turning into conflicts with global implications will be a task far more for the countries of the region themselves than at any time in recent memory. For this new reality the parties are almost completely unprepared.

This was confirmed during a visit last week to the Gulf where the collapse of trust between adversaries – as well as allies – was on stark display. Arab leaders expressed as much distrust of each other as they did of their ascendant rivals, the Persians and the Turks. The minimum demands of the Palestinians are as distant as ever from the maximum on offer from the Israeli government. And for a number of regional leaders buffeted by the extraordinary changes forced by popular movements from Syria to Tunisia, a key lesson appears to be lesser, not greater, openness to representative government. The Middle East, more than any other region of the world, gives validity to the old joke that even paranoid schizophrenics have enemies. But to the very real perils arising from deeply divergent interests among Arabs, Turks, Persians and Israelis is now added a degree of heightened paranoia that threatens to multiply the perils with consequences reaching far beyond the region itself.

Critical to understanding the new strategic landscape is an appreciation of the degree to which the United States – since Suez, the arbiter of war and peace in the Middle East – is on course for a long-term disentanglement from the cares and conflicts of the region. While its commitment to Israel certainly – and to its Arab allies less so – long has been more than just a matter of security, it is evident that a Middle East less critical as a source of oil will be one less able to claim the extraordinary expenditure of blood and treasure made by America over the past half-century. As a consequence of technological advances leading to new discoveries and new sources of oil and gas, the next oil shock will likely be one more defined by the growing irrelevance of the Middle East to the United States – however much the region’s ability to disrupt international oil markets will remain.

Energy Security. The estimates of the future U.S. dependence on non-North American sources of oil are as dramatic as they are under-appreciated. The share of U.S. oil imports from both OPEC more broadly and the Gulf, in particular, has collapsed since the 2007-09 financial crisis, replaced largely with Canadian and domestic crude. In 2008, the U.S. imported an average of 2.370 million barrels per day (bpd) from the Gulf and 5.954 million bpd from OPEC as a whole.  In 2010, the average was 1.711 million bpd from the Gulf and 4.906 million bpd from OPEC.

Critically, this is not simply attributable to a cyclical fall in U.S. import demand. Canada alone has exported an average of 2.240 million bpd to the U.S. this year, up from 1.935 million bpd in 2010 and now accounts for approximately double Saudi crude imports. Thus, if U.S. domestic tight oil production touches 2.9 million bpd, and oil sands production increases to 3.0 million bpd by 2020, it could cut OPEC imports by well over half in less than ten years. Conceivably, by 2030, OPEC imports could drop to zero if 2007 daily consumption proves to be a historic high and domestic and Canadian production is increased as projected. (The contrast with China, currently serving more than 50% of its demand through crude imports – a figure that may hit 70% by 2020 – has equally significant consequences for Beijing and its future relations with the Middle East).

Of course, even after departing Iraq and gradually reducing its dependence on Middle East oil, Washington will maintain a substantial force presence in the Middle East, and the capability rapidly to enlarge it as needed. However, the wider context of U.S. strategic repositioning towards Asia, Pentagon budget cuts, and public hostility in host states will challenge this force posture at a time of heightened tensions and uncertainty throughout the region. If the Middle East’s energy security game is in the midst of profound change with dramatic strategic consequences for the future U.S. commitment to the region, so are the dynamics of the region’s political and security challenges.

The Arab Awakening. To appreciate the depth of change in the politics of the Arab world over the past year, it is enough to look at non-Arab Turkey’s leadership role in the management of its current challenges – from Egypt to Libya to Israel and now Syria. Arab leaders are looking with fear and jealousy to the prospect of their region’s politics being dominated by three outsiders – Turkey, Iran and Israel. From Tripoli to Cairo to Damascus, hard-line resistance to genuine representative government is making a self-fulfilling prophecy of the darkest warnings of anarchy and Islamist ascendancy being the winners of the Arab Awakening. Even after the fall of governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, critical momentum still eludes the broader push for change.

Among the monarchies and sheikdoms, the pace and depth of reform are reflective more of an attempt to do the minimum needed to assuage popular sentiment, rather than acknowledging the need for profound changes in the relationship between governed and governors. A bloody endgame in Syria is increasing fears of a sectarian civil war, drawing in outsiders in yet another intervention. An absence of political legitimacy is being joined by a power vacuum, within and among the countries of the region, suggesting that the focus of the regimes in the year ahead will be a defense of the realm at all costs.

Iran. The recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program has triggered another round of speculation about an Israeli attack on suspected nuclear sites in Iran. The Iranian nuclear challenge has been a pre-eminent hard security focus in a period otherwise defined by economic crises and political convulsions. The U.S. commitment to the Libya campaign was circumscribed, in part, by the Pentagon’s priority monitoring of threats – both conventional and unconventional – emanating from Iran. Tehran, of course, maintains that its programme serves solely peaceful purposes, such as power generation and medical research. However, there are widespread concerns over possible military dimensions, particularly when viewed in conjunction with Tehran’s developing missile capability and alleged work on warhead technology.

Paranoia towards the actions of Iran is reaching a fever pitch in the Gulf and Israel. Gulf countries are as concerned about Iran’s meddling in their internal affairs as about its nuclear weapons program (that their own domestic policies towards their Shia minorities are giving Iran fertile ground to meddle in seems rather less appreciated by them). Combine this with Israel’s growing fear of Iran reaching a point of no-return in its nuclear weapons program (something they’ve been warning about since 2005 and one day of course will be true), and the stage is set for confrontation, either deliberate or accidental.

Looking to Iran’s domestic politics, many have questioned whether persistent elite infighting suggest any meaningful regime fragility – particularly in light of the Green Movement’s demonstration of deep and broad opposition to the regime. The reality is likely to be different – and less encouraging of change. A principal source of resilience for the regime has been its ability to apply effectively the lessons of the Shah – his rise as well as his fall. A proliferation of power centres – however much beset by rivalries between the President, the Supreme Leader, the clerical elites, the Revolutionary guards, and the military – share a fundamental fate in having everything to lose from a democratic Iran with an accountable and legitimate government, and everything to gain from sustaining the status quo.

Iran will therefore remain the wild card in the secular trend towards a West less dependent on – and less preoccupied with – the Middle East. Resolving the struggle between Iran’s strategic and tactical interest in a nuclear deterrent and Israel’s in maintaining the existing nuclear balance of power in the region is the one question that won’t be left to the region itself.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. For this perennial crisis of the Middle East, the next year is likely to prove as fraught as ever. With the effective departure of the United States from the negotiations between the two parties, internal as well as external pressure for a final settlement is at a low point. Real perils from Hamas to Hezbollah to Iran combine with a deeply rooted paranoia about the irreducible hostility of Arabs – and now Turks – to the existence of the Jewish state to strengthen hard-liners in Jerusalem. For Israel, moreover, the Arab Awakening has been a profoundly disorienting experience, leading it to appear as skeptical of the promise of a democratic evolution in its neighborhood as the Saudi monarchy – as strange bedfellows as one otherwise could imagine.

Allies in Egypt and Jordan are now poised to demand greater progress on the peace process, and Islamist movements in the ascendancy across the region are likely to settle for far less. For the Palestinians and their erstwhile supporters among Arab states, the upheavals have reduced, rather than expanded, the room for direct negotiations. The Palestinian leadership, disabused about the prospect of any serious effort by Washington to pressure Israel on settlements, is more vulnerable than ever to popular revolt among its own citizens. The rise of a non-violent resistance movement among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is poised to pose profound challenges to both Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Whatever the near-term developments in Palestine, the broader Arab Awakening and the Iranian nuclear challenge, the long-term strategic balance of the Middle East is destined to be defined by the rise in the relative power of Turkey and Iran. Paranoia and peril will have to be separated in this respect more than any other. Their rise will be driven by strategic aims for power and influence with deep domestic support that can’t easily be dismissed as passing pursuits by particular governments in Ankara or Tehran. This is a development that is equally unwelcome to the United States, to Israel, and to the Gulf countries allied over the past quarter-century around a status quo that is gone forever. An era far less susceptible to the hard and soft power of the United States – in any way increasingly reoriented towards Asia – will require a more patient and judicious approach by all players if conflict is to be averted and a new, peaceful, order is to emerge.

Nowhere will the burden of new strategic thinking fall heavier than in Washington. In a recent essay on the legacy of George Kennan, the architect of U.S. containment policy towards the Soviet Union, Henry Kissinger wrote that “Kennan served a country that had not yet learned the distinction between the conversion and the evolution of an adversary — if indeed it ever will. Conversion entails inducing an adversary to break with its past in one comprehensive act or gesture. Evolution involves a gradual process, a willingness to pursue one’s ultimate foreign policy goal in imperfect stages.”

The terrible price paid in blood and treasure for the Wars of 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with the effects of an economic crisis that now threatens a decade of stagnation in the U.S., may well make America appreciate the virtues of evolution, and accept that our ultimate goals can only be met in imperfect stages. The alternative policy of forced conversion of adversaries, based more on paranoia than true peril, is likely only to be achieved at the price of conflicts with potentially calamitous consequences – for the Middle East as well as for America itself.

An Egyptian army soldier stands as people queue outside a polling station in Cairo November 28, 2011. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic.


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The world is going to heck with so called debt problems.These countries sit on most of the oil,and you wonder why they’re paranoid?

Posted by deerecub1977 | Report as abusive

This article fails to consider the effect of the strong majority of Americans having essential services cut in order to pay for ineffectual dabbling in the Middle East by new york aristocrats. The result will be national bankruptcy or the trashing of the corruption that makes “representative government” in America a joke. These accelerating trends in the USA will bring more change than any developments in MENA itself.

The iron grip of the current American one party State is near breaking, and voters here may actually have more than a single choice on their ballot soon.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

txgadfly, please help me understand your point. So you’re voting against Obama because he’s in charge of “the current American one party State”? Which would mean you’re voting for the Republican candidate, whoever he or she ends up being?

Perot showed in 1992 that a third party candidate can’t get elected, but he or she certainly can take out whichever mainstream candidate his views are closest to by splitting the vote–hence President Clinton elected with well under 50% of the vote.

Posted by Realist99 | Report as abusive

When national interests are at stake sovereign states are, at times, without the luxury of doing what is “safe” or being absolutely certain of consequences before taking action.

With the President of Iran repeatedly and publicly threatening to “wipe Israel off the map”, a thing quite possible with one or two nuclear-tipped missiles of a type already operational, Israel daily lives it’s own “doomsday clock” nightmare. It must presume that the first “test” of an Iranian bomb will be on Israel, and probably Tel Aviv.

I don’t think Iran has the slightest idea of the determination of Israel NOT to be their victim…it may even be throwing gasoline on the fire in the same way that Saddam tried to bait Israel with hitting it with scud missiles. But scuds, at best, were diplomatically outrageous but militarily merely a nuisance.

Iran’s playing chicken with a nuclear Israel is not just dumb. I believe it is suicidal; and there are a lot of genies in that bottle to try to catch and put back.

It makes me think of that bumper sticker: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

interesting, On Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for Palestine to be partitioned between Arabs and Jews. Arabs walk out.

there’s no Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
it’s Arabs and Jews conflict, Muslim and non-Muslim.

why German did not cut a piece of land IN 1947 and won’t give it to Jews? SIMPLE, Jews want their own land which is belong them according to Bible.

Posted by semzell | Report as abusive

It may be too early and too pretentious to start predicting if the so-called Arab spring will devolve into an Arab winter for both its protagonists and the rest of us onlookers in the West. The very sound of the much-abussed word “Islamist” sends fear into the hearts and minds of Westerners and others who may have witnessed various bloody Islamist political and religious hostile episodes since the “ancient” PLO days of terror in Rome and Munich let alone the savage aftermaths resulting from the attacks on the USA in 9/11.

Posted by jimguinnessey | Report as abusive

I always asked myself why the words “christianist” and “jewishst” don’t exist. Did the world see Islam like the only religion with violence? It’s really injuring.

Posted by Ouafi_Khalid | Report as abusive

Wading through this turgid gobbledygook is an exercise in frustration, with little return to show for the effort. I should not need to read a sentence twice to try to parse the gist of it.

“But to the very real perils arising from deeply divergent interests among Arabs, Turks, Persians and Israelis is now added a degree of heightened paranoia that threatens to multiply the perils with consequences reaching far beyond the region itself.” Come again? How about “The interests of Arabs, Turks, Persians and Israelis are already divergent enough, and fraught with enough tension. The ongoing trend of heightened paranoia amongst the region’s key players could have unexpectedly dire consequences that reach far beyond the Middle East.”

And this: “If the Middle East’s energy security game is in the midst of profound change with dramatic strategic consequences for the future U.S. commitment to the region, so are the dynamics of the region’s political and security challenges.” What does that even mean? It’s too logically mushy and vague to even guess at.

Similarly, the overall sense of the author’s position is obscured and vague. The best I could extract:

1) Energy security (no need to capitalize this pointlessly): the US imports a lot of oil from Canada. Bye bye OPEC! And look out for the Chinese!

2) Arab Spring: oops– looks like democracy in Muslim countries means Muslim leaders– didn’t see that one coming!

3) Iran: Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran!

4) Palestine: business as usual. Except the puppet state puppets next door are gone! Pity poor Israel, they might actually have to let Palestine exist!

Here is what the author of this crap “analysis” missed.

1) Tar sand oil extraction is one of the most expensive, dirtiest and most climate-polluting ways to get oil out of the ground out there. Did I mention expensive. Is it a lever to get better prices out of OPEC? Maybe– if those price concessions can survive the stranglehold that Goldman Sachs and other oil “traders” exercise on the supply getting to American shores. But GS aside, will Canada replace Saudi Arabia? Absolutely not. So the US will remain engaged in the Middle East on “Energy Security”. Very engaged. A look at the size of the Baghdad embassy complex and the numbers of U.S. “private security contractors” still present in Iraq will confirm, if you have any doubts.

2) The Arab Spring: guess what? Democracy means democracy. Even (especially) when the people in question have a different religion, different world view, different realpolitik. So too bad, so sad, to the likes of Israel and Mr. Kissinger, but it looks like the Arabs would rather rule themselves than be ruled over– and it also looks like they would rather not toe the Israeli line when it comes to foreign policy. Israel will have to (gasp) deal with it.

3) Iran: here the Israelis are working overtime to destabilize the regime from within. Why no mention of Stuxnet here? This little trojan (courtesy most likely of Mossad) did wonders to sabotage the centrifuges and Iran’s nuclear capability is likely as clear and present a danger as Saddam’s WMD. The US is playing along with spies (“hikers”) and drones being deployed left and right, but the US is not about to go bombing Iran without involving the whole of Europe. (Consider Libya a dry run.) And lo and behold! Suddenly we miraculously are provided with a storming of the British embassy… an act which makes sense only if it was set off by agents provocateur, as it makes absolutely no policy sense from an Iranian perspective.

4) Palestine: no discussion of the push for statehood? Of Abbas’s clever use of the very UN institutions that legitimized Israel’s existence as tools to legitimize Palestine’s existence? And we are also not told of the deepening unrest in Israel itself: street protests did not just happen in Cairo this year. The middle-of-the-road secular Israelis are getting more and more fed up with the hardline warmongers on the right who currently dictate foreign policy and the treatment of the Palestinians. The continued slow diplomatic push by Abbas via the UN, coupled with a growing Israeli disgust with the occupation, bodes well for the beginnings of actual peace.

The Arab Spring is not only Arab. It is the Middle East Spring. Israeli leaders should be just as worried as the Saudi despots, for they are both dinosaurs of the past whose time has come and gone. Desperate to cling to power, they may resort to desperate acts– and the Israeli leadership has been working overtime to foment war with Iran by any means necessary.

The problem is that nobody wants this war: not the US, not Iran, not the Arabs we keep hearing are so concerned about Persian meddling in their affairs, and not the Israeli people themselves. People across the region want peace, jobs, and to have done with dictators and warmongers. This is what the Arab Spring is about. It remains to be seen whether Israel will manifest its own Spring or the hardliners will continue to cling to power and to dreams of war.

Posted by reuters_reader | Report as abusive

In the recent history of world wars – from the Seven Years war to World War II – the imperial scaled powers tend to weaken themselves and die as a result of their balance of power conflicts. And they all suffered agonizing “redefinition” as the result.

Txgadfly has sound intuition. He knows the US is fading as a major power and China will rise as the mega super power in the 21st century. Few now give them credit for anything but imitation. But few today remember that Germany prior to and between the wars was considered the most sophisticated world capitol of technological and scientific innovation. Now they are mostly known as the capitol of European capital. My friend from Brazil told me recently that all anyone of his parents generation thought about the USA was that we were a lot of merchants and businessmen. Europe was the cultural capital to them. Now I’m not sure who is or if it matters at all who claims to be the center of cultural attention and influence now, but the USA was not the only society that ever produced new ideas or inventions and it won’t be the last. That is, if the future needs or cares for further innovation? The problem now seems to be – can any country stay alive without spoiling it’s own nest? The future may want retrenchment and stability: the Islamist governments?

In a few decades or sooner, Israel could be seen as an ideological quirk (Zionism) and a stupid idea that never should have happened in a sane world. It is still the only ME country – or any country as afar as I know – still overtly trying to enlarge its territory through military occupation and the displacement of indigenous inhabitants. How do the Israeli’s think that can continue when the natives have cell phones and PC’s?

What haunts the nightmares of the big powers is the knowledge that they didn’t look that good when they were making their scramble to the top and they also know that the up and comers will look just fine to most people when they have taken over the top places in world affairs. Successful people can be perfect bastards on their rise to the top but once they are there, they can edit the record and marginalize their critics. That’s the paranoia that haunts the fading powers. They know they will be on the receiving end of what they were used to serving to their underlings. The up and comers should also expect that the fading regimes will do what they can to either co-opt them or try to destroy them first.

But there is one unshakable political truth (OOTS should like this): All old regimes, like old trees, eventually die. Somehow, I don’t think the US is going to escape it’s period of agonizing redefinition. It’s already started and I’m sure it won’t be any easier on us than it was on any other historic world power.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

We are wasting time and brain power talking about irrelevant things.Today the divide in the world is between rich and poor.)(as always).
and it is the poor that were made so by the few,the big powers of the 20th century.not any every person on earth has awareness and wants freedom (as he or she understands it ).
and above all ,noone wants to be hungry and everyone knbows how not to living in a western country ,europe or usa.(until now that is because the future seems different from what weve known so far.)
My take is that we will have global uprising of the poor,of the many,total callapse of the banking system,and the markets,and redistribution of wealth by force or not,depending on how stupid the rich will prove to be.they can give away their fat profits and stop making vast amounts of money on the backs of the rest of the humanity.or they can insist and face destruction ,since the people will not stop ,now they are aware ,they know they can have a better life and they will get it one way or another ,or die is exactly what everyone would do in this position.
So instead of talking about non existant situations and dreams lets prepare for the change,the big change that is on its way…..if we are smart we wil take advantage of this ,and create a better world.if not we are all doomed to live and die in misery.sorry… for the detailsof the one or the other situation today is not important.arabs ,europeans americans ,they all want one thing now.equality and freedom.noonw will setlle for less.noone will shut up for money .noone can be bought any more.those who served the rich will follow their fate .i m sure of this.they will be punished for their crimes against the rest of humanity ,for sure.Crime never pays off……
i hope we all stop seeing the poor people as something strange,we will soon (most of us ) be in a similar position,after the system collapses and food and water become me,i know ,i can see it happening today in greece.people who were midle class now go to the charity for food.wait for it,they are angry and desperate.they are fed up and they are educated (so noone can persuade them for things that arent true.)you want to take your chances and try to manipulate them?i feel sorry for whoever tries this .the anger of the people will strike back like a tornado ,leveling everyhting that was used against the people.i think so ….do you ?…….

Posted by soilgeo | Report as abusive

Iran is threatening Israel. Israel is not a State in the Union last time I looked. If it were, and it was required to obey Federal laws such as various Civil Rights act, Voting rights, and trial by jury with a presumption of innocence, then we should be concerned about it.

Otherwise, why do loyal Americans favor Israel and its current policies over the American elderly, disabled, and poor? How is letting your own people down “loyal”? Israel has invaded our politics and our media. And our US Treasury. It is time for it to end. It is a small European religious colony in Southwest Asia. Let them live with their neighbors. They did for thousands of years. Why not now?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Oh yes. On the election. When it comes to the one multi-trillion dollar subsidy that has nearly bankrupted the US Government, there is not a difference among any of the candidates of whatever “party” you want to believe in. The only exception is Republican Ron Paul.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

A god could fix this quickly by coming out to pronounce that reports of his existence are greatly exaggerated.

Posted by vh070 | Report as abusive

God, not AGod will not “fix” thissituation
Man has His oun porpion of responsbilith and Will not interfear…
Timothy Lee
Houston was the name of a large
city on Earth…

Posted by Sonmyungmoon | Report as abusive