Can the Middle East survive a post-Western era?
Abu Dhabi – The United Arab Emirates has always been a good place to watch shifting geopolitical sands. From its days as a pearl-rich, British protectorate in the 19th century to its oil-rich reality today, assured by a robust U.S. defense presence, the region has had many backgrounds.
Now leaders throughout the monarchical states of the Middle East Gulf are bracing for the sandstorm of what they fear may be a “post-Western era.” That is, potentially decades to come of regional upheavals and realignment shaped by reduced U.S. engagement, a dysfunctional Europe and the influence of less-enlightened state actors and emboldened extremist groups.
The past week’s wave of anti-American rage across the Middle East and North Africa has sharpened the reality that the region is facing an escalating double threat: that of a nuclear-charged, expansionist Shiite Iran and the spread of Sunni, jihadist extremism from Somalia to Syria and from Cairo to Benghazi. Particularly troubling are the death of the U.S. ambassador in Libya and the torching of an American-run school in Tunisia. The events took place in two countries where Arab Spring hopes have burned brightest, where U.S. and European engagement has been welcome and where democratic change has been most promising.
The mob violence that followed the circulation of an amateur film negatively portraying the Islamic prophet Mohammad, coinciding with the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, is likely to reduce rather than increase the American public’s appetite to engage more deeply in the Middle East. American voters are weary of war, worried about the economy and becoming less dependent on Middle East energy thanks to the expanding natural shale gas exploration in the U.S.
The past week’s events will at the same time dramatically complicate consideration of more concerted Turkish-Arab-U.S. efforts to counter Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and end a gruesome civil war that has already claimed 30,000 lives.
Gulf officials, who spoke to me under agreement of anonymity, must feel a sense of empty vindication now, after warning the Obama administration that it had been too quick to abandon Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and too slow to recognize the dangers of what forces or disorder might replace him. Stage two of the year-and-a-half-old Arab Awakening has begun. Although stage one, in their view, was driven primarily by idealistic youth and ordinary citizens, stage two risks being hijacked by more nefarious forces and political operatives aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.
In a region that thrives on conspiracy, moderate Arabs believe U.S. and European leaders may be accommodating to the rise of Islamist parties and to the emergence of a nuclear Iran, leaving them all the more isolated and vulnerable. If the costs of preventing Iranian nuclear weapons appear too great, the fear is that the U.S. may gradually shift to a containment strategy with Iran. This may seem fine 6,300 miles away in Washington, but not 25 miles across the Strait of Hormuz. Such concerns in the region have been fueled further by the Obama administration’s much-publicized “pivot to Asia” and the shift of defense resources that would involve.
On the face of it, it would seem that the Gulf, and particularly the UAE, would have little reason to question Obama’s commitments. U.S. airpower and anti-missile defenses have been significantly increased in recent months. A second carrier group has arrived in the Gulf alongside considerable increases in arms sales, special forces deployments and four more minesweepers. The worry is less about the present and more about Washington’s ability to exercise influence around the region in non-kinetic ways.
What is still missing from the Middle East perspective is a coherent, updated U.S. strategy for the region that clearly defines and defends American interests in a new context. This admittedly probably will not happen until after the November elections, but many fear it may not come even then. Yet the urgency for such a strategy is clear at a time when people in the Middle East worry not just about Syria’s future but also about the stability of fellow hereditary monarchies Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
First, Gulf state leaders are warning their U.S. counterparts that a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race, triggered by an Iranian breakout, would be far more perilous than the U.S.-Soviet standoff of the Cold War. That, they argue, is because the Cold War was fought by rational actors — stable governments operating under a set of rules that created a twisted state of certainty. It is hard to imagine such a negotiated, long-lasting standoff emerging among Israel, Iran, the Gulf and others as nuclear weapons proliferate.
Second, leaders caution that the retreat of moderate Islamic states will reduce the number of U.S. allies in the fight against terror, undermine any U.S. efforts to contain Iran and render impossible any new initiatives to promote lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And even if the U.S. itself grows less dependent on Middle East energy, uncertain supplies could endanger key American allies and the global economy.
When speaking of the past days’ violence and the situation in Egypt, Gulf officials remind Americans of how President Jimmy Carter’s abandonment of Iran’s Shah more than 30 years ago was interpreted as a sign of weakness by mullahs who came to power and then inaugurated three decades of anti-Western, clerical rule.
The situations then and now are vastly different, but Washington would be unwise to dismiss worst-case scenarios in the Middle East, one of the world’s worst neighborhoods. What was at stake then was an Islamic revolution in a single, important state, but now the consequences could have even wider, longer-lasting and more global consequences.
One can understand why Americans, in the heat of their presidential elections, may prefer to retreat from a region that looks more and more inhospitable. Yet the costs of inattention remain far higher for the U.S., the region and the world.
PHOTO: Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against security forces seeking to arrest Tunisian Salafist leader Saif-Allah Benahssine over clashes at the U.S. Embassy last week, at the al-Fatah mosque in Tunis September 17, 2012. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi