September 1, 2011

Enough With the Status Quo

Why America's response to the Arab Spring isn't enough.

People say that if you make foreign policy based on your values you're an idealist, and if you make foreign policy based on your interests you're a realist. But history has shown that our interests are best served over the long term when we make policy that sticks to our values. This has certainly been proven by the events over the past year in the Middle East.

One of the biggest mistakes the United States made in the last 30 or 40 years in the Middle East was to think that our interest lay in stability, which we defined as preserving the status quo. Our great Arab allies—the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan—all liked things the way they were, and, because they ensured that the oil flowed and were officially or unofficially at peace with Israel, we also liked the way things were.

But the people of the Middle East hated the status quo. For them, the status quo meant sclerotic autocracies, stagnant economies and obsolescent social systems. The status quo kept them in misery, and the anger and frustration they felt generated terrorism, insurgencies, civil wars, failed states and ultimately revolutions that have plagued the Middle East for decades. And for that reason, the status quo was inevitably going to crumble under the weight of popular fury. Well, the inevitable has arrived.

In the past, preserving the status quo did not guarantee political stability. It guaranteed a Middle East wracked by the worst problems in the world, and this year, a wave of revolutions, popular unrest and civil wars. And while this wave of upheavals may finally be passing, we should not assume that the underlying problems have been solved. There are still many people out there who continue to struggle for a different kind of state and society, and until their grievances are also addressed, the problems of the region will not end, even if they temporarily ebb.

The truth is that America's interest was not in the status quo. Our real interest is a lot uglier. But we need to be honest about it if we are to fashion a new, workable approach to the Middle East. America's real interest in the Middle East is in the free flow of the region's vital oil resources—and it will remain such until we can move to greater energy self-reliance. The economy of the entire world sits atop a foundation of cheap oil. Anytime there's a ripple in the oil market, the whole structure of the global economy shakes.

So the key for the Obama administration is to respond to the revelation that the status quo can no longer endure by finding a credible, long-term strategy that does not violate our values or our national interest. That means embracing change in the Middle East and helping the region move forward, but helping it to flow in constructive, rather than destructive, directions—more Egypts and fewer Libyas.

In May, President Obama announced his response to the Arab Spring: The United States would support all Middle Eastern nations moving toward democracy. That's a good start, but it isn't nearly enough.

The ancient regimes of the Middle East all recognize that change is coming, but they are all very frightened of change. They certainly don't want to give up all their power, and they are terrified that even beginning to share power with representative institutions will open a Pandora's box that can never be closed—and end with them being reduced to ceremonial figureheads, if not corpses.

But the regimes are also too powerful for the United States to ignore or to try to upend, which means finding ways to work with them to make the changes that have to happen. In a similar vein, we should remember that revolutions are extremely unpredictable, and for every American revolution that ended exactly as its authors intended, there are several French and Russian revolutions that ended very differently and very badly for all concerned. For this reason too, the United States needs to put its weight behind persuading the regimes to reform—gradually, deliberately and wisely, but also convincingly and determinedly.

Thus, we cannot treat the regimes as adversaries. Instead, we must communicate—as the president did in his speech—that change is inevitable and give the autocrats an opportunity to become a part of the solution, rather than the problem itself. Indeed, our most important role in enabling change in the Middle East may ultimately be to determine what the people want, learn what the regimes are willing to concede, and then craft a solution that best fits their disparate demands—essentially playing the intermediary.

Some would argue anti-Americanism in the region prevents us from being an honest broker. But a big chunk of anti-Americanism is due to the fact that the United States has never supported democracy in the region; it's what the Arabs refer to as “Arab exceptionalism.” Until now, the United States has supported democracy everywhere in the world, except in the Middle East.

Despite anti-Americanism, we have influence—for both good and bad. We have the most powerful military in the world. We're still the leader of the international community. We still have the largest economy in the world. We can't run the Middle East, and we can't dictate what happens there, but we have influence.

So the tone of our support and assistance with the transition to democracy in the Middle East is critical to protecting our interests in the Middle East. We must find out what both the rulers and the ruled in these countries need from us—from economic assistance to educational reform to military protection—and then figure out how we and they, working together, can achieve it.

Over the past 30-plus years, the United States has had multiple wake-up calls about the realities and the dangers of the Middle East, and we have just kept sleeping right through them. We kept convincing ourselves that what we were doing was fine—we could ignore the growing unhappiness of 360 million Arabs and everything would be fine because their governments knew how to keep their people down, and their governments would do what we wanted them to. The Iranian Revolution, the Algerian civil war, 9/11, the endless civil wars of the region and countless other lesser events in between should have made us realize how utterly moronic and reckless such a course of action always was. Now, the Arab Spring has come and given us one last chance to get it right. In the Middle East, change is coming. We cannot order its current, but we can help guide it into safer channels. We can choose to be on the right side of history, or we can be swept away by it. Winston Churchill once famously said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all of the alternatives.” In the Middle East, we have exhausted all of the alternatives and gotten only 40 years of wars, crises, lost lives, squandered treasure and endless frustration in return. Perhaps now we will finally do the right thing.

Ken Pollack is an expert on national security, military affairs and the Persian Gulf. He was Director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council. He also spent seven years in the CIA as a Persian Gulf military analyst. He is the author of A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East.