Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has a provocative article in the next issue of Foreign Affairs (preview now available online) entitled "The New Middle East." It makes for grim reading in some ways. Here's the setup:
The end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union brought about a fourth era in the region's history, during which the United States enjoyed unprecedented influence and freedom to act. Dominant features of this American era were the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait, the long-term stationing of U.S. ground and air forces on the Arabian Peninsula, and an active diplomatic interest in trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all (which culminated in the Clinton administration's intense but ultimately unsuccessful effort at Camp David). More than any other, this period exemplified what is now thought of as the "old Middle East." The region was defined by an aggressive but frustrated Iraq, a radical but divided and relatively weak Iran, Israel as the region's most powerful state and sole nuclear power, fluctuating oil prices, top-heavy Arab regimes that repressed their peoples, uneasy coexistence between Israel and both the Palestinians and the Arabs, and, more generally, American primacy.
What has brought this era to an end after less than two decades is a number of factors, some structural, some self-created. The most significant has been the Bush administration's decision to attack Iraq in 2003 and its conduct of the operation and resulting occupation. One casualty of the war has been a Sunni-dominated Iraq, which was strong enough and motivated enough to balance Shiite Iran. Sunni-Shiite tensions, dormant for a while, have come to the surface in Iraq and throughout the region. Terrorists have gained a base in Iraq and developed there a new set of techniques to export. Throughout much of the region, democracy has become associated with the loss of public order and the end of Sunni primacy. Anti-American sentiment, already considerable, has been reinforced. And by tying down a huge portion of the U.S. military, the war has reduced U.S. leverage worldwide. It is one of history's ironies that the first war in Iraq, a war of necessity, marked the beginning of the American era in the Middle East and the second Iraq war, a war of choice, has precipitated its end.
Haass also cites the end of the Israeli-Palestinian process, the failure of Arab regimes to construct an attractive alternative to Islamism, and the general effects of globalization as reasons for the demise of the 'old Middle East.'
In this new Middle East, Haass predicts that the US will remain the strongest player but will be much less powerful than before, and that it will face growing challenges from other great powers pursuing their interests and values (Europeans, China, Russia). Iran and Israel will be the two most powerful states in the region, with or without Iran being nuclear armed, and Iran will likely behave like a classic would-be regional hegemon, remaking the region in its own interests and image. No recognizable peace processes between Israel and its neighbors should be expected. Iraq will remain a mess, oil prices will remain high, terrorism will continue, and private armies will increasingly challenge central state authority (often with help from outside actors). Islam's appeal will continue to grow, as will Sunni-Shi'ite tensions. Arab regimes will remain authoritarian, but will likely become more anti-American as well.
A grim scenario. Haass suggests that the US should focus on making this ugly era as brief as possible, and keep an eye on what kind of region might emerge in its wake. To do that, it should stop relying overly on military force, and should not assume that democratization itself will do the trick. Instead, the US should intervene more with nonmilitary tools - economic pacts, educational reform, encouraging Muslim leaders to denounce terrorism, and the like. He suggests creating a regional forum for Iraq's neighbors, which would have the happy side-benefit of bringing Syria and Iran in from the cold, and restarting the peace process.
I think that Haass is largely right in much of his analysis. It does
make sense to assume rising Iranian power, an unresolved Iraqi mess no
matter what the US does, little by way of Israeli-Palestinian peace
negotiations, and continued Arab authoritarianism. American power will
likely decline, as he suggests, and accomodating to that reality makes
sense. But I'm struck by the gap between the pessimistic scenario and the policy proposals which follow. If Haass is right that Iran is emerging as a regional hegemon, that the peace process is dead, that authoritarian governments will survive and turn against the US, then it isn't clear that his major recommendations are either plausible (why restart the peace process if it can't work? why would Iran want in to our talking shop if we have no options against it?) or would make much of a difference. Small wonder that his last recommendation is essentially to retrench, reduce American dependence on the region, and lower expectations.
While I could address a lot of different areas, I want to focus attention on the much-abused "war of ideas". Haass seems ready to write off the Arab world as lost to the Islamists. But this seems premature: just because authoritarian, corrupt Arab regimes, and a Bush administration allergic to any serious engagement with a war of ideas, have failed to promote an attractive alternative doesn't mean that it can't be done.
To begin with, Haass is manifestly wrong that Iraq has delegitimized democracy in the eyes of Arabs. It is true that many Arab leaders promote that interpretation in order to justify their own perpetuation. But there is very little empirical support for that belief. Public opinion surveys continue to show remarkably high levels of support for the idea of democracy in Arab and Muslim publics, independent of Iraq or American policies. Looking at Arab political debate today (especially on al-Jazeera and the more independent newspapers), denunciations of democracy are far less common than a comprehensive critique of the Arab order in which Arab failures are directly linked to the failures of the corrupt, authoritarian Arab dictators.
Haass is probably right that democratizing the Middle East would neither guarantee peace in the short term nor stop terrorism, but that doesn't mean that it should be abandoned as a goal. The globalization trends that he briefly notes, combined with Arab
demographics and a palpably deep disgust with the status quo, make this a poor time for the US to retrench. Contentious politics are on the rise across the region, and not just from Islamists, and defaulting back to support for the Arab dictators (as the administration seems to currently be doing, with its Axis of
Pro-American Dictators Moderates) would be foolish if the goal is really to minimize the duration and intensity of this 'bad period.'
Haass is right that American influence will likely decline, but given how toxic America is in these debates that might not be such a terrible thing. Forget about trying to force through an alternative labeled 'made in America' so that we can declare victory. A more prudent approach would be to try and strengthen the opportunities for Arabs and Muslims themselves to promote and discuss alternatives. In that regard, I would put far more emphasis on an energetic defense of freedom of speech and free media, two areas where the Bush administration has been downright anemic. It may be convenient in the short term to look the other way when these dictators crack down on the public sphere in the name of 'fighting terrorism,' but it is deeply destructive in the longer-term. Arab autocrats have no interest in allowing alternatives to themselves to emerge, but we do... and so do vast majorities of their populations. The US should energetically and consistently insist on a protected space for free political expression in these areas, even when anti-American rhetoric initially fills it. Luckily, given diminished American power, such a defense of public freedoms is a lot easier and cheaper than some more activist goals might be.
Haass is also wrong to lump together all Islamist movements, as he seems to do. There are real differences between mainstream Islamist movements willing to participate in elections and commit to constitutional guarantees for minorities, and radical movements which express contempt for such compromises. There are a lot of internal disagreements in these movements, and those whould be recognized (the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood alone is traditionally divided into hawks, doves, moderates, and now Hamasis - that's four different trends in one tiny movement, and others could probably be identified). The only distinction Haass really recognizes here is Sunni-Shia... but as the massive Sunni support for Hezbollah against Israel suggests, that might not really be the most relevant cleavage. The fact is that Islamist movements are going to be a, if not the more, powerful political force in all Arab countries for the forseeable future. But dealing with that reality doesn't have to mean a counsel of despair.
Haass argues that the US should try to make this bad stretch pass as quickly as possible. But his recommendations don't really push in that direction: they seem more aimed at insulating the US from the consequences of this new Middle East than about hurrying its demise. In general, I'm suggesting that not all of the elements of this new Middle East are as grim as he suggests, even if they fly in the face of traditional American foreign policy preferences.