The greater Middle East, the mostly Muslim lands stretching from North and West Africa to South Asia, is in the throes of profound change. And it’s not just the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath. Two other trends are shaping the region’s future: the imminence of a nuclear-armed Iran and the retreat of the United States. Taken together, these three factors are likely to result in a lot of violence.
The prospects for Arab governments to move quickly and decisively from autocracy to democracy were perhaps never that bright. Neither is it written that these revolutions will inevitably result in Salafist rule. But the collapse of the corrupt Arab nationalist regimes that were ushered in by the end of European colonialism and the rise of the United States as the region’s dominant outside power is now nearly comprehensive. Bashar al-Assad is not going down without a lot more fighting in Syria, moderate monarchs like Jordan’s King Abdullah II have been prematurely written off before, and the House of Saud and the Gulf emirates have bought their way out of many past periods of unrest. But the legitimacy of such regimes is in steep decline; more will fall.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Iran that grabbed power in the wake of the shah has proved remarkably durable, surviving internal faction and dissent as well as external sanctions. While Iran’s rise to regional dominance has been often foretold and never realized, and the exact state of its nuclear program is opaque, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have good reason to believe that their time is near. Even without the nukes, the Arab cacophony is, mostly, sweet harmony to Tehran.
As is the American withdrawal. In 2008, the United States looked as though it was in Iraq to stay. Even Barack Obama had moderated his campaign promises of a precipitate retreat. His lieutenants, particularly in the Pentagon, where Robert Gates still ruled and a cadre of Trumanesque Democrats filled most policy posts, talked of a continuing if lesser garrison and a renegotiated “status of forces” agreement. And in 2009, the president pledged his own “surge” of troops in Afghanistan. But that commitment was hedged by an even stronger commitment to a date-certain drawdown, and Obama was out of Iraq by 2011. Since then, there’s been a series of events—the abandonment of Hosni Mubarak, the “leading from behind” campaign in Libya, persistent public displeasure with Benjamin Netanyahu, the empty call for Assad “to go,” the “Pacific pivot,” reductions to the defense budget—that adds up to a pretty clear signal: The Middle East is now, at best, an “economy of force” interest for the United States. The Obama Doctrine—let it burn—has supplanted the Carter Doctrine, under which control of the Persian Gulf region was deemed a vital U.S. interest.
The consequences of a return to pre-1979 “offshore balancing” are impossible to predict. For the foreseeable future, the U.S. military may be too small for regime change or counterinsurgency—if it was ever large enough to do that properly—but it’s still able to hand out a lot of punishment. And the rest of the world’s developed and developing economies still need the oil and gas; maybe China or some condominium of other powers will pick up some of the burden. Still, the near-term forecast has to be for violence, followed by intermittent violence and then renewed violence. A tour of the regional horizon shows how much and how fast the old order is decaying.
Egypt and North Africa
Egypt’s role in negotiating the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was portrayed in Washington as a sign of continuity in Cairo. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, “Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.” But by the end of the week Mohamed Morsi, the new Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, decreed himself above the law, or at least not bound by the Mubarak holdovers in the judiciary. This has not only united the disparate Egyptian opposition against him, again filling Tahrir Square with antiregime protesters, but badly wrong-footed the Obama administration.
It’s true that Morsi didn’t play the Islamist card in the Gaza crisis, as Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did when he labeled Israel a “terrorist state.” But the Egyptian government has never had much love for Hamas, particularly an increasingly Iran-backed Hamas. The smuggling of long-range Iranian rockets through the Sinai underscores Egypt’s weakness and corruption.