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.
And rather than use the political capital won in Gaza to bank aid from the United States or a badly needed bailout from the International Monetary Fund, Morsi chose to tighten his grip on power. For a generation, we have thought of Egypt as the beginning to a Middle East solution, “a cornerstone of regional stability and peace,” as Clinton said. At best, that’s premature, and it may well represent the triumph of hope over the experience of the past weeks.
One step to the west, in Libya and Tunisia, where the Arab Spring first bloomed, the situation is even more chaotic. The post-dictatorial governments in Tunis and Tripoli face challenges from al Qaeda-affliated Salafist groups. How powerful these groups are is very difficult to tell, but at least on September 11 in Benghazi they were fatally powerful. Indeed, the strongest indictment of the Obama administration’s reaction to the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is that, in what was no doubt a very confusing time, it could only hear an echo of its own propaganda: Al Qaeda was on the ropes, therefore the consulate attacks could not have been conducted by an affiliated terrorist group. Whether it lied or not, the White House clearly couldn’t grasp an inconvenient truth.
Two steps from Egypt, in Algeria, there was good news recently: Makhfi Rabah, also known as Sheikh Abdenacer, a senior leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, was killed by Algerian forces. But that’s also a reminder that Algeria has long been under assault from Islamists. And North Africa’s problems have also migrated southward, particularly into Mali, once offered as an exemplar of American success in the global war on terrorism. Driven from Libya, the Islamists of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) temporarily made common cause with the Tuareg rebels in Mali to capture Timbuktu, but of late they’ve taken to committing atrocities against one another.
Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt remains by far the most important piece of the North Africa puzzle. The U.S-Egypt partnership has been a pillar of American Middle East strategy. Now it’s an uncertain and shaky foundation for the future.
The civil war in Syria has claimed 40,000 lives. Probably 10 times that many are homeless. The longer the war continues, the uglier the aftermath is likely to be.
It’s been more than a year since President Obama declared that Bashar al-Assad “must go.” But as long as his forces retain a decisive firepower advantage over their opponents, no one’s going to make him go. The opposition is on a roll militarily, overrunning a Syrian Army regiment in Aleppo, shooting down a helicopter and a fixed-wing fighter. But even if it can overthrow Assad, that’s not likely to be the end of the Syria mess.
There’s been a lot of handwringing, and rightly so, over the radicalization of the Syrian opposition. But it would be almost as bad to have a Syria that breaks up into local fiefdoms—warlordism may not be as bad as Islamism, but it’s not that much better; and as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani family have demonstrated in Afghanistan, warlordism and Islamism are compatible bedfellows.
And so Syria might go the way of Lebanon. The rump regime in Damascus would be weak, and in that sense less dangerous than the Assad family has been. But it would also be a recipe for constant strife, this time involving Turkey, a NATO ally, and with a clearer Sunni-versus-Shiite sectarian overlay. Iran will have lost an ally but retained a playground.
Obama’s let-it-burn approach to Syria has badly damaged U.S. credibility. In recent weeks, Britain and France have made more interventionist moves, and there has been speculation that the White House might do the same, now that the election campaign is over. Better late than never, perhaps, but the dithering over the last year has also foreclosed some options. Syrians who have been fighting and suffering won’t take kindly, for example, to government by exiles. The hard men who end up surviving are less likely to be democratically inclined, or Western-oriented. And establishing government control throughout the country won’t be easy. Either an Iranian-backed Shiite or an al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni insurgency—or both—seems a good prospect, and Iran can cause immense trouble in the outside world even from small sanctuaries in Syria.
One small benefit of the Syrian civil war appears to be that it’s preoccupied Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, who continues to play a waiting game. Beyond cheering on Hamas in Gaza, he’s remained reluctant to provoke Israel since 2006. Though that incursion is still widely regarded as a defeat for the Israelis, Nasrallah’s famous public regrets over the campaign have been reflected in his behavior since then. Hezbollah has been concentrating on more far-flung operations, including in Latin America, and its trainers are in high demand by insurgent organizations everywhere.
Jordan, too, is experiencing a spike of dissent. Recent protests pushed past previous boundaries of acceptable dissent in complaining about King Abdullah personally; that’s outlawed in Amman. Even though the Hashemite regime has repeatedly defied predictions of its demise, the generational changes sweeping the region, Palestinian unrest, the civil war in Syria, and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq isolate Abdullah—another pillar of U.S. strategy—more than usual.
All in all, the war in Syria makes the situation in the Levant roughly analogous to that in North Africa. The most powerful status-quo Arab autocracy hasn’t had its regime-change moment, but it’s plainly in view. And the United States is scrambling to keep up with events.
The Persian Gulf
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states retain a tighter grip on power than others, but also have more troubles than in the recent past. With Riyadh’s backing, and indeed, with Saudi troops, Bahrain cracked down hard on Shiite demonstrations last year. But the war in Yemen continues, and a nuclear Iran lurks just over the horizon.
To be sure, Tehran’s balance sheet has lots of minuses to go with the pluses. Assad’s fall would be a significant setback. But there would still be post-Assad opportunities in a weak and divided Syria, and in Iraq, Iran showed its ability to make temporary alliances of convenience with Sunni extremists. The Islamic Republic must also deal with a variety of domestic problems, from factionalism within the regime to the economic pain caused by sanctions.
But compared with its neighbors, Iran looks stable and secure; the likelihood of regime change in Tehran seems low. The Iranians don’t need to be in a nuclear rush, either; much better to pile up supplies of enriched uranium, to work on missiles and a couple of warhead designs, so that the breakout moment, when it comes, rapidly produces a credible deterrent of not one weapon but a dozen or more. In the meantime, watch the Americans retreat and the Sunni regimes worry about their increasingly dissatisfied people.
Israel and Turkey
The winds of Arab change complicate life for those who live next door, or, in Israel’s case, in the same house. Israel’s predicament is acute. The Israelis had, over many decades and with lots of American help, established a crude but durable kind of strategic partnership with the status-quo Arab regimes. Fear of Iran meant that the logic of the partnership would continue; Israel’s “isolation” among Arabs would not pose an existential danger. And it still might—again, Morsi’s Egypt is key—but Israelis have good reason to be more jittery than they’ve been for some time. Walls and “Iron Domes” and “mowing the grass” in Gaza cannot really suffice for Israeli defense. Preemptive attacks and punitive raids have long been needed to keep more numerous foes off balance, and Arab regimes largely looked the other way when it came to the Palestinians or the Shiites of southern Lebanon.
Life is also getting complicated in Ankara. Prime Minister Erdogan’s experiment in modern Islamic rule has all but eliminated the last vestiges of the Kemalist tradition, including in the Turkish Army. But “neo-Ottoman” posturing hasn’t gone down well among the Turkic states of Central Asia, and efforts at a broader Islamic appeal, such as the “flotilla” to the Palestinians in 2011, have mostly underscored the limits of Turkish power. So has the Syrian civil war. The conflict has produced a flood of refugees along what was already an unstable border, and Turkey faces a range of intolerable outcomes. Whether Assad hangs on, Syria breaks up, or radical Islamists take over—none of it looks good to Turks.
Israel and Turkey have been America’s best allies in the region. The U.S. commitment to Israel, like that to Great Britain, is woven into the fabric of American strategy. Turkey is of course a NATO nation, and that alliance remains a solemn treaty vow. Indeed, not that long ago Israel and Turkey were themselves strategic partners, but no longer.
An Ebbing American Tide
When Barack Obama declared, “the tide of war is receding,” what he meant was that the United States would no longer play the directing role it had previously assumed in the greater Middle East. That role began well before 9/11. It grew out of the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine in 1979. The 1990-1991 Gulf War marked a further Rubicon. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney famously promised the Saudi king that U.S. troops would leave once the job of kicking Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait was complete, but they didn’t. There wasn’t a stable status quo to return to. There isn’t one now. We have chosen what’s likely to prove a very bad time to tire of intervening in this region.
If the opportunity to shape the new order is slipping away, so are the means to do so. The U.S. military has made it through the post-9/11 wars by the skin of its teeth. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps, even when mobilizing much of their reserve strength, were not big enough to properly fight in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time. The U.S. Navy, supposedly the big beneficiary of the “Pacific pivot,” is running at ramming speed in and around the Persian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean.
Never mind the “sequestration” arm-waving. As the Obama 2014 budget request is certain to reveal, sequestration-level defense budgets are now the ceiling, not the floor. Perhaps a lame-duck deal will mitigate some of the immediate effect, but the likelihood of deeper defense spending cuts in 2014 and beyond is very high. Taxophobic Republicans will go along with what the president proposes. The Joint Chiefs of Staff will obey orders.
“Offshore balancing” in the emerging Middle East will be very much like shelling the continent of Africa, as Joseph Conrad put it: emotionally satisfying but without purpose or result. Some of the satisfaction will be lost when we balance the human cost of letting local conflicts run their course, as in Syria. But beyond what our moral sense can tolerate, there will be more tangible consequences. No one can predict with precision what they will be, but it’s a pretty good bet that the one thing worse than trying to put out all the fires will be letting them burn.
Thomas Donnelly is codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.