Our shaky coalition, and how to save it
There are two opposing coalitions in the Middle East today. On the one hand, there is a revisionist coalition comprised of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah—a coalition dissatisfied with the distribution of power in the region, and dissatisfied with the current agenda-setters and frameworks for state action. These revisionists include states and non-state actors. Like other such coalitions in the region’s past century of history, they are using their ability to play spoiler on regional issues and within the domestic politics of certain Arab states, in order to force status-quo states to give them a greater share of attention and power.
Hezbollah’s dynamic leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and Iran’s populist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, envision a region defined by unending “resistance” against Israel, the United States and status-quo Arab governments. Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad argue for the redemptive value of violence and offer the promise of justice and dignity for Arabs humiliated by decades of defeat at the hands of the West and Israel, and decades of humiliation and neglect at the hands of their own governments.
Against this group of revisionist actors is a looser coalition of status-quo actors who are trying to preserve the regional balance of power, including the role played by the United States. It is notable that today’s status-quo coalition, unlike any in the Middle East’s past since 1948, includes all the major Arab states alongside Israel and the United States.
Even on the streets of their own cities, moderate Sunni Arab leaders such as Egypt’s President Husni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah (all associates of the United States) are less popular than Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad. The radicals’ message of resistance is always combined with denunciations of Sunni Arab leaders for cowering under an American security umbrella and making humiliating deals with Israel, and for ignoring the plight of their own people. The revisionists’ critiques of Arab governments’ performance both regionally and domestically are echoed and reinforced by the narrative of the domestic Islamist opposition inside Egypt, Jordan, and the other Arab status-quo states.
This balance of forces in the region had its coming-out party in the 2006 Lebanon War, and the diplomacy and developments since that conflict all represent the efforts by regional revisionists to capitalize on the openings that conflict created for them, and by the status-quo states to recover and contain the revisionists’ influence.
Because of this regional face-off, and the imperative of containing this revisionist coalition of actors, America and her major Arab partners need one another more than ever. But Arab states are cooperating with America in the face of unprecedentedly high levels of public anti-American resentment and anger. America and the status-quo Arab states must attempt to cooperate in containing these regional threats at a time when each of them individually, and their partnership itself, are subject to widespread public resentment and opprobrium. And the regional revisionists are proving themselves very effective at wielding this public sentiment against both the Arab regimes and against Washington. That puts them in a real dilemma. Over time, in the absence of some kind of regional progress, this U.S.-Arab strategic cooperation on big regional issues like Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel will only survive if Arab governments are willing to repress that domestic resentment and anti-Americanism.
That is not a stable foundation for long-term relations, and it’s a situation that plays right into the arguments of regional radicals like Hasan Nasrallah as to why these regimes have to be overthrown: they sell out to the Americans, they make humiliating deals with Israel, and they don’t care about the people.
Washington and the Arab capitals are like two donkeys tied together on a cart: neither can stand without the other’s help, and neither can escape unless the other is also freed. The Arab regimes are implicated by our failed foreign policies in the region, and we are implicated by their failed domestic governance. If we don’t help each other, we are both in trouble, and we know it.
Escaping from the bind that the United States and its Arab friends are in in the Middle East today requires several things that seem in short supply in 2008: a commitment to sustaining our investments when many weary Americans would prefer to walk away from the table; new investments in issues like Arab-Israeli diplomacy even though the returns are likely to be meager at best; and a commitment to the long term, despite the urgency many feel for quick results.
Here are my thoughts on what such a policy must comprise:
A renewed effort at Arab-Israeli peacemaking—not because the situation is ripe for resolution, but because a peace process is part of containing the regional revisionists and especially the efforts of Iran to plant both feet firmly in the heart of the Levant. A peace process will not solve all the problems of the Middle East. But a peace process is important because it creates tensions and disagreements among members of the revisionist coalition, weakening their impact on the region and on our regional allies.
A continued U.S. commitment to security in the Persian Gulf. Despite Russia and China’s more energetic commercial efforts in the region, neither of these countries is eager to take over this job. The United States must continue to keep the Gulf open for all, and I am fairly confident it can be done peacefully. But it does require concerted multilateral diplomacy to deal with the Iranian nuclear program, to deal with Iraqi stabilization, and to help the GCC states build the capacity and will to play a greater role in Gulf security.
Initiatives that will present a compelling narrative of progress, peace and prosperity to counter the narrative of rejection and resistance put forward by the revisionists. As I said, that suggests the value of efforts at Arab-Israeli peace, but it also suggests the need to present the vast majority of Arabs who live outside Palestine with the opportunity to shape their own future. This promise can only be fulfilled through far-reaching political, economic and social reforms that create a new relationship between Arab governments and their citizens.
Arab leaders keenly feel the threats from radical Islam within their own societies. They know that Islamists have capitalized on state failures and weaknesses, and that the critique put forward by local Islamists is magnified by the rising popularity of Iran and its allies. In this insecure environment, U.S. efforts to persuade at least some Arab leaders of the need to reform should resonate—if it is part of a broader regional agenda, and if it is accompanied by the right kind of incentives.
For now, most Arab regimes believe that the best way to manage the threat from domestic Islamist opposition is to focus on resolving regional conflicts like Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, relieving them of the burden of addressing domestic grievances. While the United States should work with them to resolve regional conflicts, the next president needs to help them understand that the best insulation against the destabilizing effects of regional revisionists and rising domestic Islamism is to repair the frayed social contract between citizens and the state.
Tamara Cofman Wittes made these remarks at a symposium on “After Bush: America’s Agenda in the Middle East,” convened by MESH at Harvard University on September 23.