The Structural Hopelessness of US Policy Toward the Middle East

The Structural Hopelessness of US Policy Toward the Middle East

Daniel Larison has made one of the strongest arguments I’ve seen for the structural hopelessness of US policy toward the Middle East. In response to my piece calling on Obama to focus more on democracy promotion, he writes

Were allied Arab states to become much more democratic, their governments would be obliged to pay more attention to the grievances Greg [Scoblete] mentions, and that would make the divergence of perceived interests between our governments difficult to paper over…Washington is not very used to having many allies that pursue independent foreign policies, and it does not respond well to allies that resist or criticize U.S. policies(…)

It might be possible for Washington to adjust to a world with many democratized Arab states that distance themselves from the United States in some ways, but more likely we would have to endure years of acrimonious domestic debate and recriminations over “who lost Oman.” Our politicians would try to outdo one another with promises to restore American “credibility” in the region, and the government would probably back the occasional coup against Islamist or populist Arab leaders.”

It is certainly possible that policymakers would be this myopic. One hopes we’re capable of some introspection – and, God forbid – change. I think that’s why we need to make the case, in very clear terms, that democracy promotion is, contrary to perceptions, in America’s national security interest (I’ve made this argument here, here, and here). Continuing our unqualified support of dictators, on the other hand, is not, because it perpetuates what nearly everyone agrees is an untenable status quo – unless, that is, you’re willing to believe that autocracy can be made permanent.

That said, having, and propping, “stable” dictators in power is the path of least resistance, in part, because it’s been our policy for so long. Change, particularly when it requires bureaucratic recalibration, is painful. It would require a strategic vision, along with a boldness, creativity, and imagination that have thus far been lacking from the Obama administration. It would also take a certain tolerance for risk; newly-elected governments, as Larison points out, would do things we’d disagree with. 

But I think Larison overstates the U.S. fear of states pursuing what he calls “independent foreign policies,” especially since there are already two Middle Eastern countries that actively and unapologetically do just that – Turkey and Qatar. They also happen to be close American allies. I’d be comfortable making the argument that, despite their hobnobbing with Iran and sympathy toward Hamas, both countries are more effective American allies than, say, Egypt and Jordan, precisely because their foreign policy conduct is perceived to be more independent and in line with popular Arab sentiment. Turkey and Qatar are credible actors where their Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts are not. In other words, it is possible to envision a new Middle East, one with democratically-elected governments which, because they enjoy popular consent, are more effective on the regional and international stage.