By Ambassador (R) David Mack
This is a historic time in the Arab world, like de-colonization after World War II. The combination of Arab cultural unity, the demographic impact of the youth bulge, and the information tools of satellite television and social media have accelerated popular demands for rapid political change. Americans feel a natural sympathy for people demanding greater political rights, and the media feed a romantic image of heroic opponents of dictatorial rulers. But we should be wise enough to remember that revolutions always promise more benefits than they deliver. Evolutionary change in a stable framework does not grab eyeballs on television news, but it is usually more desirable.
The political terrain has changed far more than U.S. interests in the region. We still want to help Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians, reach a state of peace. We still care a great deal about the security and orderly marketing of the vast oil and gas reserves of the region. We need allies in the struggle we share with the people of the region against extremist terrorism, whether based on religious or secular ideologies. We need to find a new relationship with Iran after decades of estrangement. In addition to a longstanding and close relationship with Israel, we cannot deal effectively with threats to U.S. national interests without earning the respect of Turkey and key Arab states, such as our economic partners in the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and Iraq, to name only a few of the states with a great history and challenging future.
Many say that we should shun relationships with leaders or political parties that do not share American values. Alas, Jeffersonian democrats who also support gender equality and tolerance of religious and ethnic pluralism are rare in this region. Indeed, elections often reveal that popular demands are both more reactionary and less pro-American than the instincts for progress and cooperation of many unelected leaders. Inevitably, we find that protection of U.S. citizens and their international interests require our government to deal with difficult people and reach compromises based on mutual respect more often than shared values.
Arab autocrats have drawn upon four alternative strategies in response to the demands for change.
First is the strategy of petro-welfare states, embracing economic expansion to create jobs and private wealth, smothering the opposition with money, while moving veery slowly toward political reform. The UAE and Qatar have followed this model with a good deal of success. Contrary to our ideological preference for electoral democracy, this has worked rather well for countries that are wealthy enough to sustain it. Few are. And it has to be effectively administered to deliver social services and sustain economic growth. Good governance plus generosity has led to a fair degree of legitimacy in these small, wealthy and relatively cohesive societies. Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi failed the test dramatically, and I will return to Libya to assess the damage left in his wake. Larger petro-states with less per capita wealth, like Saudi Arabia and Algeria, face major challenges in maintaining civil peace. Petro-states like Iraq and Bahrain have serious ethnic and sectarian divisions which dictate that mere economic largesse will not lead to social peace.
A second strategy is to make minor concessions in the face of opposition demands. In the 18th Century, France’s Louis XVI tried that without success. Examples in the Arab world are Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. One lesson is that when concessions come too late they fuel opposition rather than satisfying it. In France, Louis XVI lost his head at the guillotine, and decades of bloodshed followed.
In the aftermath of revolution, Tunisia is moving forward in fits and starts. A stable outcome is not certain. Democracy promotion has always been a risky strategy for the U.S. government, but the most promising Arab country for such a venture has long been Tunisia. With its relatively large middle class, developed government institutions, well educated elite, women’s emancipation and proximity to the European Union, Tunisia has significant advantages. The free elections have led to a government in which An Nahda, a moderate Islamist party aiming to be like Turkey’s AK party, has the dominant role. So far, An Nahda has wisely chosen to govern in coalition with secular parties. Tunisia is, however, facing very high levels of unemployment at a time when weakness in its major European trading partners does not offer hope of much outside aid or near term trade concessions. Unemployment is rising rapidly, and the Tunisian working class is unlikely to be satisfied by the trappings of democracy if it does not see a reversal of the downward economic slide.
The situation in Egypt is desperate, and the success or failure of democratic reform in that influential country will affect the rest of the region. The political and constitutional evolution of Egypt will be a struggle between the large Egyptian military establishment, jealously guarding its power and privileges, and the Islamist parties, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. So far, the secular parties have played a marginal role. They can bring large numbers of young people to the streets to demonstrate and give interviews to Western media, but they do not deliver enough voters to the polls.
President Mursi and any successor Egyptian leader will have to deal with cruel economic realities that offer no quick solutions. Egypt had enjoyed several years of better economic growth before the dramatic events of the spring of 2011. Since then, Egypt’s reserves of hard currency have fallen from 43 billion dollars to 13 billion. Egyptian business is disinvesting, and foreign investors are staying away. The overthrow of Husni Mubarak created exactly one job vacancy … his. Frequent demonstrations and threats of restrictions on alcohol or dress codes insure that Egypt’s vast, labor intensive tourist economy is slow to recover. Nationwide, unemployment is growing rapidly, and commodity prices are rising. In normal years, Egypt is the world’s number one importer of wheat. If Egypt is unable to finance wheat imports and other basic commodities, the middle class demonstrators calling for freedom will be replaced by starving masses demanding food and jobs. After a long delay, the Egyptian government seems closer to agreeing to take the harsh medicine of an IMF agreement that would provide new financial reserves. But will the government have the courage and political support to curtail commodity price subsidies and enforce tax collection?
Pro-active political reform is a third strategy. The model is the gradual evolution from divine right of kings to a constitutional monarchy in Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Examples in this region are Morocco and Jordan. Will this be fast enough in the age of Aljazeera and Twitter? Can King Muhammad of Morocco and King Abdullah of Jordan meet the combination of political demands and economic grievances? By themselves, free elections do not confer legitimacy at this early stage of political evolution. Arab protesters also demand that a government deliver security, services and jobs in order to merit its claim to legitimacy. The challenge to the U.S. and our allies is to help make pro-active political reform, our favored strategy, successful. Wall Street bond raters and international investment advisors are not moved by sentiment to vote in favor of democratic governments, and neither the U.S. Congress nor European Union nor wealthy Arab states are in a generous mood to step up to all the challenges in the region where the future for electoral democracy is at stake.
The fourth response of Arab autocrats has been repression. The model for Muammar al-Qadhafi in Libya and Bashar al-Asad in Syria has been China. Closer at hand, they saw the way Hafez al-Asad, the father of the current dictator, handled dissent in Syria for several decades. In the long run, this may be futile, and it leads to great human suffering. Alas, governments tend to think short term.
With its great natural wealth and favorable geographic location, Libya may pull through this period of turmoil and emerge with stable prosperity, but it is handicapped by a lack of institutions for both government and civil society. These institutions were already weak when Qadhafi took power in 1969. Like President Reagan, Qadhafi declared that government was the problem not the solution. But that was largely rhetoric for Reagan. Qadhafi put it into practice and dismantled everything from an effective civil service to an elected parliament. Then he ended privately owned rental properties and commerce. With help from NATO and the United Nations, courageous Libyans were able to rid the country of a despot, conduct elections and have a promised transfer of power. Replacing Qadhafi’s idiosyncratic brand of rule with a stable political system is proving more difficult. Libya’s new political leaders have yet to show they can actually govern by providing security and basic services. Libyan oil and gas encourage foreign interest in a successful outcome, but the obstacles are great.
The outcome of the struggle in Syria is likely to have a much wider political impact. What began as peaceful demonstrations against the secular Baath Party dictatorship evolved into a civil war. Perhaps 70 percent of the population now battles a heavily armed minority fighting for survival. It has elements of ethnic and sectarian divisions that could lead to a regional war involving Syria’s neighbors, as well as Iran. U.S. sympathy for a majority population fighting for political expression should not blind us to the plight of minorities, not only the Alawite power base of the Asad family but also some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It is notable that perhaps half of the Christians of Iraq had taken refuge in Syria, where the Christian minority had enjoyed relative peace and prosperity under a half century of secular rule. While the defects of the Syrian regime are many, its demise could usher in a period of ethnic cleansing and score settling unlikely to be contained within Syria’s borders. However distasteful to some, the Obama Administration’s efforts to find common ground with Russia and, perhaps, with a Syrian military successor to Bashar al-Asad is more prudent than a headlong rush into military involvement in support of a disparate opposition movement which includes many unsavory elements. The U.S. must also be sensitive to the interests of Turkey, the country which has emerged as our number one strategic ally in the Middle East. A regular and high level dialogue between Ankara and Washington is critical. The first country that President Obama visited in this region was Turkey, and Secretary of State Kerry has just done the same. Ambassador Ricciardone in Ankara and Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan in Washington are the very best these two NATO allies can put on the front lines of daily diplomacy.
Some Americans clamor for the U.S. to take a much greater role in offering not just humanitarian but also military assistance to the Syrian rebels. For a few others, direct military engagement is the answer. Having dealt with the Iraqi opponents to Saddam Hussein in Iraq throughout the 1990s, I would be very cautious about this. Opposition leaders invariably tell you they share your values and only ask for modest support to overthrow the hated tyrant. At first, they declare they will never ask for direct military engagement. Then they say that all they ask is a no-fly zone and assert they will do all the fighting on the ground. Without getting too deep into the tangled history of our tragic involvement in Iraq over the first decade of the 21st century, I believe that the wider American public will be more cautious this time. Bottom line for the Iraqi experience: After over four thousand dead Americans, many times that number in Iraqi lives, and well over a trillion dollars in direct and longer term expenditures the results indicate this is a terrible way to promote democratic change. The political system we left in place is more stable than democratic, and it is not particularly stable. The Iraqi economy is not advancing nearly as well as we all hope. The Iraqi government’s relations with Iran are closer than we might like, and its coolness toward our Arab friends and our ally Turkey are matters of concern. A good part of the problem is that Iraqis do not feel they own their new political system. This is true both for those who feel excluded from political power and for those in power who know it took an invasion by foreign forces to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime.
One lesson from Iraq is that even full electoral democracy by itself does not heal ethnic and sectarian feuds that breed violence. Another lesson is that the use of U.S. military force to hasten the process of political change can give democracy a bad name.
Wisely, if belatedly, the United States completed the withdrawal of its military forces from Iraq at the end of 2010. In the long term, Iraq has a chance to become a positive factor in regional stability and the global economy. Iraqi oil exports now follow only those of Saudi Arabia and Russia. My many years in Iraq and dealing with Iraqi leaders from Washington tell me that the nationalistic Iraqi people will successfully resist extreme Iranian influence on their government. It is unlikely that Iraq will either fall apart or become a failed state, but it can do much better than is now the case. Iraq needs partnerships with the international community, and it can choose to have very productive relationships with both the United States and Turkey.
For the United States, vital national security interests are at risk in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. All have been allies in the struggle against non-state terrorist movements like Al Qaeda. All of them feel threatened by Iran, and they view the civil war in Syria with dread. The Persian Gulf, eastern Arabia and Iran are the site of some two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves and much of its natural gas. Combine that fact with the presence of Islam’s most sacred holy places and you have a complex set of military and political decisions for any US Administration. Advocates of a simplistic democracy and human rights agenda do not have the answer to the necessary balancing of interests and search for effective policies. The US government wants to see progressive political change but also wants that change to take place within a framework of stability. There can be no one size fits all approach to each country.
Each Arab country is distinct. The U.A.E, Qatar and Kuwait are successful examples of wealthy patronage systems. Rapid change is unlikely due to the internal desire of a probable majority of the citizenry to maintain most of the status quo. Kuwait also has a meaningful, elected parliament which acts as a check on the ruling Sabah family and provides for a high degree of political participation by Kuwaiti citizens. It has been moving on the path to a version of constitutional monarchy for several decades. Ironically, it is the Kuwaiti parliament that refuses to grant equal rights to the large numbers of stateless Arabs in the emirate who have been demanding them. Both non-citizen Arab and non-Arab foreign workers are numerous in the petro-states of the Arabian Peninsula, and the citizens of these countries generally oppose extension of citizenship to such persons.
Bahrain and Oman are more difficult cases, but they are receiving political encouragement and financial help from wealthier neighbors. Despite a relatively high GDP, Bahrain has serious sectarian divisions. With some support from its Sunni population, Bahrain’s Sunni royal family rules an unhappy Shiite majority. Additionally, the ruling family has angered both non-royal Sunnis and the Shiite populations by restricting the role of the Bahraini parliament, which has existed in some form for nearly half a century. King Hamad’s political flexibility is curbed by more conservative family members.
The Sultan of Oman is less influenced by the royal family, but Oman is challenged by a broad range of social issues and does not have the wealth needed to sustain a system built on patronage and welfare for the long term. Although Sultan Qaboos has moved slowly toward political reforms in what remains a very traditional country, he has not produced an heir and may intend to leave a legacy of constitutionalism.
In per capita terms, Saudi Arabia is not an excessively wealthy nation. There is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. If the ruling Saud family wants to keep some of its privileges, it will have to allow wealth redistribution and economic liberalization. King Abdullah is a reformer in the context of Saudi Arabia. He faces conservative opposition from large parts of the population and some members of his extended family for introducing change too fast, even while the pace of change seems slow to the West. Abdullah has launched a huge spending program for the next two years in order to create jobs. This is combined with more opportunities for women, more cultural freedom for young people and a gradual empowerment of the Majlis ash-Shura or Consultative Council, which gives Saudis outside the large ruling family an expanding political role. So far, it seems to be working.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, and it faces a range of daunting problems including separatism in the south, a tribal insurgency in the north, the presence of Al-Qaeda inspired terrorists and rapidly declining water reserves. In a sense, the democracy insurgency was only the latest and not really the most serious problem facing a government which has minimal control in most parts of the country. Ali Abdullah Saleh was perhaps the most capable natural leader in the Arab world, but he stayed for too long. His negotiated transition out of power and the help to Yemen of the wealthier states of the Arabian Peninsula suggests a constructive way to end the crisis in Syria. Many Yemenis complain about the compromise outcome, but it was a cheap price to pay to avoid the kind of suffering we see in Syria.
In conclusion, Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula states, Egypt and Jordan are all key allies for US strategy in seeking a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, starting with the Palestinians. Long term stability for the whole region depends on that. While absence of Arab-Israel peace is not the reason for many of the problems in the Arab world, it greatly hinders the effectiveness of the United States in dealing with international terrorism, protecting the region’s energy resources and supporting democratic change.
Ambassador (R) David Mack is a Middle East Institute Scholar and former US Ambassador. The opinion piece above is an extensive excerpt from his address to International Strategic Research Association (USAK) on March 21, 2013 in Ankara, Turkey.