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Middle East: United States Fundamental Strategic Dilemma


By Dr. Subhash Kapila

The United States is deeply involved in the belated management of the on-going political crisis that has engulfed Egypt. The Egyptian political crisis has all the potential of blowing into a full-fledged Iranian Revolution of the 1979 type if the United States in the pursuance of its traditional interests seeks to sustain a modified status-quo by assertions of ensuring an orderly transformation of power by easing out President Mubarak and yet replacing it by an Egyptian Army backed pseudo-civilian Government in Cairo.

In both the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the current Egyptian political crisis of 2011, what was being sought by both peoples was the replacement of hated and oppressive regimes in power and a political transformation for a better democratic and peaceful future for themselves. The common denominator that emerges in both the Iranian Revolution 1979 and the present Egyptian Crisis 2011 is that in both cases the much hated Shah of Iran regime and the President Mubarak regime in Egypt were backed and sustained by successive United States Administrations for decades to serve United States strategic and security interests in the region and with global overtones also.

The striking feature of the United States strategy both in Iran then and Egypt now was that it was marked by a “total disconnect” and obliviousness to the feelings and aspirations of the Iranian and Egyptian people and was “regime centric” in its orientation.

The Iranian Revolution 1979 ended up as an Islamic Revolution in my view because United States policies in its regime-centric fixations became oblivious to pressuring the Shah of Iran to cede space in Iran’s domestic milieu for growth of a domestic polity and liberal institutions. The Iranian Revolution consequently ended up as an Islamic Revolution as it got hijacked as such by the Ayatollahs in the absence of credible political leadership as an alternative.

Fortunately for the United States, the visuals flowing out of the million-man protest demonstrations in Cairo do not so far give the impression of any Islamic religious frenzy as the driving force of the protests. Pointed out and stressed in my earlier Paper was the fact that the current Egyptian Crisis seeks “Political Transformation” and not “Revolutionary Transformation”.

In the fitness of things, President Obama’s articulating United States political outreach to the Islamic World in his speech at Cairo in 2009 must now substantively shape the United States responses to the ongoing political upheaval in Cairo by crafting the right responses to the upsurge for political transformation. The political democratic transformation of Egypt by the United States could herald the political transformation of the Middle East.

Dangers lurk for the United States, however, as it attempts to maneuver into place a modified status-quo regime minus President Mubarak, yet essentially an Egyptian Army backed and controlled regime, traditionally bound to the United States. Of the nearly US $ 2 billion a year aid to Egypt, 60% is funneled into the Egyptian Armed Forces.

The Egyptian masses do not seem to be inclined to accept this fudging-up of their upsurge for political transformation. Even if the United States manages to be successful in pushing through its current strategy it could end-up only with a temporary defusing of the Egyptian Crisis but putting in its place a virtual tinderbox which could not only blow up into an Islamic Revolution but with wider ramifications for the United States in the whole of the Middle East Region.

Analyzing the Middle East in terms of strategic dilemmas for the United States today can no longer be done in terms of country-specific analysis as the incendiary spark that started from Tunisia and has gone overblown in Egypt and has already spread wider to Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, and Lebanon and may have already headed towards Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Region Sheikhdoms.

What is at stake for the United States today in the Middle East Region is that all United States backed regimes are under assault by the Arab youth averaging up to 30% of each nation’s population. They seek “political transformation” which implies regime-displacement of US-sustained regimes, which are hated and despised. In the process, the United States too becomes the focus of this hatred and contempt.

The United States, if it wishes to plan a sustained and credible embedment in the Middle East Region, is faced with a strategic dilemma which essentially boils down to two fundamental questions as follows:

  • The United States, should it persist in being on “The Wrong Side of History”?
  • The United States, should it now prudently opt for being on “The Right Side of History”

The following discussion on the above theme is being confined to the ongoing political upheaval in the Arab World which is the major component of the Middle East and therefore a major determinant of United States regional policies. This is being clarified because United States overall strategic dilemma in the Middle East encompasses many more strands in relation to US approaches to Iran, the shifts in Turkey’s foreign policy and the intra-regional rivalries.

There is an intense debate on these fundamental issues in the United States as it grapples with the Egyptian crisis. As is the case when new directions in policy are envisaged there is always stiff opposition from entrenched interests in the policy establishment as it threatens the unraveling of what they had all along espoused as the best option.

Surprisingly even in India one witnessed last week- end in a newspaper a retired Indian diplomat arguing that it is better for India to remain on the wrong side of history when viewing perspectives on the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, as it is that national security interests eventually matter. This may be an attractive option as a short time option but long-term options require imagination and innovation to ensure that the same ends of national security are ensured, but on a more sustainable and enduring basis.

Before examining the fundamental dilemma of the United States, it would be pertinent to briefly delineate United States core strategic interests in the Middle East Region.

This Paper therefore is laid out as follows:

  • United States Core Strategic Interests in the Middle East
  • The United States Should it Persist on “The Wrong Side of History” in the Middle East
  • The United States Should it now Prudently Change and Persist on “The Right Side of History” in the Middle East

United States Core Interests in the Middle East Region

The core interests of the United States in the Middle East Region essentially revolve around the following strategic interests and which underlie all United States policy determinations in the Middle East Region:

  • The Security of Israel and its Existence within Secure Boundaries.
  • Middle East Oil and Gas Reserves should Not Fall into hands of Regimes Hostile to the United States and the West
  • Strategic Waterways Like The Gulf and Red Sea, and Strategic Chokepoints like the Suez Canal and Hormuz Straits Should Not be in the Control of Inimical Regimes.

The Israel Factor is the overriding factor in all US strategic formulations both because of its geostrategic and geopolitical significance and because of significant domestic political considerations within the United States. The Arab States with geographical contiguity to Israel like Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon thus are of prime importance.

In terms of the second factor, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Sheikhdoms and Iraq are of the highest strategic value for the United States as they sit astride the largest reserves of oil and gas.

In relation to the third factor, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Sheikhdoms, Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia have significance for the United States.

Iran figures as the most significant factor and impinges heavily on all three core US strategic interests stated above but regrettably for the United States, Iran remains outside the United States orbit of influence. Hence, the unremitting hostility of the United States against Iran.

The United States- Should it Persist on “The Wrong Side of History” in the Middle East

The United States ever since 1945 has given its core strategic interests in the Middle East an overriding and relentless supremacy over all other political, economic and societal factors. The manifestations of such a strategy can be recounted as follows:

  • Middle East regimes figuring high in US strategic calculus were permissively tolerated by the United States to be ruled by authoritarian regimes or equally repressive monarchial regimes
  • Such Middle East regimes and especially their Armed Forces were sustained by United States with massive advanced weapons supplies either free as in the case of Egypt and Jordan or cash payments by monarchial regimes.
  • Middle East such regimes ended up in not ceding political space for healthy political discourse and activity and lack of focused economic development for the masses.

The end result after half a century of the United States being on “The Wrong Side of History” has been as follows:

  • In 2011, the US-allied regimes of the Middle East have become politically volatile where there is clamor for regime-changes long sustained by the United States.
  • The United States because of its sustaining suppressive regimes is no longer perceived an “honest broker” in the current crisis that engulfs the Middle East.
  • The permissive tolerance of suppressive regimes allied to the United States generated the emergence and rise of Islamic fundamentalist terror groups in most of Middle East countries which have ended up targeting the United States

In terms of a strategic audit of United States policy formulations it can be safely asserted that the United States on “The Wrong Side of History” in the Middle East has ended up where its future embedment in the Middle East if not overwhelmingly threatened is definitely under questioning.

The United States -Should it Now Prudently Change and Persist on “The Right Side of History”

The discourse preceding would indicate that the United States is at a crucial juncture where there is a political call on it to change its existing policies and prudently opt for a change and persist on “The Right Side of History”. Strategic environments and political environments are inherently dynamic in nature and not status-quoist.

The Middle East today is dynamically changing where there are strident calls for regime changes, political transformation, and equitable opportunities for economic advancement. The Middle East is in ferment because with the Internet and Facebook information explosion, the Arab youth see no reason as to why they should be subjects of repressive regimes.

The Middle East Region today is at a “Tipping Point” where it has to decide between short term tactical political expediencies or long term insurance for its core strategic interests.

Sustaining the status-quo as the United States may be tempted to do so or imposing half-baked solutions for strategic expediency could end up in the United States strategic policy formulations pushing the political upheaval in Arab countries into the arms of Islamic fundamentalist movements, far too eager to exploit the sentiments of the agitated youth.

Reverting to the core United States strategic interests, what people would like to debate is whether in the alternative of opting for being on “The Right Side of History” the core strategic interests would continue to be secured?

Admittedly, there would be a phase of turbulence and uncertainty in such an option, but then the United States has the military might to correct any aberrations or crises emerging on such a path. The history of United States military interventions in the Middle East suggests that in the past too the United States has had to go it alone. The Arab nation’s military involvement in Gulf War I was notional and inGulf War II was virtually non-existent.

Israel’s security has endured both on its own strengths and the United States underwriting it all along. Israel’s nuclear weapons capabilities are an effective deterrent against any military adventurism from any quarters in the Middle East.

In terms of oil and gas a supply, the United States has already considerably diversified its sources of supply and therefore this consideration should cease to be of strategic concern and a determination in its strategic calculations.

The last-named core strategic interest is also one which the United States can handle comfortably on its own US Navy strengths and capability. No Middle East nation well into the future can challenge US naval supremacy.

By opting for being on “The Right Side of History” the United States does not run into any significant strategic risks that jeopardize its core strategic interests. On the contrary, despite pinpricks and strategic irritants that may emerge temporarily in opting for being on “The Right Side of History” the United States has a good chance of shaping the Middle East into a progressive region abounding in political liberalism and civil institutions and an overall stability in the region. Such Middle East stability could also negate or limit the rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups and armed militias which exploit ant-American sentiments on the street.

President Obama’s political outreach to the Islamic World in his speech at Cairo in 2009, if to be meaningful, must now be concretized by the Unite States with the right democratic responses to the political upheaval manifesting at Cairo.

Concluding Observations

The Middle East Region has consistently posed strategic dilemmas not only to the United States but also other global players which have strategic interests in the region. The Middle East has also similarly posed strategic dilemmas to nations of the Middle East themselves.

The United States as the lead player in the global power calculus and the Superpower with a constant strategic predominance in the Region should not shy away from the political challenges that are unfolding. The United States has in itself the determination and comprehensive power strengths to shape the Middle East for greater global good.

The Middle East Region being at a “Tipping Point” as the current political upheaval indicates, demands that the United States correctly reads the imperatives that suggest that the United States should now prudently move to being on “ The Right Side of History”

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

2 thoughts on “Middle East: United States Fundamental Strategic Dilemma

  • February 7, 2011 at 11:45 am

    What means the “Gulf”??????
    for over 3000 year its known as ” Persian sea or Persian Gulf” (for more info please refer to :

    In the 5th century BC, Darius the Great of the Achaemenid dynasty called the Persian Gulf “Draya; tya; haca; parsa: Aitiy”, meaning, “The sea which goes from Persian.”[10] In this era, some of the Greek writers also called it “Persikonkaitas”, meaning the Persian Gulf. Claudius Ptolemaues, the celebrated Greco-Egyptian mathematician/astronomer in the 2nd century called it “Persicus Sinus” or Persian Gulf.[11] In the 1st century AD, Quintus Curtius Rufus, the Roman historian, designated it “Aquarius Persico” – the Persian Sea.[12] Flavius Arrianus, another Greek historian, called it “Persiconkaitas” (Persian Gulf).[13]

    During the Sassanian dynasty and the time of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and the 4 caliphs, the name invariably used was the “Persian Sea.”[14] This was continued by the Ummayyads and Abbassids,[14] while during the time of the Ottoman empire, both “Persian Gulf” or “Persian Sea” were used, and occasionally Ottomans utilized the term “Khalij of Basra” or “Basra Kurfuzi” to refer to Persian Gulf, meaning the Gulf of Basra.[14]

    Among historians, travellers and geographers of the Islamic era, many of them writing in Arabic from the 9th to the 17th century, Ibn Khordadbeh,[15] Ibn al-Faqih,[16] Ibn Rustah,[17] Sohrab,[18] Ramhormozi,[19] Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Farisi al Istakhri,[20] Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Mas’udi,[21] Al-Mutahhar ibn Tahir al-Maqdisi(d. 966),[22] Ibn Hawqal,[23] Al-Muqaddasi,[24] Ibn Khaldun,[25] Mohammad ibn Najub Bekiran,[26] Abu Rayhan Biruni,[27] Muhammad al-Idrisi,[28] Yaqut al-Hamawi,[29] Zakariya al-Qazwini,[30] Abu’l-Fida,[31] Al-Dimashqi,[32] Hamdollah Mostowfi,[33] Ibn al-Wardi,[34] Al-Nuwayri,[35] Ibn Batutta,[36] Katip Çelebi and other sources[37] have used the terms “Bahr-i-Fars”, “Daryaye-i-Fars”, “Khalij al-‘Ajami” and “Khalij-i Fars” (all of which translate into “Persian Gulf” or “Persian Sea”).

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