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How Turmoil in the Middle East Might Change American Foreign Policy

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America has to rethink its diplomacy in the Middle East. The revolution that started softly in a minor country, Tunisia, has now overtaken Egypt, a behemoth in the Arab world, and threatens to spread like wildfire to the whole region: Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and even beyond the region, as far out as China, where a so-called Jasmine revolution was immediately squelched!

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this tsunami is that it hasn’t yet hit other dictatorial regimes, such as Saudi Arabia or Syria. It may hit there too, but for the moment, the attention of the international community is trained on Libya, and no wonder. Libya stands apart from the others; so far, it’s the only country that has experienced a bloodshed that looks almost like a civil war.

Israel is understandably worried about losing its allies in the region and, overall, it is keeping mum while everybody else is speaking up. Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt and with Jordan no longer looks so solid.  Now that Mubarak is gone and Egypt is in transition towards a new regime, all the options are open, including a rejection of the treaty, as a majority of Egyptians are said to dislike it.

What about the US? Obama, in line with America’s vision of itself as the champion of democracy, has come out very clearly on the side of the protesters. So has Europe (albeit a little belatedly). There has been near-universal condemnation of the bloodshed in Libya, with the notable exception of Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador who have sided with Qaddafi. So far, the UN estimates more than 1,000 have died and 100,000 have fled the country. As might be expected, this has led to cries for sanctions, with a  UN Security Council  resolution slamming the usual sanctions on Qaddafi and his family: asset freezing, interdiction to travel, arms sales embargo, and perhaps what is more important, opening the way to refer him to the International Criminal Court (ICC), charging him with crimes against humanity. But that would require an investigation in Libya, something that hasn’t yet been set up.

Some, like Senator John McCain, even want military intervention. But that’s unlikely. The internal situation in Libya would have to degenerate a great deal more to justify an intervention. Why? Because the international system, the United Nations, is firmly based on a principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of member countries. If you jump into Libya because you think unspeakable wrong is done to innocent people, you may be morally right, but countries like China or Russia, for obvious reasons, will not appreciate nor support you. The proposal of a no-fly zone over Libya is more likely to be accepted.

So is it right for the United States to pursue sanctions against Libya and, generally speaking, bang the table in favour of democracy? Surely this attitude is not to the taste of Saudi Arabia, which continues to be the main oil player, with 12% of world production. The Saudis don’t like what is happening in Bahrein either; first, it is happening on their doorstep, and second, they don’t want the Sunni monarchy there to lose out to the Shia majority.

It would seem that democratic change won’t go either very far or very fast. Leaders have been toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, but that’s only the first step. To actually bring about real democracy is a long, complex process. As to other places, like Libya, where credible opposition leaders have yet to emerge, it is difficult to imagine what could happen next.

So can one expect a sea change in American policy in response to so-called Arab revolutions?  I don’t think so. Obama seems to have played his cards well so far. But he is treading a mine field. He can only come on the side of street protesters when it becomes clear that the leaders they try to topple are threats to democracy, as in Tunisia and Egypt.

There are, however, a number of countries where the situation is not that clear. For example in Yemen, where considerable pro-government manifestations have taken place in response to the protests (but the situation could change there, too). In such cases, American reaction has to be more subdued. Then there’s a series of manifestations that are not real calls for a regime change but only protests against specific conditions, mainly unemployment, poverty and disgust towards the corruption of the ruling elite, such as in Iraq and Oman.  Last but not least, it is not in the American interests to go against oil giants like Saudi Arabia, who have been long-standing allies in the region.

One thing is certain: these are not revolutions inspired by Al Qaeda-type violence or religion. They are classic middle class revolutions, led by the “facebook generation:” young, savvy people, often with higher education but with few job prospects, once out of the university.

How far on the road to democracy will the Arab revolutions go? It is obviously going to be a long, winding road. Arabs all look to the Turkish model: a largely islamic country that has made it, successfully combining democracy and capitalism with a moderate, liberal version of Islam. But it took 60 years for Turkey to get there, and its starting point under the iron guidance of Ataturk was somewhat different: it was a military, secular republic.  Can the Turkish model be replicated? Probably.

What can America and Europe do to help? Not much beyond providing technical support and guidance to develop democratic state structures and giving aid to alleviate poverty and create jobs. Easier said than done: so far, few aid efforts have managed to replicate the success of the Marshall Plan; and in any case, they can’t be even started if the countries in question do not request help…

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About Claude Nougat

Claude Nougat is a writer, economist, painter and poet. A graduate of Columbia University, she has dabbled in a wide variety of jobs before starting a 25 year career at the United Nations (Food and Agriculture) where she ended as Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia. Now happily retired, she dedicates herself to her two lifelong passions, writing and painting. She is the author of seven books of fiction and a prime exponent of Boomer literature, a new genre focused on the “second act” in life. Her novel, Crimson Clouds, has been hailed as “quintessential boomer lit”. Her most recent book (published April 2013) is a science fiction serial novel Forever Young, that takes a hard look at our world 200 years from now when the benefits of technological advances all go to the ultra rich, the One Percent. Her poetry has been included in Freeze Frame, an international poetry anthology curated by British poet Oscar Sparrow, published by Gallo Romano Media in 2012. She is married and lives in Italy.
  • Things are moving fast in the Middle East and the “Arab Spring” is beginning to look like it’s in for a rough ride, especially in Tunisia, the country where it all started. Extremists continue to gather in the streets of Tunis everyday, asking that all their demands be met bar none (the Prime Minister’s been changed but that’s not enough; they got the establishment of a Constitution-writing assembly before elections are organized and that’s not enough either). So the “silent majority” (read the middle classes which are quite large in Tunisia – one of the biggest in the Arab world, if not the biggest) is getting fed up with the “casseurs” (in French: those who break things, the vandals). They are counter-manifesting in another part of Tunis every day.
    Result? If this goes on much longer, there’s a real danger that democracy will be endangered: people will call for a return to law and order and the only ones who can deliver that are the army, of course.
    What should America and Europe do to sustain democracy in the Arab world? That is the question and a hard one to answer…In te West, we have experience with democracy and what it takes to make it run, but it’s very hard to export that experience. Furthermore, unless there’s a demand for this experience, there’s nothing we can do. Forceful imposition of democracy is out of the question. Everyone in the Arab world has seen how it went in Afghanistan and Iraq and no one wants a repeat…

  • Ruvy

    What has sparked these revolutions has been hunger and inflation. More like them are on the way, and not only in the Middle East; as hunger and inflation hits the USA, unrest will hit there, as well. The Wahhabi terrorists masquerading as Muslims (like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) were not ready for any of this, and have had to figure out how to take control of the situations.

    Libya is not sorted out yet, but finally the Wahhabi seem to have a handle on events in the Arab world.

    This is just another symptom of increasing unrest that will afflict the planet this year and next. Put put your food trays in the upright position and strap yourselves in tight. You’re in for a very bumpy ride. Hell, we all are.

    Peace out and shabbat shalom from Jerusalem. Enough money wasted on this terribly slow site in an internet cafe. Gotto go and catch a bus home!

  • No kidding, Liza (referring to your opening sentence, naturally).

  • John Lake

    I read the article that Liza18 linked to. Interesting and pertinent, but people throughout time have been subjected to authoritarianism; it is not a pain exclusive to the Muslims of our world.
    The belief that freedom is a right given by the creator is not fundamental to humanity. It is in some ways, new thinking.
    The current American administration strongly supports those who yearn to be free. If some alternative group were to take control of the U.S. government, the situation could revert.

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  • John Lake

    We note that China has transcended her long standing policy of non-intervention, particularly in situations involving civil rights. This is understandable, since China is not a democratic nation.
    The U.S. according to reports is considering arming the revolutionaries. That would be a break with current policy of the highest order. We have everything to gain economically if this revolution ends quickly. As to military intervention, we may hope that China will take that course; we simply can’t afford it. China has workers in Libya, and business interests, tho we doubt the Peoples Republic will go so far as to flex some muscle.