What has been termed the “Arab Spring” could potentially pose the gravest challenge the United States has ever faced in the Middle East. Yet, when one tracks the reactions and positions of the US foreign policy establishment, one is left with a state of confusion and bewilderment. Indeed, there seems to be no consensus of any sort within or without government; policy decisions and/or positions are filled with contradictions, appear to be reaction driven, and seem guided by a crisis-management approach rather than strategic thinking. Why this state of disarray? One can easily blame it on the complexity of the foreign policy decision-making process, the lack of leadership, the political bickering in Washington, and so forth. In reality though, these are only contributing factors that make the situation much worse. The real culprit is the old prism through which Washington continues to view the Mideast. So, before we engage in analyzing the events of the so-called “Arab Spring,” we need to take a very close look at what the U.S. foreign policy establishment did in the Mideast since 9/11 and up to December 17, 2010. In this part, we will therefore resume the process of explaining the Real New Middle East Order focusing on the post-9/11 period.
The Mideast Pre 9/11
In parts I through III of this series, we discussed the Mideast order that existed for over 50 years and the U.S. twin pillar strategy (Oil Security and Israel Security) supported by a third pillar (the Peace Process) that served American interests well during that period up to and until the collapse of the Soviet Union. We also explored how the 90s (which I call The Lost Decade) brought about subterranean mutations that presented serious challenges to Oil Security and Israel Security in ways that did not fit the old prism through which U.S. policymakers were looking at the region. On the eve of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Middle East landscape was as follows:
- Israel: the only country capable of projecting its military power with very few limitations; its immediate borders (with the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon), however, face increased instability with worrisome security consequences;
- Iran: governed by Reformists seeking an opportunity to normalize relations with the United States; feeling more confident about its “potential” to project power in the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon and Hezbollah’s perceived victory;
- Egypt: key player in the Middle East Peace Process but rapidly losing support in the “Arab street” for a multitude of reasons, domestic and international;
- Jordan: diminished regional influence in a fragile environment. With the passing of King Hussein of Jordan in 1999, the reign was assumed by King Abdallah, a young monarch lacking the stature of his late father and facing rising instability in the Palestinian Territories and restlessness in neighboring Iraq
- Syria: contained regionally in spite of its military and political influence over Lebanon
- Saudi Arabia: the monarchy’s special relationship with the United States coming under increased domestic pressure exerted by Wahhabis opposed to U.S. policies in the region
Probably the most important development of the 90s, however, was the rise of non-state players and their ability to threaten the pillars of U.S. Mideast policy: Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Al Qaeda in the Gulf – all three movements being inspired and driven by Islamist ideologies, though drawing from different Islamic wells (Sunni versus Shiite Islam).
A. 9/11 and the U.S. Reaction
Osama Bin Laden was determined, mission-driven and fixated on a single objective: destabilize the twin pillars (Oil Security and Israel Security) to cause a total collapse of U.S. strategy and bring about an end of what he believed was U.S. hegemony over the Middle East. The means to achieve that end was to engineer a massive attack on the U.S. homeland that would draw the United States into protracted wars with Islamists and Islamic insurgents worldwide, more especially in the Middle East. In his mind, such protracted wars would have the same effect the wars against the Barbarians had on the Roman Empire – stressing the treasury, causing war fatigue and internal strife/malaise that would ultimately lead to the demise of U.S. power and a total withdrawal from the Middle East. If this was the context within which the terrorist attacks on the United States were executed on September 11, 2001, what was the context within which the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks was crafted?
The Bush administration quickly realized the status quo ante 9/11 was no longer sustainable; it had to be broken. With the attacks of 9/11, terror posed the most imminent threat to the security and strategic interests of the United States.
If the U.S. were to employ counter terrorism measures against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the status quo would remain almost intact. The United States had to act quickly, decisively and lethally against Al Qaeda. The Taliban in Afghanistan would be given a clear ultimatum to hand over Osama Bin Laden and his top commanders or face the military might of the United States. The safe heaven had to be destroyed to firstly break Al Qaeda’s capability of launching future attacks against the U.S. homeland and/or interests overseas, and secondly, send an unmistakable message to foes and friends alike that the United States would never allow a repeat of 9/11.
The Gulf Region
The fact that 15 out of the 19 terrorists of 9/11 were Saudi nationals transformed Saudi Arabia from being a lukewarm ally to a “liability” overnight. Although Al Qaeda’s safe haven was in Afghanistan, its root source of support in terms of human recruits, logistics, and financing was (and remains) Arab gulf countries, more especially Saudi Arabia with its Wahhabi creed providing the ideological basis for Sunni extremist Islamists. Any hesitation and/or lack of decisiveness on the part of the United States in the Gulf would be interpreted as U.S. weakness and could have the following consequences:
- Saudi Resiliency: the Al Saud ruling family is closely allied with the United States. Oil Security depends to a great extent on maintaining a strong U.S.-Saudi security partnership. The ruling family, however, was under tremendous pressures from the Wahhabis who overwhelmingly rejoiced at the attacks of 9/11. Failure by the United States to break the status quo ante in the Gulf could force the Al Saud ruling family to retreat under pressure for the purpose of preserving the kingdom.
- Iran and Iraq: Failure by the U.S. Government to act decisively in the Gulf could also be interpreted by Iran and Iraq as U.S. weakness and lack of resolve. Iraq, in particular, was of great concern because Saddam Hussein, who was feeling the pain of the sanctions that were imposed on his regime following his ill-fated invasion of Kuwait in 1990, had proven time and again to miscalculate and “gamble” like a poker player in international affairs. The United States could not afford such an environment in a post 9/11 world.
- China and Russia: the lack of decisive action by the United States in the Gulf could also provide an opening for countries like China and Russia to increase their strategic footing in this vastly rich oil/gas region of the world and enhance their competitive advantage at the expense of the United States.
For the reasons mentioned above and many others, the Bush administration had to take decisive action in the Gulf, and not only Afghanistan. For all practical purposes and historical reasons, Iraq presented the best opportunity for U.S. military intervention in the Gulf. U.S. Government officials were charged with building the case to justify the invasion.
The War on Terror
In sum, faced with this reality and the need to act decisively in defense of US security interests, the Bush administration introduced its new strategy: the War on Terror. In reality, there were very few viable and effective options for designing a new strategy in response to 9/11. By defining Islamism as the new enemy, the United States could go on the offensive more quickly and more effectively. Unlike counterterrorism, a War on Terror provided the sense of urgency the Bush administration needed to act faster, with greater force, and more decisively.
B. The War on Terror and the Rise of Iranian Power
a) Fault Line in the War of Terror
In finalizing its new strategy, the Bush administration had to incorporate the Old Order, which was based on the twin pillars of Oil Security and Israel Security for many reasons. Firstly, the United States had labored for over 50 years to build and preserve the existing old order in the Middle East; it wasn’t about to intentionally destroy it without having first developed a blue print and roadmap for a new order. Secondly, the institutions of the U.S. national security system had for decades viewed the Middle East through the old prism and could not reinvent their approach overnight. Thirdly, the need for minimum consensus within the U.S. national security establishment required a preservation of the Old Order. As a result, the War on Terror became a hybrid strategy consisting of breaking the status quo ante and preserving the old order. The hybrid nature of the War on Terror, however, had one gigantic fault line that could drive the two pillars (Oil Security and Israel Security) so far apart causing a total collapse of the Old Order. The fault line was (and still is) Iran.
Given the War on Terror had targeted Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran, being a major regional power bordering both countries, could not be ignored. The United States had to make a decision vis-à-vis Iran. U.S. policymakers were divided mainly into three groups on this issue.
The New Order Pragmatists
Group one consisted of pragmatists who were receptive to the idea of establishing a new order in the Middle East based on normalized relations with Iran. The key question on their minds was: how can the United States succeed in the long run in its war in Afghanistan and Iraq with Iran left out of the equation? While military operations to remove the Taliban and Saddam could be successfully executed by the United States acting alone, the occupation period necessary for the stabilization of both countries would require regional cooperation, Iran included. Furthermore, the new order pragmatists argued that while Islamism was the new enemy, Wahhabi Sunni-based Islamism posed the greater danger to the United States because it was the well from which Al Qaeda was drawing all of its support. Iran, on the other hand, had been throughout the 90s the most dedicated and effective enemy of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. If normalization were achieved, Iran could become a key ally in the long War on Terror. After all, Iran had condemned 9/11 and was the only Moslem country that had candlelight vigils held in a number of cities all in solidarity with the victims of 9/11. More importantly, the reformers were in power and the pendulum was swinging in their direction, improving the odds for orchestrating such a turnaround in relations. The success of such a shift in US policy, however, rested on whether the United States and Iran could overcome decades of mistrust. Could they develop confidence measures quickly enough to enable them to create a new Modus Vivendi?
With the invasion of Afghanistan coming first in the War on Terror, the new order pragmatists argued for testing the terrain during Operation Enduring Freedom. Iranian cooperation could be invaluable to the success of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan during the phase of military operations, and more importantly, in the rebuilding effort following the toppling of the Taliban. If the test were to succeed, then greater cooperation would be sought in the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. In sum, for the new order pragmatists, the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq could not be won with Iran left out of the equation.
The Old Order Realists
Group two consisted of realists who were interested in preserving the old older. With Islamism being the new enemy, the old order realists found it difficult to entertain a change in relations with Iran. Iran was the first Islamist country in the region with a history of conflict with the United States dating back to the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the taking of American hostages in Teheran. Furthermore, with Israel and its supporters in the United States believing Iran to be its most serious existentialist threat, the old order realists argued to best leave Iran out of the equation to maintain the two-pillar based order.
The old order realists addressed the key question posed on Iran as follows: they advocated a minimalist approach in the case of Afghanistan – remove the Taliban, establish a new government, and draw back as quickly as possible – and a regime change approach in Iraq – remove Saddam from power, get a new government in place, and secure a longer military presence with the new Iraqi government. This way, Iranian assistance would not be necessary, and the old order would be preserved.
The New Order Idealists
Group three consisted of idealists who believed that in addition to breaking the status quo ante by going after Islamists, the United States had to dismantle the old order and replace it with a new one based on Freedom and Democracy. New order idealists argued that the root cause for the spread of radical Islamism in the Middle East had very little to do with U.S. foreign policies towards the Arab world and the Palestinians, and much more to do with the lack of freedom and democratization in Arab societies. It would, therefore, be in the best long-term interest of the United States to actively support democracy movements and freedom initiatives throughout the region. They further argued that a more democratic Arab world would be more accepting and accommodating of Israel. So, when it came to Iran, this group rejected vehemently any attempt to pursue normalized relations with Iran.
First, they argued that Iran was the creator of Islamism and the introducer of terror-based suicide bombing as a tool to achieve its objectives. Second, they also argued that Iran presented the most existentialist threat to Israel. Third, Iran was a strong supporter of terror groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and the backer of spoiler regimes like that in Syria. In summary, new order idealists argued that Iran could never be trusted and no deal – grand bargain or not – should be pursued. In addressing the key question in Iran, their approach was quite clear. The United States should invade Iraq (on its own if necessary) and govern it for as long as it took to build a democratic model for the region; the Iraqi theatre would also be used as a new base for U.S. military operations against Iran and later Syria. This would facilitate regime change in both countries and bring about a new political order in the Middle East.
b) Iran to be Excluded
The period of 2001-2004 was so critical to the conduct of the War on Terror; it also opened an important window for reshaping US-Iran relations. Unfortunately, with two of the three groups rejecting to varying degrees the concept of normalization of relations with Iran, the lack of cultural intelligence, and the “fog of war” creating discord in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, that opportunity was lost (for more on the role of Iran during that critical period and the missed opportunity, refer to Security Debrief blogs dated May 29, 2009, and titled “Iran: the US Needs a New Strategy” and October 26, 2009, and titled “The Iranian Difference”). By the time the invasion of Iraq took place on March 19, 2003, the new order pragmatists had already been marginalized and the other two groups were pretty much calling the shots.
c) The Rise of Iranian Power
The fall of Baghdad brought to the surface the deep divisions that existed between the old order realists who advocated employing the “France occupation” model, and the new order idealists who called for a “Japan occupation” model. The idealists won. Iraq was to be governed directly by the United States and democratic institutions of government were to be introduced tin Iraqi society. The ill-conceived policies of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) – such as the disbanding of the Iraqi military without first beefing up U.S. troops in numbers and materials – created a security vacuum in Iraq. Al Qaeda seized the opportunity and launched a destructive campaign targeting U.S. troops. In the absence of a deal with Iran and the emergence of chaos in Iraq, the United States effectively put all of its regional interests, including the security of Israel, at a much greater risk. To make things worse, the Bush administration pursued a policy aimed at regime change in Iran. The administration built an Arab-centered Moslem anti-Iranian coalition and lent support to opposition groups inside Iran. This proved to be totally ineffective and even counter-productive. Iran responded to the U.S. challenge with a very aggressive anti-American two-tier strategy:
- In Iraq: exploit the security vacuum and Al Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. personnel to increase its own military and political advantage in that country to the detriment of U.S. interests; and
- In Palestine: support the elections of Hamas in Gaza and position Iran as the champion of the Palestinian cause, effectively countering U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran in the Arab world.
Iran’s newly gained status of regional power was further strengthened by another important event. On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah fired rockets on Israeli border towns and simultaneously attacked a couple of Israeli military vehicles. Israel calculated that, with the backing of Arab Sunni governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, and the full support of the United States with its new War on Terror strategy, it could launch a major military campaign against Shiite Hezbollah aimed at breaking Iranian influence and redrawing the political map of the region. Hezbollah’s effective resistance and later self-proclaimed victory (though limited and relative) had four extraordinary consequences:
- It set back U.S. efforts to build an anti-Iranian Arab coalition and strengthened Iran’s stance in the Moslem and Arab streets
- It eroded the standing of the governments of Egypt and Jordan in the Arab street
- It reinforced the belief in the region that Israel’s military capabilities were quite vulnerable in an asymmetrical environment; Islamist resistance could work
- It improved Syria’s regional security by empowering the March 8 opposition forces in Lebanon, which are closer to Syria, at the expense of the U.S.-backed ruling March 14 coalition.
In summary, the War on Terror as executed in Iraq and in Lebanon under the Bush administration, led in effect to the rise of Iranian power in the region. Indeed, since the fall of the Shah’s government in 1979, Iran was either busy defending itself against Iraqi aggression (1980 – 1989) or preoccupied internally with attempts at economic and political reforms (1990 – 2000). Although its assistance to Hezbollah in achieving Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 was very important, its power was still “dormant” at the regional level. It was the war on terror with its aggressive anti-Iranian policy that awakened a sleeping regional giant that became more determined than ever to defeat U.S. interests in the region.
C. The War on Terror and the Demise of Arab Allied Governments
In addition to having awakened Iranian power in the region, the War on Terror had a potent effect on Arab governments that were closely allied with the United States.
a) Political Marginalization
With the encouragement of the Bush administration under the banner of the War on Terror, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia provided political/moral “cover” to Israel in its war against Hezbollah in July 2006. This enraged Arab populations throughout the region. People took to the streets accusing those three governments of treachery and sellout. That act alone resulted in the marginalization in Arab regional politics of the governments of Egypt and Jordan – two of the three Arab guardians of the old order. Islamists of all types hailed Hezbollah’s victory over Israel and its main ally, the United States. Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah, increased its regional clout with Arabs and Islamists alike. In November 2008, war erupts between Hamas and Israel in Gaza. Under pressure to preserve the old order, Egypt kept Gaza under siege, prompting calls for the removal of Mubarak as a traitor to the Arab and Moslem cause. Once again, Iran, the main backer of Hamas, emerged as the biggest winner at the expense of Egypt and Jordan.
b) Rise of Islamist Power
The War on Terror was perceived from day one by the overwhelming majority of Moslems in the Middle East to be a war against Islam. While Al Qaeda was on the run and losing appeal, Islamists of all types were gaining ground throughout the Arab world, more especially in those countries with which the United States was allied in the War on Terror. Arab satellite TV stations, more especially Al Jazeera, kept beaming images of the daily carnage caused in the name of the War on Terror in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. To Moslem audiences, this war amounted to a war on Islam, fueling the ranks of native Islamist groups in the various countries. By the end of 2010, Islamists were by far the best organized group in all of these countries.
c) Arab Allied Regimes Embattled
Almost all of the Arab countries allied with the United States in the War on Terror were led by dictatorial regimes – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, etc. On the one hand, the United States needed their assistance for its counterterrorism operations and was therefore willing to “forgive” many of their human rights abuses, arrests of political dissidents, etc. On the other hand, calls by the U.S. for democratization encouraged Arabs to organize and demand political reforms, adding pressure on these already fragile governments.
In summary, the War on Terror had in reality eroded the power and/or support base of almost all of the Arab governments that were closely allied with the United States. This is fundamental to keep in mind as we take a closer and more introspective look at the developments of the “Arab Spring” in part V of this series.
D. Turkey: Another Rising Regional Power
The rise of Islamism is not confined to the Arab world. Indeed, we see it happening in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Turkey, being overwhelmingly Moslem, was not immune to the trend. In fact, many have argued that secularism was applied too aggressively in Turkey, offending many devout and/or traditional Moslem Turks who reacted by embracing Islamism.
Adding to the Islamist appeal was European talk about the “danger’ of incorporating a large Moslem country like Turkey in a predominantly Christian continent. Many Turks responded by asserting Islamism as an integral part of their Turkish identity. Elections in 2009 propelled the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power. Ever since, Turkey has gradually shifted it foreign policy to become more Islamist. With Israel relatively weakened and Iran relatively emboldened, Turkey makes a grand entrance onto the stage of Middle East politics. The Mavi Marmara incident (Security Debrief, June 7, 2010) solidified the emergence of a new Mideast order with Turkey joining Iran as the second new regional power. Israel was no longer the sole regional power.
E. China and the New Mideast Order
If there is one single relationship that the United States must manage with the utmost care, it is the one it has with China. Not even the Soviet Union in its best of days had the potential to rival the United States as a superpower politically, economically and militarily. China is the one country with the most potential to become a true superpower in all spheres. The ultimate goal of the United States is to have China fully integrated into the international system, playing by and respecting international rules, and constructively contributing to peace and development around the world in full partnership with the US. It is for this reason that the Obama Administration has so far adroitly managed U.S.-China relations by trying to balance between two objectives: encouraging China’s economic interdependence on the United States while simultaneously checking China’s military regional and worldwide ambitions.
China, however, wants to achieve “parity” with and even gain a “competitive advantage” over the United States. Unlike the former Soviet Union, China fully understands that economic power is the true basis for sustainable political and military power. China’s ability to grow and expand its economy at the fastest rate possible is critical to its political and military ambitions, and depends heavily on accessing every drop of oil and cubic foot of natural gas to sustain its energy needs. This makes the oil and gas-rich region of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia of great interest to China.
China, being at times a better student of history than the United States, is fully aware of the historic significance of Iran and Turkey’s emergence as new regional powers in the Middle East. Furthermore, China, an already active economic player in Central Asia, recognizes that Iran and Turkey are the two countries with the greatest potential to influence the peoples and nations of Central Asia for cultural and historical reasons. China will, therefore, undoubtedly seek to develop long term strategic relations with both countries, unless…the United States upstaged it. The race is already on, which explains to all those who could not see it, why the United States is keen on improving and strengthening its economic, political and military relations with the Moslem world!
Against this backdrop, we will analyze in Part V the events of the Arab Spring. What is really happening in the different countries? How will those events affect the emerging new order? What about Israel and Oil Security? These are indeed challenging times for the Middle East.
Cultural intelligence matters!