Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Remaking the Map of the Middle East

What is happening in Egypt today is going to remake the map of the Middle East. Until a couple weeks ago, American policymakers had a particular view of the region. The twin goals, not as compatible as we would like, were to support Israel and protect the flow of oil from the Gulf states. The Egyptian-Israeli peace accord of 1977 and the Iranian revolution of 1979 defined US foreign policy for the last 30 years after the USSR essentially stopped meddling in the region outside of Afghanistan. The Egyptian-Israeli accord pacified Suez (which was repeatedly blocked in the 1947-77 period). The US committed billions of dollars in payments to Egypt tied to the size of the aid packages given annually to Israel. The USA spends several billion a year on Egypt and Israel. We then pursued a policy of making nice to Gulf states, with the lynchpin being Saudi Arabia, and the goal of keeping them from military antagonism with Israel and out of the hands of Iran and its Islamists. The decision to use military force to protect one of the Gulf states in 1990 demonstrated how far the USA was willing to go to keep this structure in place. This still left as big issues, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. The policy on all three was to try to herd them toward "moderation" - which meant no confrontation with Israel and no cozying up to Iran, and no opposing the USA. Success in Jordan, failure in the other two places. The USA finally just invaded Iraq entirely in an effort to deal with its destabilizing potential. Meanwhile the Israeli/Palestinian conflict dragged on, intensified, and created anger in the Arab street against their "moderate" governments like Mubarak and King Hussein who wouldn't really do anything about it.

Now this is about to unravel. We do not know what has been unleashed in Egypt, or what to do about it: only that we want to keep Suez open and the Camp David accords in place. But new governments in Egypt, Tunisia, may be more democratic but will almost certainly be less willing to continue doing nothing about the demands for action involving Israel. This will put pressure on the remaning more fragile dictatorships and kingdoms to take a harder line against Israel. It puts Iraq's fledgling government in a terrible position as the most aligned with the USA and by extension Israel. The specter of newly-democratized states using their oil leverage to squeeze the USA into abandoning Israel is a nightmare that now may loom. A return to the 1967-73 period would be a disaster. Recommendation to Israel: make peace fast and move past this scenario. (Wikileaks has told us that the two sides are not really all that far apart.)


Raised By Republicans said...


I think you are right that this may put a lot of pressure on Israel. But it also presents an opportunity for Israel. Israel, militarily strong and surrounded by more or less democratic states, will be safer than one surrounded by dictatorships. The transition will be dicey for sure. And I agree that Israel should probably try to cut a deal that endorses the two state solution soon.

I think we will find that while the Israel-Palestinian issue is an important one, genuinely democratic Arab societies (if that is what we are seeing emerging in Egypt) will be much less concerned about foreign policy and "wagging the dog" strategies than we might expect.

It's one thing to see what happens when you take a society that is built around an expectation of authoritarian rule and force it to have elections. It's quite another when democracy bubbles up from below.

As I type this, a violent street battle has broken out between anti-Mubarak and pro-Mubarak demonstrators in Cairo. There's even a camel charge! Army is buttoned up in their tanks trying to avoid getting caught in the cross fire of rocks.

The image I have of Egypt now is one of ideologically divided society. At the same time, the army has very close ties (and is dependent) on the US. I don't see the Egyptian army getting enthusiastic about a new war with Israel. Pressure, short of war, is a possibility but I don't see a another 1967 or 1973 in the future. I also don't see a divided society getting unified around any foreign policy adventure. I'm not saying that some Egyptian politicians wouldn't see "Israel bashing" as a vote getter. But I don't see it leading to much more than say lifting the blockade of Gaza from the Egyptian side of the border - which has already happened de facto from what I hear.

USWest said...

I don't think that the clashes in the streets today are signs of a divided society in Egypt. That is Mubarak organizing (i.e. paying people off) in a last gasp. The military is trying to stay neutral. After all, when this is all over, they will be the ones running Egypt until some other government can come into place. So this may end up resembling Turkey.

The rest of my thoughts are scattered. So bear with me. I'll try to be coherent.

Egypt is central to Mid-East stability. And with it destabilized, Iran may see the door opened a little wider for it to slip through. Iran desperately wants to be the superpower in that region.

As for Israel, I agree that this will pressure them. They have made a lot of being the "only democracy" in the region. Let's remember that it was Egypt that pushed the US toward Israel to begin with. The US was very cool toward Israel until Egypt started going socialist under Nasser and his Pan-Arabism. Kennedy wanted very little to do with Israel before that and he cold-shouldered Ben Gourin. But when the Suez crisis hit, that changed things.

Another concern is Yemen. Some commentators fear that with Egypt in transition, Saudi will become destabilized, something only made worse by the current situation in Yemen. But then, they always fear that and it doesn't happen.

Yemen is also worth watching. I've been reading up on Yemen. And President Saleh has totally defeated the odds in not only unifying the North and South but in holding it together. If he goes, Yemen may well split again and it may be bloody. That has been the history of that nation since the Brits and Russians left.

LTG is right about US policy in the Middle East. Notice that we have not pushed democracy in the region, but rather supported dictatorships. That is realpolitik. I have Pollyanna's in my office who are so happy to see people "claiming their freedom", but who fail to understand the reality behind the situation. Nothing is ever what it seems in the Middle East; we never fully understand the motivations of the people of Middle East, and a policy of supporting the status quo has been the safest bet.

Just a side note: Turkish newspapers (according to my Turkish connections) are reporting increased cable activity between Brussels and Ankara, which may be a sign of growing concern on the part of Europe about events in Middle East. The Turks are sort of laughing that NOW Europe may want them in the Union as a "buffer" between the big, bad,unstable East and the West. There are also growing concerns about Turkey's lean toward the East. So what happens in Egypt may have a much larger effect on global order than we realize.

Raised By Republicans said...

US West, I think it is a mistake to suggest that the US has supported dictatorships in the Middle East out of a preference for dictatorship as a form of government. You may not have intended to suggest that but that's how it came.

I think the US would try very hard to be on friendly terms with any state in the region regardless of their form of government. With a few exceptions these dictatorships are home grown not US (or even UK) imposed. Yes, the US gives them (the dictators) a lot of aid. But that's because that's who was there to cash the checks not because we installed them Pinochet-like to do our bidding.

I think most people in the EU see Turkey as a giant bottomless pit of money demands. The economy is set up to be a hug drain on the EU budget. Turkey is overwhelmingly poor (much poorer even than Greece) and agrarian (much more agrarian even Poland or Romania). The desire for a buffer or a gateway to the Middle East just won't come in to the thinking for most EU policy makers in my opinion.

If the EU did want Turkey as a buffer, having Turkey be an EU member would not be the way to do it though. If Turkey were in the EU, it would put an EU border right in the thick of it - Yikes! If anything a destabilized Middle East hurts Turkish chances to get into the EU. Again, in my opinion.

Dr. Strangelove said...

What USWest may be alluding to is that the US has sometimes supported dicatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere for fear that anti-American groups would otherwise come to power. The US history with the Shah of Iran is on point. It is also not unusual to hear the claim that Middle Easterners are "not ready" for democracy or are culturally incapable of grasping democratic values--and so however much we may find it distasteful, for "those people" dictatorships are the preferable form of government.

I think the status quo in the Middle East is more dangerous to us than USWest may credit. A more democratic Middle East may well create more uncertainty, but I suspect it will be less dangerous in the long run. I believe that is one of the lessons from 9/11.

The Law Talking Guy said...

My fear is that after the next conflict in Gaza, or the next Israeli crackdown, a new Egyptian government will not be as reticent as Mubarak to criticize. There may even be pressure to use the Suez canal to put pressure on Israel again via everyone else. Leaders of other more fragile regimes, made more fragile by what has happened in Egypt and Tunisia, will also feel obliged to step up the criticism of Israel or face street protests of their own.

In the long run, I think this is a good development, because as Mubarak shows, dictators are not a good long-term bet for stability. Still, he was at least less ready to criticize or pressure Israel than a successor governmet is likely to be.

Raised By Republicans said...


I certainly see your point about the next crisis in Gaza. I guess I'm not that concerned about how it plays out, short of renewed interstate war. In fact if ramped pressure from Egypt might in any way give someone like Netanyahu pause before going nuts, it might be a constructive development.

USwest said...

RBR, I didn't mean to suggest that we "planted" dictatorships in the Middle East as a generalized policy. But, as Dr. S points out, we didn't always see them as terribly contrary to our policy because we valued stability over democracy. For years we fed Saddam Hussein. And yes, the Shah. Our secret disposal of the Iranian King is still a sore spot among many Iranians.

RBR is correct, however, to make the link between US policy in Latin America during the Cold War. He is correct that in Latin America, we often planted dictators because we viewed them as easier to control than democratic regimes that tended toward socialism. What is interesting is that once we let these nations pick their own leaders, with a few exceptions, they did OK. Venezuela comes to mind as a disappointment. The Middle East may go the same way if we leave them to their own means. But with oil hanging in the balance, I think the US will take a great big interest in who takes control of places like Egypt.

As for Turkey: economy is booming and it has a large demographic of very young, educated people. It has a growing industrial sector. The EU may want to tap these people's tax dollars to help pay for all the social benefits that they are now having trouble paying. As Europe ages, how are they going to cover their obligations? As for the buffer argument, I agree that it isn't reasonable for EU nations to think that, if they do, because in or out of the EU, Turkey is a big land mass that isn't going anywhere. But if Turkey leans too far East, the EU may want to stop that by holding out its hands. Don't be so quick to write Turkey off as just poor, backward, and Islamic. It's a lot more than that.

Raised By Republicans said...

US West,

I certainly agree that the US has supported some nasty SOBs in the Middle East. And we even installed the Shah's father in Iran in the early days of the Cold War. But for the most part, US policy in the Middle East has been to support the existing regimes and win them over to our side rather than to replace them with more friendly regimes through the kind of heavy handed interventions so often used in Latin America from the 1920s through the 1980s.

I think the distinction is useful if we are trying to understand the goals/motives of US policy in the region. The US supported authoritarian monarchies and military dictatorships because that's who was there, not because the US governments in question actually prefer those kinds of governments.

I'm thinking of starting a new threat on the EU and Turkey because it's a different subject and complicated and interesting enough to warrant a separate discussion.