Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.
The three traditional pillars of Washington's strategy for the Middle East have long been energy security, the security of Israel, and protecting ‘friendly leaders’. In the last decade, countering terrorism became another pillar. Pursuing all four of these pillars simultaneously has always been challenging. The last year of political upheavals in the region has made the balancing act even trickier.
Washington’s policymakers remain stuck in a reactive mode, struggling to understand what the future might hold forU.S.interests in the region. Whereas most Middle East governments had fairly positive relations with Washington a year ago, their successors keeping their distance. Untested populists are coming to power with different priorities from their predecessors. Previously friendly rulers are more wary ofU.S.ties, or are making things awkward for relations by cracking down on civic groups.
One thing has remained constant, a dilemma that U.S. policymakers have faced for decades: Whether to give up short-term stability by upsetting the status quo of authoritarian rulers so that more legitimate and sustainable governments might emerge or whether to work with authoritarian leaders in the hope that they will gradually open up their societies to the benefit of longer-term stability.
Former President George W Bush's administration showed interest in the first path, but felt forced by its ‘global war on terror’ to follow the second. It found that only existing governments could deliver what the United States wanted in the Middle East. For example, in Egypt, the United States relied on then-President Hosni Mubarak and the army leadership to ensure peace with Israel and facilitate the movement ofU.S.troops. Close intelligence cooperation on counterterrorism institutionalizedAmerica’s interest in supporting Mubarak.
In 2011 President Obama’s administration found itself facing the sharp end of the traditional dilemma: Support revolutionaries acting in the name of democracy, or authoritarians acting in the name of stability?
In each case it took time for the administration to decide its position. It adopted different approaches, backing change where it seemed inevitable (Tunisia,Egypt and Libya), while being much more cautious about Bahrain, where change seemed less certain, where vitalU.S.military assets are based, and where Saudi Arabian and Gulf allies would not welcome any strongerU.S.stance onBahrain’s treatment of demonstrators.
The Obama Administration has limited influence on Syria outcomes, and the more Libya swirls into militia-led violence and Iraq defies efforts to create a stable democratic order, the more cautious Washington grows about any direct intervention. If it previously believed that any outcome is better than the status quo in Syria, it believes this less strongly now.
How far will Washington seek (or be able) to support authoritarian allies facing popular unrest? Overall, there is no clear ‘Obama Doctrine’ on democratic change - no clear set of principles for when and how the United States will abandon allies or seek to overthrow foes. An ad hoc approach prevails a year into dramatic political changes in the region.
The Obama administration may believe that it is obliged to protect Gulf monarchies from external threats, but that does not mean it feels obligated to protect them from the demands of their own publics. The administration is advising allies to pursue engagement and openness, but has not decided how it will interact with populist Islamist governments.
Even if Obama’s instinct is to attempt to engage in dialogue with these groups, many in Congress would prefer to isolate them.U.S.policy is likely to be viewed in the Middle East as inconsistent and incoherent for some time to come. This in turn will undermine overall regional stability.
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