What Next for the U.S. in the Middle East?

02/14/2011 10:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt calls for a rethink of American strategy in the Middle East. Egypt has been the keystone of a set of interlocking policies on Palestine, on the suppression of Islamist movements, and on resisting the spread of Iranian influence. The American organized and led concert includes the Arab triad of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. A tacit member is Israel. This improbable coalition is cemented by convergent national interests as each government defines them.

Paramount is regime survival. The three Arab autocracies live in dread of popular uprisings that could drive them from power. Discontent varies in intensity -- being highest in Egypt as now has been made manifest. Their common fear is fundamentalist Islamist movements, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, analogous diverse formations in Jordan, and al-Qaeda in Arabia the most deadly threat to the House of Saud. Any development in the Middle East that is seen as strengthening those forces, or even instability that could incubate them, deepens anxiety. Firm control at home and bolstering the status quo throughout the region are viewed as the keys to regime survival.

What does that mean in practice? On the neuralgic Palestinian issue the imperative was to encourage a peaceful resolution. For Israeli suppression of the Palestinians has stoked fierce resentment not just at Israel but also the United States with whom the autocratic trio have been allied on other security concerns: e.g. Saddam's Iraq. Removing Palestine from the regional equation could take the sting out of domestic criticism and deny Islamists a stick for beating the powers in place.

That logic explained Mubarak's dedication to the Egypt-Israel peace accord, and the strong Saudi push by then-Crown Prince Abdullah in 2001 that produced the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. It was a comprehensive plan that aimed at normalization of Arab-Israeli relations through an exchange of a withdrawal from the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem) for full recognition of Israel.

The dilemma became more acute with the victory of Hamas over the PLO in the 2005 election. Hamas was anathema due to its Islamist philosophy, its drastic views on Palestinian rights, and its anti-American animus. The American-Israeli reaction was a de facto nullification of the election result by shunning any dealings with Hamas and inciting President Abbas to neutralize the Hamas controlled parliament. Together with Egypt, they forged a two-pronged strategy.

First, there was a direct assault on the Hamas leadership by jailing its leaders (including designated government ministers) and then preparing for a coup against the Hamas government in Gaza which is the base of its support. Egypt took a leading role in the training of para-military PLO units for an assault against the Hamas militia. Washington was the underwriter. Hamas' preemptive move routed the PLO in Gaza, though, in February 2007.

Step two was the blockade of the entire Gaza strip with the aim of making life so miserable for its 1.2 million inhabitants that they would rise up against their Hamas government. Egypt sealed off its border with Gaza in coordination with the Israeli strangulation of the territory. The United States has given the operation its full political and material backing. That strategy has failed. The Arab trio had gambled that they could succeed in eliminating the dangerous Hamas without provoking a wave of popular outrage at home. Failure has meant living with a graver internal threat constantly refueled by Israeli actions like Operation Cast Lead and American association with brutalization of the Palestinians. The Saudi leadership, for their part, had appreciated how high the risk was. They sought to broker a compromise between the PLO and Hamas but their efforts were undercut by the U.S., Egypt and Israel.

The same pattern has been on display in Lebanon. There, the coalition of five have acted in concert to weaken Hezbollah -- a Shi'ite movement with no links to radical Sunni groups in the region. Hezbollah is seen as a menace because of its hostile relationship with Israel, its blend of Islamic fundamentalism and political militancy, and -- not least -- its Iranian connection. So the 2006 Israeli assault on southern Lebanon received the backing of other concert members. Its failure made Hezbollah's Sheikh Nasrullah a Pan-Arabic hero while intensifying anti-American feelings. That fiasco prompted the Saudis to mediate this year's crisis between the Harari led, American sponsored government and an opposition coalition led by Hezbollah. That effort, too, was sabotaged by Washington. This time, too, Hezbollah came out on top, forming a new government.

The net effect of these checks has been to put in greater peril Washington's three closest Arab allies. They are increasingly unpopular for a combination of internal and external reasons to which alignment with the United States on Palestine and Lebanon has contributed substantially. Now that Cairo has succumbed, the contagion effect increases the peril for the other two.

The cardinal concern for the Obama White House is whether these circumstances will translate into a modification of the foreign policies. On Palestine, Washington's fear is that they might break from the current rigid rejection of Hamas, press for greater American pressure on the Netanyahu government, and overall bring their diplomacy into line with public opinion. On resistance to Islamist forces, there is a similar fear of a more accommodating attitude. This is more likely to occur were the incorporation of the Muslim Brotherhood into Egyptian politics to set an example. Yet more worrisome would be the Muslim Brotherhood's gaining popular favor and acting responsibly within a more or less democratic system.

The last eventuality also would have the effect of cutting the ground from under the American argument that identifies all such Islamist groups as sympathetic to terrorism. Washington has swallowed the self-serving Israeli claim that those who target Israel with terrorist acts are no different from al-Qaeda. The authoritarian Arab triad have made a similar assertion, for their own self-serving reasons, about the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and other less prominent parties. Now that unity of analysis and resulting policies may be broken. The United States could be faced with a situation where a continuing tight embrace of the Israeli position on both Palestine and on Islamist movements will be at the price of widening disagreements with their Arab allies.

Iran, of course, is the third American preoccupation in the Middle East. The trajectory of politico-strategic development traced above could have two quite different implications for the confrontation with Tehran. The critical country here is Saudi Arabia. It feels itself most exposed for reasons of geography, its position as kingpin of the oil market, its indigenous Shi'ite population, and its sensitivity to the intangible elements that accentuate all of the others. Prominent among those intangibles are the Kingdom's unique status as custodian of the Holy sites of Islam and implicitly its role as protector of Sunni Islam in its eternal quarrel with Shi'ism. At first glance, a Saudi leadership discomforted by events in Egypt along with their reverberations may be ever more acutely aware of dangers. Their defensiveness therefore could lower tolerance for the Iranian/Persian/Shi'ite threat. If so, they might be inclined to support an aggressive American attitude toward Tehran. Conceivably, if we are to credit reports made available through Wikileaks, their current readiness to countenance airstrikes may be strengthened.

The alternative chain of effects would envisage a Saudi leadership more fearful of the internal consequences of military action. Feelings of insecurity could make them risk averse. The deeply entrenched habit of surviving in a rough neighborhood by placating, by mediating, by buying off may reassert itself to shape thinking about even the instinctive enemy across the Gulf. An enemy greatly strengthened, in their eyes, by the historic American blunder in Iraq, may have to be accommodated. Logically speaking, there is an alternative to the two active alternatives of confrontation and grudging containment. That is engagement. It would mean a move toward comprehensive exchanges on the whole array of issues between Iran and other regional powers -- including the United States. That means moving beyond the exclusive focus on the nuclear program to address security arrangements for the Gulf, interference in internal affairs, political recognition, normalization of economic ties, etc. The Iranians offered to enter into such wide-ranging talks back in April 2003 only to be spurned by a triumphant Washington.

Were the Saudis to lean in this direction, they would gain instant support from Turkey and probably could bring along Kuwait and the Gulf principalities in their train. They also would evoke consternation in Washington.

The Obama administration faces two fundamental decisions. First, should it rededicate American foreign policy to shoring up the shaky structure of alliances and understandings among the five that has been central to its vision of the region's strategic future? Second, should it redefine American interests and expectations in ways that favor the emergence of a more durable structure build to accommodate a more realistic set of expectations? To say 'no' to the former, and to say 'yes' to the latter is to choose a challenging course - diplomatically and politically. For it means forming a highly differentiated view of Islamist elements in the Middle East, a loosening of the servile ties that bond Washington to Tel Aviv, beginning an intricate, multiparty project in the Gulf, and -- perhaps most challenging -- coping with uncertainty as a constant.

The momentous nature of the answers given has one other consequence: it puts in perspective the huge, costly distraction that is Afghanistan and invalided Iraq. The ultimate question is how many Operations Fool's Gold we can endure.