Turmoil in the Middle East: Will it Change American Foreign Policy ?

War in the Middle EastImage by Stewf via Flickr
Article first published as How Turmoil in the Middle East Might Change American Foreign Policy on Blogcritics.

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: Lybia, Yemen, Bahrein, Oman, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and even beyond the region, as far out as China (where a so-called "Jasmine revolution" was immediately quelched)!

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this tsunami is that it hasn't yet hit other dictatorial regimes as strong as Mubarak's Egypt, like Saudi Arabia or Syria.  It may come there too, but for the moment, the attention of the international community is trained on Lybia. And no wonder. So far, it's the only country that has experienced a bloodshed that looks almost like a civil war, while Qaddafi shoots on his own people.  

Israel is understandably worried about losing its allies in the region and, overall, it is keeping mum while everybody else is speaking up.  Israel had signed a peace treaty with Egypt and another with Jordan, and for the last three decades, it has felt relatively safe. Now that Mubarak is gone and Egypt is in transition towards a new government, all the options are open. Including a rejection of the treaty, as a majority of Egyptians appears not to like 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, as has Europe. With regard to the bloodshed in Lybia, there has been near-universal condemnation, 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 - the UN Security Council responded fast with a resolution slamming sanctions on Qaddafi and his family: freezing of assets, 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.

Some, like Senator John McCain even want military intervention though that's unlikely. The internal situation in Lybia 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 Lybia because you think unspeakable wrong is done to innocent people, you may be morally right but countries like China or Russia will not appreciate (for obvious reasons). Nor support you.

Actually in Lybia there is a good chance the country will break in two: the eastern part, with Benghazi and 80 percent of Lybia's oil  in the hands of the rebels and an increasingly smaller western part with Tripoli, where local tribes are loyal to Qaddafi. Unless, of course, the rebels assault Tripoli and manage to conquer the whole country.

So is it right for the United States to pursue sanctions against Lybia and, generally speaking, bang the table in favour of democracy protests? Surely this attitude is not to the taste of Saudi Arabia that remains the main oil player with 12% of world production. The Saudi 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 - and in any case, it is a tiny country, some1.2 million people...

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 Lybia 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 whenever it becomes clear that the leaders they try to topple are threats to democracy - like 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 if the government continues to lose support). 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, like unemployment, poverty and disgust towards the corruption of the ruling elite, as  in Iraq and Oman. Furthermore, it is not in the American interest to go against oil giants like Saudi Arabia that 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 with often a higher education and little prospect for a good job once out of the university.

How far on the road to democracy will the Arab revolutions go? It is obviously a very complex process. 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? Provide technical support and guidance to develop democratic state structures and give aid to alleviate poverty and create jobs.

Easier said than done, and in any case, it can't be done if the countries in question do not request help...

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