| Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

U.S. and the Arab World: Time to 'reset' relations?

The decade-old American policy towards the Arab world has been based on classic Realpolitik principles; that is, the support of various autocratic regimes, which were able to deliver in three fields. An expert analysis.


First, they guaranteed internal stability by suppressing any sort of potential opposition from (radical) religious movements such as, for instance, the Islamic Brotherhood, to groups demanding political, social, and economic changes. Second, they made sure that oil would flow uninterruptedly and in a required quantity to the Western world. Moreover, some Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, were actively assisting U.S. efforts in the Cold War. The most famous episode in this cooperation occurred in the 1980s when Riyad enhanced its oil production considerably at the request of President Reagan and, consequently, the price of this commodity dropped significantly and denied the Soviet Union much needed foreign exchange. Third, some of them pursued a moderate and conciliatory policy towards Israel – in fact, Egypt as the single most important front country concluded a historic agreement with the Jewish state in the late 1970s.

US and the Arabs vs. Iran

One additional element should be added to the complex relationship between the U.S. and the majority of the Arab countries, specifically around the Gulf: the latter have been viewing the increasing assertiveness of Teheran with deep-seated suspicion for – at least – two reasons. One is purely power politics consideration: a militarily strong Iran (with potential nuclear capability) might threaten to upset the status quo in the Gulf region. Here, the American and the respective Arab concerns meet: the U.S., ’officially’ since the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine in 1980 does not wish to tolerate the ’hegemony’ of any power over the Gulf, either. Nevertheless, a crack has opened in this wall of mutual understanding: the Saudis disregarded the White House’s request of not sending troops to Bahrein, where Riyad suspects that Iran is behind the anti-government demonstrations; in addition, the Saudi leadership was dismayed to see how easily the U.S. gave up on President Mubarak in Egypt. The other reason is religious-ideological: most of the Arab countries have Sunni majorities, while the majority of Iran’s population is Shiite.

Aggressive democratization?

The U.S.-Arab relations became distinctly cool in general during George W. Bush’s first term in office. The American foreign policy agenda was dominated by the so-called neoconservatives who demanded that Washington pursue aggressive democratization in the broader Middle East. However, this ‘democracy project’ was practically abandoned in favor of a more pragmatic approach during George W. Bush’s second term in office. In reality, this line was carried over by the incoming Democratic administration in 2009: despite President Obama’s famous speech delivered in the Egyptian capital, Washington continued to value stability more than to push for democratic reforms in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or any of the other Arab states.

The ’Arab spring’ triggered by events in Tunisia caught the U.S. unaware and put it on the spot. Hailing the victory of the demonstrators too enthusiastically would have sent an unpleasant message to a number of pro-American leaders (authoritarian or not) all over the world: the U.S. will not lift a finger to support or save an old ally in case his/her presence becomes a liability for Washington. On the other hand, not welcoming the toppling of dictators would have been awkward for the Obama Administration, as well: to ignore the long-awaited democratic changes would have undermined the century-old American claim that the U.S. foreign policy is based primarily on values. Washington has reluctantly adopted the policy of ”if you cannot beat it, join it” -- with a number of caveats.

Let NATO do it

The ’middle-of-the-road’ approach means obviously different things in relation to different countries. The Obama Administration after much hesitation has taken a back seat in the international effort to hammer out solutions in the various countries. At the moment, the situation in Libya seems to be the most volatile and unpredictable. Here, as in practically all the other countries experiencing social upheaval, the root cause of the turmoil can be traced back to the absence of political reforms, the demographic situation, which has resulted in high unemployment. The Obama Administration has already handed over all combat operations to other NATO-partners; it clearly is unwilling to engage in major military action for at least two reasons. Domestically, it would be difficult to explain to a lot of Democratic voters why the U.S. has opened a third front in a Muslim country (after Iraq and Afghanistan) – and 2012 is a presidential as well as congressional elections year. However, likewise, paradoxically, it would be equally difficult to explain to the Democratic ’hawks’ (especially in the South), and even to some of the independents, why he has handed leadership over to the Europeans; the Americans at large have been brought up on the idea that the U.S. is an ”indispensable nation” (in Madeleine Albright’s words) and for the majority, it might go down as a sort of humiliation, an open admittance of American weakness – failing the responsibility to protect. Internationally, a U.S. military intervention – no matter how justified it may be, and no matter how despised Colonel Qaddafi is by the Arab leaders – would be a major setback in the American efforts to regain its prestige and acceptance in the Muslim world. A question which is very difficult to answer at the moment is how Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of the SEALs will affect America’s standing in the wider Middle East. The initial response was not excessively extreme; possibly, the U.S.-Pakistan relations might be the primary ‘victim’ of the elimination of the nominal head of al-Queda.

No real leadership or vision

That said, some of the potential outcomes of the current struggles in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, etc. do not bode well for the U.S. One possible consequence of the ongoing turmoil might be the realization of Fareed Zakaria’s ”illiberal democracy”, i.e., democratic elections with a radical anti-American, anti-Israel, and Islamist winner such as the Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Another outcome might be an extended power vacuum á la Iraq – which might create a favorable environment for a number of extremist forces. A third potential outcome looks to be the best possible solution under the given circumstances: the emergence of the hitherto not overtly exposed members of the ruling elite. The U.S. seems to be inclined to favor this option: Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a recent trip to Saudi Arabia talked of ”evolutionary” reforms and respect for human rights as acceptable solutions to the ongoing instability. However, the basic problem is that there seems to be no real leadership or vision in the countries involved: the uprisings seem to be spontaneous and uncoordinated. In addition, curiously, that might be a problem for the U.S., too: Secretary Gates leaves in summer to be succeeded by the current DCIA, Leon Panetta, whose present position will be occupied by General David Petreaus. , while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is said to be one of the most forceful supporters of American engagement in the Muslim world, is also likely to leave the administration at the end of Barack Obama’s first term in office. These facts suggest a”wait-and-see” American approach towards the Muslim world in the coming months.


Tamás Magyarics

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