Home The Washington Diplomat May 2011

As Arab World Roils in Uncertainty, What’s at Stake for U.S. Strategic Interests?

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Photo: Larry Luxner
Cairo has somewhat calmed down since the popular uprising in Tahrir Square that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak, but sporadic demonstrations continue by protestors frustrated with the ruling military and the slow pace of dismantling Mubarak's regime. As a lynchpin of American and Israeli security, Egypt's future is critical to U.S. interests in the region.

Since Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, lit himself on fire only a few months ago, a vast region from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea has been engulfed by varying degrees of turmoil and instability. Until then, the Middle East and North Africa were rife with autocratic dictators, overwhelming disparities of wealth, religious extremism and the omnipresent threat of terrorism, but the political situations in most of these countries actually seemed pretty fixed. Many of the regimes had crystallized over decades, and leaders wielded power with an iron grip.

Few could have predicted just how dramatically and quickly that stability would unravel — certainly the entrenched political order didn't see it coming, nor, it seems, did the United States.

After being caught off guard by tumult in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere, the United States is being forced to reevaluate its interests and policies across the region. Pundits keep searching for a grand, sweeping doctrine to define the Obama administration's reaction to the upheaval, and although some consistent themes have emerged — a call to respect peaceful protests, for example, and protect civilians — the U.S. government's response will most likely be tailored to reflect each nation's unique circumstances.

So here is a cold-eyed, country-by-country look at what's at stake for America as the Arab world undergoes a historic moment of awakening, and its leaders face an equally historic day of reckoning.

EGYPT

LEADER IN JAN. 2011: President Hosni Mubarak

THE STAKES: Egypt is the most central and most populous Arab state.

Both because of its shared border with Israel and the historic treaty between the two nations dating back to 1979, Egypt is the lynchpin to Israeli security in both the short and long term, and its support has been key to moving the Arab-Israeli peace process forward through difficult times.

After sustained organized demonstrations and violent reprisals from the government in December and January, President Obama publicly called for President Hosni Mubarak to step down and the military to assume power in the run-up to elections. Now, the United States is even more heavily invested in Egypt's future.

"How Egypt goes may well determine how the rest of the region goes," said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for regional security at the U.K.-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) who focuses on the Middle East. "U.S. interests here are very clear, to be honest. It's about seeking to stabilize the situation and getting Egypt right."

The administration is determined to create a model in Egypt for a democratically elected regime that is more participatory than the kleptocracy it replaced. The United States would also be very pleased if it could pull that off without jeopardizing Israeli security or emboldening religious extremists.

SAUDI ARABIA

LEADER IN JAN. 2011: King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud

THE STAKES: Maintaining an even keel in Saudi Arabia is of supreme importance to the American and global economies because it is the Middle East's largest producer of oil, and one of the few countries in the world capable of increasing oil output to make up for shortages elsewhere.

As custodian to the holiest sites in Islam, Saudi Arabia plays a unique role in the Muslim world. Because of this legacy and the vast wealth of some of its citizens, the Saudis have considerable and far-reaching influence across the Middle East, Europe, Asia and beyond.

"I think a collapse of the Saudi regime followed by any significant level of disorder in the kingdom would probably be the single most destabilizing event that one could think of in the Middle East," said James Dobbins, director of the RAND Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center. Despite deep historical ties, relations between the United States and the Saudi monarchy have been strained by recent events, especially after President Obama withdrew support for Mubarak, a Saudi ally. The situation worsened when the administration seemed reluctant to support Saudi intervention in Bahrain.

Although the Saudi government helps to export a fundamentalist form of Islam, it's also bent on fighting terrorism, in large part for its own self-preservation. "It's possible that a successor regime would be less sectarian and that it would possibly be more internally focused, but it's also possible that you would have a regime that is more extremist. I think Saudi society has been so closed and so resistant to broader modernizing influences for so long that it's very unpredictable," said Dobbins.

There have been subtle stirrings of dissent in Saudi Arabia, but there is no organized opposition and, given the extremely tight control of the government, there is not likely to be one in the foreseeable future. Because the country wields so much power and is an essential counterweight to Iran, ultimately, the United States will likely need to realign its foreign policies with the kingdom's to ensure stability and achieve its geostrategic aims.

LIBYA

LEADER IN JAN. 2011: Col. Muammar Qaddafi

THE STAKES: Widespread organized protests sparked violent retaliation from Qaddafi and threats of genocide.

The United States and NATO have successfully instituted a no-fly zone in Libya and led air strikes under the aegis of a U.N. Security Council resolution. Critics of a military intervention argue that although most Americans would be happy to see Muammar Qaddafi go, his country of 6.5 million isn't vital to U.S. security or strategic interests and thereby doesn't warrant entangling American forces in a conflict with another Muslim nation.

But the administration clearly hopes to achieve a moral victory by supporting democracy in Libya, preventing a humanitarian crisis and showing that it will not brook governments targeting their own civilians when demonstrations arise.

These benefits outweighed the costs of a limited intervention, Obama argued, because the United States was "faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale" and in a unique position, backed by an international mandate, to stop it.

Geographically, Libya's placement on the map, however, has also influenced America's reaction. "I think that if Libya were located on the moon, rather than in between Egypt and Tunisia, then one might have responded differently. But if the U.S. has an interest in Tunisia and Egypt making a democratic transformation and peacefully moving from an authoritarian to more representative governance, then it has an interest in preventing events in Libya from undermining that prospect — as would be the likely case if Qaddafi were to prevail and he were thereby able to demonstrate that repression works," said Dobbins of RAND.

But the United States also harbors deep unease that the rebel groups it is lending support may have strains of terrorist organizations within their ranks, and that weapons used to fight Qaddafi may eventually be aimed against U.S. troops or interests. The prospect of the rebels simply being inept and incapable of overthrowing Qaddafi is also a huge concern for the United States, which is wary of getting dragged into a stalemate or lengthy civil war.

On the flip side, Libya had contributed a somewhat sizeable amount of oil to world markets and stabilizing the country would help to bring down high energy prices.

BAHRAIN

LEADER IN JAN. 2011: King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa

THE STAKES: Peaceful protests among the majority Shiite population have been met with violent crackdowns by the minority Sunni-controlled monarchy, backed by military troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Neighboring Arab countries fear that a successful Shiite-led revolt will spread Iran's influence, while also possibly bolstering the aspirations of would-be Shiite revolutionaries within their own borders — especially in Saudi Arabia (which is just 16 miles from Bahrain), where the Shiite population is concentrated in an important oil-producing area.

The United States also naturally seeks to limit Iran's presence in Bahrain — a tiny yet strategically located country whose government had been held up as a model of reform until recently — though Americans may not be as jittery about the consequences of a Shiite government coming to power as their allies in the Gulf. "I think the United States shares their concern but probably feels a little more confident of its ability to cope with the challenge than do the countries of the region," said Dobbins of RAND. "Besides Saudi Arabia, they are very small and almost powerless, except insofar as they're rich. Naturally they tend to be more insecure than we are. If we miscalculate it's not the end of the United States. If they miscalculate it could be the end of Bahrain, or one of the other states."

Of chief importance to the United States, however, is maintaining a safe base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is stationed in Manama and has been essential in patrolling the Persian Gulf, supporting the war in Afghanistan, protecting Iraqi oil terminals, averting pirates and maintaining pressure on Iran.

YEMEN

LEADER IN JAN. 2011: President Ali Abdullah Saleh

THE STAKES: If any country could become a Somalia-like vacuum of power and a breeding ground for extremists, U.S. officials worry it's Yemen, where the devil they know — President Ali Abdullah Saleh — may be better than the one they don't.

Repeated protests in Sana'a have been violently suppressed by the government, led by Saleh for the last 32 years. The Arab world's poorest country, Yemen is beset with warring tribes, Islamic jihadists and a separatist movement in the south (the country only unified in 1990). The United States has been forced to rely on Saleh to keep Yemen from tearing apart at the seams and, more importantly, containing al-Qaeda, which has operated in lawless parts of the rugged country for more than a decade.

"Yemen actually looks like the most failed state in the Arab world at this point," said Hokayem of IISS. "Even Iraq looks more like a state than Yemen does."

Many foreign policy experts fear that unrest will allow Yemen to become a safe haven for terrorism and piracy. Connections between Yemen and the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airplane on Christmas Day 2009 and packages containing incendiary devices that were sent from Yemen to Chicago last year have stoked these worries. In the latter case, cooperation between U.S. and Yemeni authorities was vital to diffusing the plot.

In the face of mounting protests against Saleh's government, however, some have suggested that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states should take more responsibility for curtailing hostilities in Yemen. "Yemen is too big and too toxic for the U.S. to handle," Hokayem argues. "So the question is can the U.S. agree with the Gulf states on a common policy that basically subcontracts Yemen to the Gulf states."

Others dispute to what extent terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, could exert their will in Yemen even without Saleh — who welcomed the group's fighters before switching allegiances to the United States after 9/11, welcoming all the aid that came with the switch, though that money rarely trickles down to the country's impoverished masses.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, argues that the terrorist organization is not favored by the majority of Yemenis, and the United States has enough intelligence on the ground in Yemen to use targeted air strikes to keep al-Qaeda in check there.

SYRIA

LEADER IN JAN. 2011: President Bashar al-Assad

THE STAKES: Syria has long been ruled by a small Alawite sect and maintains close ties with Iran and Hezbollah, despite the government's avowed secularism.

(For example, last year the minister of higher education issued a ban on full veils for both teachers and students at Syrian universities.) At the same time, Bashar al-Assad, who came to power after the death of his father in 2000, has continued to lob fiery rhetoric against the United States and Israel while supporting terrorist groups in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, where Syria still exerts tremendous influence.

Complicating matters somewhat, in 2008, Israel and Syria announced that they had held indirect negotiations to reach a comprehensive peace agreement over their decades-old territorial dispute. Those talks have since collapsed, although Syria remains a fairly predictable neighbor for Israel.

Meanwhile, the United States has been reluctant to show support for protestors in Syria, in part because it feels that overt American criticism would probably strengthen Assad, according to Dobbins of RAND. "Also, I think the United States doesn't know what would replace Assad," he said of the Western-educated doctor who many had hoped would usher in gradual change after his father's three-decade-long rule.

On the one hand, the United States would like to sever Iran's reach through Syria to Lebanon and by extension Israel, but as Assad's secular disposition has become a rarity in the region, it seems risky to chance creating another theocratic state. In addition, Syria has not actually launched direct attacks against Israel for decades. Hokayem of the IISS said that Gulf states would also like to stanch Iran's influence in the region by cutting off Assad, but "the capacity of these states to cope with change is limited and that's showing. Even though getting rid of Assad is one way to weaken Iran, that's also going to upset the region even more."

JORDAN

LEADER IN JAN. 2011: King Abdullah II

THE STAKES: Jordan has been a key ally to Israel since 1994 when the two nations signed a peace treaty normalizing relations. As with Egypt, Jordan's support and shared intelligence is considered essential to protecting Israel's security and preventing terrorist attacks.

Jordan has also been one of America's closest, most reliable allies in the region for decades and its ruler, King Abdullah II, is widely viewed as a pro-Western, moderate leader.

Because of the large Palestinian population living in Jordan — which has also taken in a sizeable number of Iraqi refugees since the U.S.-led war there — and its shared border with the West Bank, any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require cooperation from Jordan. Thus any change in government would likely have negative consequences for the peace process.

Also, theoretically the king has been pushing for reforms in his country since establishing a 10-year national agenda in 2006 that outlines initiatives for social, economic and political progress. But in reality, change has been slow going and many have accused the government of clamping down on dissent. The United States also fears that any change in leadership in Jordan could empower a strong religious undercurrent that so far has been largely contained by the king but if unleashed could, potentially, have spillover effects in Iraq.

ALGERIA

LEADER IN JAN. 2011: President Abdelaziz Bouteflika

THE STAKES: After the military, with the support of Algeria's secular elites, quashed the Islamic opposition in 1992 following its gains in an election, an ensuing civil war killed well over 100,000 people.

Widespread hostilities ceased in 2002, but intermittent violence has continued in the country while some rebel groups have cemented ties with al-Qaeda. U.S. interests in Algeria are modest besides fighting terrorism in general, though Algeria is very important to America's ally, France.

However, Algeria presents the United States with somewhat of an existential dilemma because, like in Gaza in 2007, America sided with those who negated the results of a democratically held election because Islamist-based parties won the vote. Furthermore, although some have accused organizers of the recent protests in Algeria of having ties to extremist groups, the ruling government — under the ironclad grip of Abdelaziz Bouteflika since 1999 — is no angel either, charged with unleashing a brutal crackdown on the opposition and muzzling public dissent.

"I believe that at least some elements of the opposition were violent, but the degree to which they were provoked by the government is subject to debate," said Dobbins of RAND. "Algeria has violently suppressed its opposition movement in the past and probably radicalized them further as a result." Much of the opposition today espouses an Islamist identity, but it's unclear if that model more closely resembles the Taliban or the moderately conservative AKP that controls Turkey.

TUNISIA

LEADER IN JAN. 2011: President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali

THE STAKES: WikiLeaks released a succinct summary of U.S. interests in Tunisia — the trigger for the so-called Arab spring — in a 2009 cable from Ambassador Robert F. Godec: "By many measures, Tunisia should be a close U.S. ally. But it is not."

Godec continued, "While we share some key values and the country has a strong record on development, Tunisia has big problems. President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor."

Of course, Tunisians took to the streets and took care of that problem themselves — forcing the longtime dictator to flee to Saudi Arabia in January after a mostly peaceful revolution that sparked the wave of protests now rocking the entire region. The United States quickly lent its support, at least rhetorically, with President Obama saying in his State of the Union address that "the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia."

Considering that the United States did not have to commit anything other than moral support to associate itself with a major democratic victory in the Arab world, it seems to have taken advantage of an opportunity to share the limelight without expending too much. Indeed, Tunisia is a much more vital interest for Europe, given its proximity, longstanding economic and political ties, and the current influx of Tunisian refugees arriving on European shores.

In the future, the United States will look to prevent the rise of extremist elements from within Tunisia and from escaping beyond its borders. Thus, continuing to foster closeness between Tunisia and Europe is a U.S. objective.

Tunisia, which already had a well-educated middle class, strong women's rights and a progressive populace, could also become a natural U.S. ally — and some say with very little investment, the United States could help build a thriving democratic buffer in the region.

And if its experiment with democracy succeeds, Tunisia could once again serve as an inspirational model to protesters in other fledging Arab autocracies.

On that front, all eyes will be on upcoming parliamentary elections, tentatively set for July, to see if the shaky interim government can steer Tunisia toward democracy. It will be a critical test of whether the change that protesters have been clamoring for can truly take hold in the Arab world. And it would be only fitting it takes place in the country where it all began.

About the Author

Luke Jerod Kummer is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.


Last Edited on June 19, 2014