April 03, 2011
Missing: A Grand Strategy for the Middle East
The relatively little-noticed recent Senate testimony of Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns (the third highest ranking official in the State Department, now slated for the number two slot, Deputy Secretary of State, a rarity for a career diplomat, even of his exceptional caliber) represents perhaps the most comprehensive statement of the United States’ view of the dramatic revolutionary events roiling the Middle East. Burns closes his testimony with an arresting statement:
“…this is one of those moments that come along only very rarely in the course of human events. It is full of historic opportunities, and some very large pitfalls, for people in the Middle East, and for the United States. It is a moment which demands our attention and our energy, and as much creativity and initiative as we and our partners around the world can generate.”
Doubtless most readers would agree with his assessment, however, what tangible policy recommendations does Mr. Burns—on behalf of the Obama Administration--really provide us in his testimony (and this, as mentioned, the most thorough seen to date)? Burns sketches out four core priorities: 1) support for peaceful democratic change; 2) buttressing economic stabilization/modernization; 3) active pursuit of comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace; and 4) advancing our “huge and enduring stake in regional security” (interestingly, Burns’ highlights here not only the usual suspects—combating terrorism, staving off Iran’s nuclear program, seeing through Iraq’s transition—but also “strengthening ties to the GCC States”, of which more below).
I will take each of these four key tenets of Burns’ strategy in turn--but given the veritable whirlwind racing through the region daily-- it is the first I wish to focus on most here. Keeping in mind that this testimony was on March 17th (a couple weeks is a long time these days!), we can ferret out some differentiating factors Burns attempts to sketch among various countries impacted by the sweep of events. Burns begins by grouping together Egypt and Tunisia, the post-revolutionary states as it were, stating we have a “deep stake in stable transitions”, lending particular import to Egypt which he (rightly) describes as the “traditional bellwether for the Middle East” and thus “vitally important” to the region and ourselves. By way of concrete recommendations, he speaks of support to “civil society voices”, related, supporting “thoughtful sequencing” of the constitutional referendum and election process to ensure the “time and space” necessary for real political choices to take root, an acknowledgment and cooperative nod to the Egyptian military’s “valuable role” in “overseeing the transition process” (albeit with a cautionary note that we will “hold” the military to its commitment to “genuine reform”), and last positive noises made about the private sector’s role. While all this seems to make a good deal of sense, the reader is left to ponder how the United States would react to events such as a withering of civil society components in favor of a more stolid Islamist ascendancy, or the military stifling real reform as balanced against a “stable transition”, and so on. Put differently, we might almost describe this as a ‘wait and see’ strategy, if in fairness it seems at least more than one of let’s ‘hope for the best’, as well Burns is very careful to issue cautionary warnings to counterbalance those tempted by blind optimism.
Next, Burns lumps together in his next designated grouping Bahrain and Yemen. Somewhat delicately, Burns alludes to “witnessing escalating protests” (some might less charitably say disingenuously, Bahraini security forces killings in and around the Pearl Roundabout began as early as February, more than a month before Burns’ testimony, and the same applies to Yemen) however all that is mustered here is that we will “continue to press vigorously for serious political reform” and “productive dialogue” between governments and the opposition. Since this testimony, Shi’a Bahrainis have seen little by way of productive dialogue, unless Saudi tank turrets count, and Yemenis have witnessed savage killings in the streets of Sanaa with at least forty-five dead a day or two after Burns’ testimony. Burns as a highly gifted diplomat with long experience of the region is certainly alive to the subtleties of the issues at play here, for instance, quite purposefully messaging to the Sunni leadership of Bahrain that the situation is not simply about restoration of “law and order” at whatever cost, given the deepening sectarian divides that would result and “only lead to decreased security over the long term.” However one cannot help feeling we are seeing events in Bahrain and Yemen mostly through the lens of possible Iranian adventurism (regarding the former) and al-Qaeda risks if the state becomes even more of a failed one (the latter). This may be an acceptable realist stance, all told (especially, say, given the 5th Fleet’s presence in Bahrain, Saudi and U.S. concerns about contagion impacts into eastern Saudi with its tremendous oil reserves, and so on), but it strikes me as every bit as reactive as the posture described above regarding Egypt and Tunisia, if unfortunately more morally dubious.
Next Burns speaks of countries “working to stay ahead of the wave of popular protests”, here he lists Morocco and Jordan (perhaps “trying” may have been a more apropos opener here). We are advised both Kings are pursuing “significant reform initiatives”, and that “timely reform is the best possible antidote to subsequent upheaval.” Quite true, but as for the U.S role here? The United States will “emphasize the importance of taking reform seriously now as a way of creating positive avenues of citizen engagement and avoiding sharp conflicts later on.” Rather thin gruel, but better than nothing, I suppose.
And, last if not least, as they say, Burns speaks of the “sad and violent” case of Libya, where we “support the courageous Libyans who have risen up to regain their rights” (it might be noted, this ostensibly runs directly contra Burns’ very first policy tenet, namely to support “peaceful democratic change", albeit the savage primitivism of Qaddafi must be taken into account, of course). Burns, back on the 17th, spoke of “moving as rapidly as we can in New York to see if we can get additional authorization for the international community to look at a broad range of actions”, that very night, UNSC 1973 was approved at Turtle Bay, and we have been involved in a highly significant military (kinetic, is it?) action since.
Were one to try to espy some ‘grand strategy’ amidst this mini-gaggle of country groupings and policy recommendations, one might well end up flailing with respect to uncovering any disciplined strategy that convinces an overarching policy direction has yet been staked out. No no-fly and/or no-drive zones have been proffered in Yemen or Bahrain, looming challenges like Syria and possibly Lebanon are left unspoken, Egypt and Tunisia are mostly ‘wait and see’, and we are likely not doing particularly much new, really, in terms of Morocco and Jordan. This is not a criticism, per se, some world events in scope and velocity overtake any policy-making apparatus, and I would certainly happily acknowledge that this is one of those times. Also, a ‘less is more’ strategy might be advisable (ex-Libya, that is!), were we even able to command more influence, itself frankly a dubious proposition.
Libya, understandably given the blood and treasure now at risk and/or being expended, has garnered the most ink. We are told our mission has already been accomplished, as a ‘no-fly zone’ is already largely in effect (Obama, taking an early victory lap in his recent Libya speech (less substantive than Burns' testimony, in the main, and this apart from the obligatory politicking therein) declared somewhat presumptively, and in quite professorial mien: “(t)o summarize, then: in just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a No Fly Zone with our allies and partners.” Splendid, and Nicolas and David will take it from here, bien sur! We shall see. Looming challenges beckon, including certainly without limitation, rebels hitting civilians (we will retaliate against them too, it has been proclaimed, given we apparently worship at the altar of a quite highly selective humanitarianism!), the “flickers” of al-Qaeda amidst the rebels, which may prove more like bona fide sub-components of certain rebel elements, or still, NATO warplanes erroneously hitting rebels, as reportedly a couple days back, and so on).
Look, I think I understand—if not approve of--Obama’s ultimate decision to involve ourselves in this operation and perform something of an extremely rapid-fire about-face in the process, and where we have seen the liberal hawk wing resurrect itself in the counsels of power. But as someone who worked in the Balkans, I have taken the Benghazi as looming Srebrenica analogies in candor with a grain of salt (Srebrenica a particularly grisly culmination of a multi-year ethnic cleansing campaign by Bosnian Serb forces significantly backed up by the JNA military from rump Yugoslavia, with Qadaffi perhaps not on the cusp of actually consummating some massive massacre in Benghazi--rather than say threatening same to cow the populace of this almost one million strong city--contra the conventional wisdom in various quarters same was definitively and nobly staved off), however admittedly I am not privy to any intelligence, and Qaddafi’s ‘house to house’ rhetoric was indeed highly noxious and alarming, particularly given his oft-brutish background. There is also apparently a school of thought, apart from the potential humanitarian calamity, that to allow Benghazi to have fallen would have been tantamount to inviting other Middle Eastern rulers to run roughshod over their people, particularly given Libya’s newfangled ‘strategic’ position between Egypt and Tunisia. But to date whatever robust action we are in the midst of in Libya has not dissuaded other Governments such as Bahrain, Yemen and now Syria from resorting to force. There is also the no small matter—as alluded to above--of whom these rebels really are, ultimately, and what their manifold agendas may ultimately be, as well as questions surrounding the territorial integrity of the Libyan state, and what the West might (or might not) do were say Tripoli turned into a raging 1975 style Beirut scenario, or Qaddafi continued to rule over a truncated statelet, among other possible scenarios (there is also the no small matter of 'mission creep', but that would need to be the subject of a wholly separate post).
For now, we hope for the best, I take it, with a dash of jingo fervor in the Potomac air (even Defense Secretary Gates, heretofore ostensibly the paramount Libya intervention skeptic, advised on a recent Sunday gab-fest that, were he Qaddafi, “I wouldn’t be hanging any new pictures if I were him.” Nice sound-bite, if it speaks more to regime change than a mere no-fly zone, and one almost suspects poor Mr. Gates felt compelled to turn up the rhetoric a notch or so). Frankly, flicking the pages of the Wall Street Journal a couple days back, and seeing a front-pager on the return to vogue of subprime bonds and an op-ed by John McCain and Joe Lieberman making the usual points about Libya (we are all Benghazians now, before substitute Tbilisians, Baghdadis, Teheran's residents and so on, but never, say, the residents of Ramallah!) I had a distressing sense of déjà vu. Little has changed, really, since the worst financial crisis since the ‘30s and arguably the largest foreign policy blunder in contemporary U.S. foreign policy (Iraq). This despite the passions engendered by the Obama candidacy, where instead of deeply transformative fare, what can be said is at least his victory prevented the wild excesses of a McCain-Palin odyssey (for Odyssey Dawn—where do they pick these fantastically lame monikers?--substitute deepest Alaskan night).
Turning back to Burns’ testimony, he stresses as the second of his four strategy prongs economic stabilization, which is indeed critical, but all the varied initiatives trotted out (Enterprise Funds, OPIC, Global Entrepreneurship Programs) don’t amount to a fraction of TARP, say, or certainly a Marshall Fund. Regardless, as we are all painfully aware, the United States is not hugely aid disbursement-rich of late (putting it gently), so not suited for impressive shows of economic patronage hither dither. Perhaps more realistically in terms of tangible return on investment, Burns rightly speaks of “trade liberalization initiatives, ideally in cooperation with the EU”, as well as the Qualified Industrial Zone (“QIZ”) program (duty free entry for some Egyptian products into the US)—as other promising prongs of economic initiatives we might pursue--however, this is all ultimately quite unconvincing fare in terms of jump-starting truly meaningful economic growth in a country with the staggering needs of, for instance, an Egypt. This is not meant as a criticism but rather a reality check given our resource constraints and the gigantic needs, particularly in the context of the demographic boom of millions of young Arabs under the age of thirty hungering for productive work, dignity and a sense of a tangible future, like the Tunisian fruit vendor whose attempted self-immolation helped unleash these world-historical events.
Third, Burns speaks of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the imperative thereto, and I have little friendly to say, frankly. We have been at best lackluster in truly prodding the parties to make meaningful progress here, and this portion of the testimony reads more as if we should simply be grateful it was even included, lest the ‘peace process’ be ingloriously and wholly rubbished in the proverbial dustbin. So yes, we can certainly agree, as Burns puts it, that: “the status quo between Arabs and Israelis is no more sustainable than the sclerotic political systems that have crumbled in recent months. Neither Israel’s future as a secure Jewish, democratic state nor the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians can be secured without a negotiated two-state solution.” And yet, what truly is being done, where’s the beef results-wise regarding the “day-in-and-day-out” efforts Burns says we are making? Further, even in this section ostensibly about resuscitating the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese peace process tracks (the last two even more moribund than the first), Burns seems to be almost as anxious about at least salvaging the current position, highlighting, and I quote again: “We are committed to ensuring that political changes on Israel's borders do not create new dangers for Israel and the region, and we welcome the Egyptian leadership's rapid and repeated reaffirmation of its international treaty obligations.” Translation: the aforementioned references to the Egyptian military respecting its “valuable role” certainly extend to preservation of the Camp David Accords, another “bellwether”, so to speak, likely above many other priorities indeed, and one Foggy Bottom it would appear is not wholly sanguine about (sadly likely rightly, in the middle-term march of history, and if Israeli irredentism persists).
Last Burns turns to our “huge and enduring stake in regional stability”, yet somewhat disappointingly, this section is almost entirely about, you guessed it, Iran (little to nothing is said about even the other regional security priorities he mentions, say “strengthening ties to the GCC states,” though given the indignities of Bahrain perhaps better less said, or still, anti-terror priorities) in favor of something of a boilerplate vituperation respecting Iran: “the truth is that nowhere in the region is the disconnect between rulers and ruled any greater than it is in Iran. The hypocrisy for Iran’s leaders to profess their enthusiasm for democratic changes in the Arab world while systematically denying them to their own people is clear to all, including Iranian citizens.” This is arguably true, but not a slam-dunk statement in terms of its prima facie persuasiveness (why, what about Libya!), and regardless, in the context of the overall testimony reads a bit more like the obligatory jeremiad towards the evil Mullahs than particularly cogent analysis (though it doubtless provided the Hill coteries ‘on message’ comfort), whilst too betraying a measure of self-defensiveness given how much of an assist we’ve provided the Iranians by displacing their foes on both their eastern and western borders. Burns then goes on (in arguably overly self-congratulatory manner) to laud the Administration’s tactical successes in sharpening Iran sanctions (no disrespect meant to former Undersecretary Stuart Levey’s efforts), yet to what truly tangible, successful end to date? And left unsaid, what impact on regional security say a Sunni-run military Government would have in Syria, or an intractably divided Libya, or a Yemen that descends into greater ‘failed state’ status, or even—given all the airtime devoted to Iran—what the Administration makes of its supposed possible proxy-involvements in Bahrain, say?
So I would agree with soon to be Deputy Secretary Burns that we are living through “moments that come along only very rarely in the course of human events” and that they present both “historic opportunities” and “some very large pitfalls.” I hope he will be able to marshal his position as Secretary Clinton’s Number 2 to deepen our thinking on these critical matters, as I am not sure we have our bearings wholly in place, to include paying enough attention to the possible "pitfalls". This is not Europe 1989, or 1848 for that matter, sadly we are not dealing with post-Enlightenment societies, so the challenges are likely to be even more persistent, certainly than 1989’s largely peaceful denouement. And so, to borrow Burns’ phrase, what shall we do if “the peaceful, homegrown, non-ideological movement surging out of Tahrir Square” doesn’t simply “offer a powerful repudiation of al-Qaeda’s false narrative that violence and extremism are the only ways to effect change”, but metamorphoses into new directions, some of which prove hugely challenging for U.S. policy? And if “helping these countries’ reformers to achieve their goals is as important a challenge for American foreign policy as any we have faced since the end of the Cold War”, don’t we need to hear more than why Obama changed his mind over Libya as we navigate these treacherous waters, which the commentariat has almost solely been focused on? Burns is a veteran diplomat and is well alive to these questions and dangers, and I am sure much thought is being given to these cascading conundrums. But more needs be, and quite urgently. Fundamentally, how do we square our interventionist stance in Libya with our relative non-interventionism in the Bahrains and Yemens (putting aside the obligatory retort from Adminstration defenders that much work is occurring behind the scenes trying to forge a rapprochement between the Bahraini opposition and Sunni leadership, I believe a less than convincing talking point)? And is it time perhaps to retire at least somewhat the easy resort to the perennial Iranian bogey-man in favor of a more creative, recalibrated posture? And too, what contingency planning is afoot, if any, were Eastern Saudi to erupt, given the grave economic implications to the West?
More broadly, it is incumbent on this Administration to craft and enunciate a coherent and compelling narrative that couples our two overarching policy goals in the region and beyond namely, on the one hand, supporting the forces of democratic freedom (more carefully defined for starters, but here reference the ostensible rationale for a no-fly zone in Libya) and on the other hand, our less idealistic national security interests (say hedging our bets in Bahrain vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia and Iran with a strong bias towards the former). While there is a strong element of 'country-by-country differentiation' that is necessitated in case-by-case policy-making decisions during this tumultuous time, the overall policy nonetheless needs to be better rationalized within the framework of these two possibly competing policy goals. Put simply, the Administration has yet to define its overall policy coherently, and I am afraid this portion of Obama’s speech does not a convincing Obama Doctrine make:
"There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security -– responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help. In such cases, we should not be afraid to act -– but the burden of action should not be America’s alone. As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action. Because contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all."
This is mostly feel good humanitarianism fused with multilateral bonhomie, not a grand strategy befitting the challenges before us (it is also factually misleading, as whatever Qadaffi might have pursued in Benghazi, a genocide was not in the offing, definitionally).
Later, Obama closes:
"I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back, and that we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed at one’s own people; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people."
Until we better enunciate our sometimes conflicting goals into an overarching framework (perhaps grand strategy is too laden and ambitious a phrase) such sentiments will be just that, risking mostly ringing hollow to far too many in the region and beyond, with accusations of hypocrisy--if often glibly and unfairly--lobbed in our direction as well.
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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