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February 4, 2012


Avoiding an Arab Winter

by Mike M

One of the central strategic challenges of 2012 has got to be the playing out of the “Arab Spring,” and the US decision of how to respond.  We went to war in Libya, in part, out of a desire to shape the perceptions of the Arab-Muslim world toward the US support for the democratic transition.  But having shed blood for to posture ourselves in this way, we have no decisive follow-up game.  And now we’re standing by, watching things slide off a cliff.

“Egypt is on the brink of political and economic collapse and the West has an obligation to sustain the country with financial aid and diplomatic support, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official has warned.”  So begins a new Washington Post story, only the latest of many to make the basic point.  We’ve been dithering with diplomatic fine points while the region’s future hangs in the balance.

One way of conceiving the big emerging strategic reality of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and to a lesser degree Morocco, Bahrain and elsewhere—especially when laid alongside the trajectory of politics in Turkey—is as the Rise of Political Islam.  Secular autocrats have been toppled; elections—even in places without revolutions, like Morocco—have brought to power Islamist parties of various stripes, sometimes collections of competing Islamists.  In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which some fear and some see as an ultimately moderating influence, confronts Salafists on its extreme flank.  In Tunisia, Ennadha is striving mightily to present itself as thoroughly pragmatic and is working with centrist parties in a coalition government.  In Morocco, the Party of Justice and Development was allowed to form a new government after winning a plurality in recent elections.  Much commentary over the coming year will inevitably focus on the challenges of dealing with Islamist states, what this will mean for US foreign policy in the region, what it will mean for Israel.

But in fact there is a more important strategic reality unfolding in these countries.  It is the more fundamental factor that will shape the character of these Islamist movements, and the societies they reflect.  It represents the issues that led to the revolutions in the first place.  And arguably, it’s the issue we’re most badly fumbling.

That strategic reality could be broadly stated as effective governance.  The best explanation for what’s going on in North Africa and the Middle East can be found in the various editions of the Arab Human Development Reports, issued from 2002 through 2009.  Collectively they contain hundreds of pages and thousands of judgments, but their bottom line message was that poor governance, especially of economic life, was stifling the opportunity of dozens of Arab-Muslim nations to advance in an increasingly competitive, globalizing world.  Without dramatic reforms—of corrupt social practices, anachronistic state sectors, collapsing infrastructures, stifling regulatory and financial policies, and much more—these nations would fall further and further behind.

This sense of global abandonment, seeing the opportunities of globalization—political, economic, cultural and social—through a thick Plexiglas window but being held back from pursuing them, surely drove much of the grievance, frustration, and anger that propelled many of these states into rebellion.  The people wanted freedom, but also opportunity, well-being, a better life.

This assessment points to obvious risks, because the barriers to progress did not reside solely in the presidential palaces of these countries.  They are distributed throughout society, in bureaucratic and cultural practices that could take years to uproot.  And meanwhile, populations believing they have overthrown an old order are expecting, and demanding, rapid improvement.

It’s the typical story of revolutions, of course, although in some cases, if the underlying socioeconomic situation is ripe for smooth transition to growth, rapid progress can be made.  South Korea’s move to democracy did not occur via a “revolution,” though protests were surely involved.  But when it did happen, the South had already built a vibrant business sector, a middle class, and an industrialized culture of banking, global trade, and export-led industries.  Nothing like this is present in the countries of the Arab Spring (though Morocco, as an example, has tried hard to push ahead with some economic reforms designed to position itself as an industrial hub for European companies).  Meantime, transitional disorder is likely to keep foreign investors at bay for months if not years.

The US response to what is fundamentally a problem of governance and development has been fitful at best.  US officials recognize the problem, but a combination of budget woes and, seemingly, chaos on the ground appears to have prevented any sort of decisive response.  New ruling coalitions have proven ornery about how aid is disbursed, and the US, burned by dozens of recent aid wastage experiences, doesn’t just want to shovel in cash.  Maltreatment of some Americans in Egypt got Washington’s dander up.  Within the Arab world, even promises of aid have been somewhat controversial, seen in some quarters as new Western efforts to control the Arab countries and pursue Western interests.  Polls inside Egypt have shown growing discomfort with aid.

Some aid has flowed in, such as USAID money for transitional governance programs.  President Obama talked of loan forgiveness.  On the whole, however, speaking to folks who travel to the region and scholars, the general sense one gets is of a growing frustration.  The world supported our rebellion; we stood up and made a new system; where the hell is the support?  Of course there are many dilemmas—not everyone wants the aid, we want conditions the recipients don’t appreciate.  But as the latest appeal from the Brotherhood makes clear, the fundamental desire is there.

So we approach the bottom line Big Strategic Truths:

  1. The fundamental factors at play are economic and governance-related.
  2. In coming months, the transitional governments are unlikely to make much progress on these categories, partly because they are inexperienced at governing, partly because these problems are so ingrained, partly because the world economy is in the doldrums, and partly because billions in aid haven’t materialized.
  3. Things are very likely, therefore, to get worse before they get better.  The events of the last days don’t necessarily point to a linear increase in violence, but they are surely a harbinger of growing political and social disorder of some degree.
  4. This will very likely produce a radicalization of local politics, both of nationalistic and religious varieties.  It will produce angry accusations, directed at outside powers that backed the prior regimes, are friends of Israel and now, in the eyes of come, conspire to undermine the revolutions.  The reaction will be constrained by the recognition that the only solutions to these problems lie in global networks of capital, trade, technology and information that would be closed off with extremism.  But the bitter contest between these pragmatic points of awareness and burgeoning frustration, grievance and blame-shifting will only become more intense.

There is every chance that as things get worse, commentators of a certain bent in the West—and, in fact, US politicians in the midst of a presidential election—will see money to be made (metaphorically as well as literally) by depicting the whole process as the actualization of their long-forecast “war of the West against radical Islam.”  Which will be ignorant, and unnecessary, and also captivating to a part of the population that doesn’t know any better.  The next step along this dangerous path will be the leak of “intelligence reports” of al Qaeda camps in Tunisia or Egypt, and “some evidence” (always the vague reference) to “officials in these governments” in some way connected to the terrorist group.  Which will, of course, start the whole terrible chain of events into motion again, beginning with discussions in secret rooms of drones and special forces.

If this all sounds too terrible to contemplate, just months after the smiling, lovely young people swarmed into Tahrir Square to begin a new chapter of Arab-Muslim history:  Do not presume that the assumptions of this analysis are all pessimistic.  With just a few more of the right steps, some additional reforms, and a couple of dozen thoughtful investments, Morocco could suddenly be well on the way to turning away from the model of tourism + agriculture + remittances + low-wage textiles that traps so many developing nations in that part of the world.  Tunisia has a highly educated population and the potential to do great things.

But it’s all about the transition; and the potential for the Fearmongering Class in the West to join with the Conspiracists and Scapegoaters in collapsing Arab-Muslim societies in a spiral of suspicion and conflict is all too real.  And so the United States needs to decide, very quickly, two things:

  1. What do we have at stake in these transitions?
  2. Given the answer to (1), what are we prepared to do about it?

Because as of now, with many apologies to the hard-working diplomats on the ground, to the officials who have doggedly confronted the many dilemmas that made further action difficult, to the USAID workers trying to do what they can—as a strategic actor, we’re doing a whole lot of nothing.  Which is rather odd, given that we waged a quasi-constitutional war on the theory that we were, for a moment, worried about how the region perceived our support for their revolutions.

The great danger in this policy debate is of the Cynical Experienced Realists around the table who will shake their heads and lower their brows and mumble, Really, there’s not much we CAN doThey won’t take our aid, with the right conditions.  We don’t have money to give.  Look–another American tourist was just seized.  They’re not being responsible.  Israel is worried about our support.  And on and on—a dozen reasons to sit back and assume that we have no effective means to affect either the objective outcomes or the perceptions of people in the region as these transitions unfold.  And these cynics will argue for strategies of a very different variety:  preparing to deal with an increasingly unstable region in which we have substantial interests and little influence; preparing to erect defensive ramparts against Increasingly Radicalized Islamism; preparing, in other words, for a New Cold War, of a very different variety.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. pjd
    Feb 4 2012

    M, Been chatting this up for a long time now…we should be more prepared and less surprised at each turn of event. But we are not. This reality trumps the issues you raise in your excellent piece. PJD

  2. Andres Ploompuu
    Feb 6 2012

    It seems to me that your piece suggests sophisticated diplomacy. I couldn’t agree more. The last kind of approach we need here is another ham-handed military-heavy response, rooted in US domestic politics and media appeal.
    At the same time, I am reminded of one of life’s truisms: you can do nothing about the waves. You CAN do something about the way you ride those waves. The wave in this case is America’s historical aversion to sophisticated diplomacy in favor of sexier and more immediate measures: send in the military or throw money at challenges.
    If we accept that truism as an assumption, then perhaps one suggestion – however painful – is worth considering: subsidize the development of propulsion means utilizing anything other than petroleum-based products, and remove all subsidies to the oil industry. Painful and politically suicidal, yes. But only for a handful of politicians brave enough to suggest it. Good for the country? Undeniably. Imagine how things would look if somehow miraculously we no longer had oil interests in the middle east (or anywhere, for that matter). Our interest in the Middle East would vaporize faster than overnight. Nor would Americans be frustrated by regional problems forever out of their reach to address with sophistication which eludes their government.
    Not likely, I admit. Nonetheless, as your intent in this blog was to offer alternatives for consideration in 2012, I welcome a serious rebuttal to the merits of this one.

  3. Matt J
    Feb 9 2012

    Can’t think of a rebuttal to Mike’s framing of the problem nor of the general outlines of an effective response. This one, as Mike notes, is going to come down to the art of the politically possible. I doubt a great deal of aid will be forthcoming giving long-standing popular perceptions and Congressional stance on foreign aid in general. For Egypt in particular, the outlook as dire as long as they insist (for their own domestic political reasons) on screwing with American democracy-promotion NGOs operating there. I guess it might be better for our national security elite as they try to craft a sophisticated policy if those NGOs weren’t there to be screwed with . . . but here we are with one of the consequences of the fragmented 21st century landscape discussed in earlier posts.

    The possible will likely boil down to doing nothing while giving the least offense possible . . . and certainly avoiding the instinctive reach for military tools that can do little but harm. Keep your eyes open for the trend toward SOF as force of choice that is triumphantly underway right now, in that connection — if we thought we had a problem with the hammer being too easy to use and everything looking like a nail, just wait until the conventional hammer comes home and the SOF rapier hangs enticingly to hand.

    More broadly, we are now facing that long-anticipated point where political Islam gets the chance to put its money where its mouth has been. Islamists in various forms seem to enjoy a great deal of legitimacy now in these post-Arab Spring societies; Twitter-savvy young urban folks are not necessarily going to be the broad base on which an enduring post-dictator order is built. If doing nothing is all we can manage politically, it should at least entail getting out of the way and giving those Islamists the chance to prove that they can govern effectively. If they cannot . . . short-term problems for us (and of course for their unfortunate people) — perhaps a necessary step in long-term evolution toward whatever political model ultimately WILL work for the people of the region.


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