POMED Notes: Campaign 2012, Arab Awakening
The Brookings Institution hosted a panel discussion on American foreign policy and the Middle East on Tuesday, focusing on the challenges that the next U.S. president will face in the region. The event, entitled “Campaign 2012: Arab Awakening,” was the tenth installment in Brooking’s “Campaign 2012” series. POLITICO reporter Stephanie Gaskell moderated the panel discussion, which included remarks and recommendations from Raj M. Desai, a Senior Fellow at Global Economy and Development, Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center, and Tamara Wittes, Director of the Brookings Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
Hamid began by analyzing President Obama’s stance toward the Arab world prior to the uprisings. Obama sought to distance himself from the ambitious democracy promotion programs of the Bush era. Instead he focused on rebuilding fragile relationships with the existing Arab autocracies, but ultimately maintaining the status quo in the region. “When the Arab Spring started, Obama was not in the right place,” Hamid said. He lost a “major opportunity” to launch a Marshall Plan-like program at the outset of the transition period when Americans were excited by the developments before “Arab Spring fatigue” set in and political will was sapped. The $2 billion of U.S. aid to the region since the start of the uprisings pales in comparison to the $13 billion of aid (or $117 billion in current US dollars) that the U.S. sent to Europe in the aftermath of World War II, Hamid argued. America’s “inconsistent” positions on the various Arab uprisings and a pattern of backing down from threats has fed the perception in the Middle East that Obama is “weak and feckless and can’t really be counted on,” Hamid said. “Somehow we’ve managed to alienate both sides.”
Wittes reminded the panel that Obama’s primary objective in the Middle East upon taking office was ending the war in Iraq, which “was achieved in the face of anxiety and concern.” If the U.S. still had troops in Iraq when the uprisings began, we would have been in a very different place with regard to the Arab Spring, Wittes said. Nevertheless, the biggest challenge that Obama faced was budgetary: without marshaling greater financial resources from a Congress in deadlock, it was almost impossible to create long-term plans and programs for the post Arab Spring region. A second challenge comes in the form of the continued democratic victories for Islamists in countries where the U.S. is unpopular. It is “very difficult for the U.S. to build relationships with these countries during their transition period, knowing we will be caught in the middle” of competing political forces, Wittes said.
In order to drum up support for larger U.S. aid packages for the Middle East, Desai said that Obama must clearly explain the dire short-term and long-term challenges that the region faces. Egypt will descend into a “financial crisis” within a matter of months and transitional countries will have a harder time maintaining stability, bolstering trade, and creating jobs if the U.S does not provide more financial assistance. Desai noted that according to public polling in the “Arab Spring countries,” people are most interested in democracy not because they want participate in elections and other procedural elements of democracy but because democracy is perceived to bring economic equality and improved delivery of public services. According to Desai, if the expected economic gains fail to materialize, there is “a big chance of democratic reversal.” Desai identified a perennial split between the usual aid recipients in the public sector and the underserved youth in the informal sector, and he encouraged the U.S. and EU to bypass direct government-to-government partnerships and instead focus aid directly on the informal sector.
Hamid and Wittes discussed the “boutique,” case-by-case strategy that the U.S. has used to respond to the Arab uprisings. Hamid said this differentiated approach was practical but must exist within a larger guiding framework. He briefly discussed Jordan, a country that “no one seems to care about here” despite being a “powder keg” as dissent and protests continue to increase. Hamid suggested using carrots and sticks to help Jordan move towards reform, tying our economic assistance to explicit political benchmarks. Saudi Arabia and the rest of the countries in the Gulf are also prime targets for this type of incentivized aid. Wittes added that the boutique approach “made sense when things were still unfolding,” but as broader trends and alliances solidify in the following years, the U.S. should adopt a new policy. An example of one of these trends is that U.S. has come to rely on our Gulf partners to respond to crises in other Middle Eastern countries, yet the Gulf monarchies have been skeptical of making serious reforms within their own governments. Hamid added that the reluctance of Turkey or the Gulf countries to take action in Syria without U.S. support shows that the U.S. remains “indispensable” in the region.
Looking ahead to the presidential elections and the next four years in the U.S., Wittes said that “U.S. policies and interests will probably be the same no matter who wins.” The panelists agreed that two potential exceptions are the candidates’ approaches towards Iran and the Palestinian Territories. Although the three panelists generally agreed with Hamid’s assessment that “the Peace Process is by now an oxymoron,” Wittes said that it was still a mistake for Romney to dismiss negotiations out of hand. Desai noted that Romney might support “procedural democracy a little more” than Obama would, but he hoped that the U.S. will stop looking at governments as our main partners and start working directly with the citizens themselves. Education is the worst performing sector and the most important area to improve, Desai said.
In the Q&A session that followed the discussion, the panelists were asked to rank America’s strategic interests in the region in the years to come. Wittes said that although counterterrorism is a “core priority” for the U.S., America’s “primary interest is the free flow of energy out of the Persian Gulf.” Hamid said that while stability will always be paramount for U.S. policymakers, decades of support for autocratic regimes in the interest of stability was “fundamentally misguided” and caused much of the turbulence today. Desai agreed that 40 years of “stability” in the region went hand in hand with economic stagnation and discontent among the youth, who bore the brunt of internationally-imposed economic restructuring programs in the 1980’s. Nevertheless, Hamid said that despite a general “distrust” of U.S. policies in the region, there is a complicated undercurrent of pro-Americanism in the Middle East, especially in times of need when protesters often look to the United States. The Muslim Brotherhood is pragmatic and seeks a strategic partnership with the U.S., even as all parties use the U.S. as a “political punching bag,” Hamid said. The general support that the U.S. enjoys in Libya shows that sentiment toward the U.S. can and does change in response to U.S. policies and actions. Wittes and Desai concluded by reiterating the need to work with grassroots and youth organizations, supporting individual autonomy and equality of opportunities.