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Whose Version of Political Order in the Middle East?

by Ehsan Ahrari on June 16, 2015, No Comments

Given the rising tide of instability and disorder in the Middle East, Henry Kissinger’s longing for a new world order is more real than it is given credit for, everywhere except in the United States and perhaps in Europe.[i]  Such a world order defends the Westphalian principles created in Europe.  The most relevant feature of the Westphalian system for this discussion is that each nation-state exercises sovereignty over its territory and in its conduct of domestic affairs.   Throughout the Cold War years, the United States established an impeccable record of enforcing that principle in its defense of states of Western Europe against a potential encroachment of the Soviet Union.

The Arab world, which has been witnessing a lot of turbulence since the onslaught of the Arab Awakening in 2010, is a region where Kissinger’s concerns about America’s declining influence is as palpable as it is worrisome.  While the Arab Awakening underscored the increasingly antediluvian nature of autocratic rule in many states of that area, it also underscored a marked decrease in America’s ability to manage and stabilize that region during and after the immediate end of the Cold War.

During that era, the United States protected the Gulf sheikhdoms, first from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Pan-Arabist conspirators in the 1950s and 1960s, and then from the megalomaniacal hegemonic aspirations of Saddam Hussein in 1991.  The decisive US action to crush Saddam’s military occupation of Kuwait in 1991, and in the process deteriorate his warfighting capabilities, persuaded the Arab sheikhdoms that America would be there to protect them from any future turmoil menacing their survival.

However, when the administration of President Barack Obama could not—or to be more precise, would not—save the regime of President Hosni Mubarak from the wrath of the Egyptian democracy-seeking masses in 2011, the  Gulf monarchies, after recovering from the “shocking behavior” of the United States, decided to take matters in their own hands.  After all, Mubarak was regarded as America’s staunchest ally and guarantor of the continued implementation of the 1978 US-negotiated Camp David Agreements.  After his ignominious ouster from power, no Arab ally of America felt safe.

The Arab interpretation of the United States’ reluctance to save the regimes of Mubarak and that of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was that they were entering a new era where they could no longer rely on Washington to protect them.  However, the modalities of such behavior were to emerge slowly.

When the Libyan masses rose up against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, he had no friends in the West or in the Arab world.  No one wanted to see the continuation of his bloody rule.  When Qaddafi turned on his killing machine against the popular uprising, the decision to oust him came easily.  It was left to France and the UK to take the lead in a NATO-sponsored military action against the Qaddafi regime.  The United States decided to “lead from behind,” thereby further convincing the Gulf Arab states that the days of US-led proactivism had become a thing of the past.[ii]  Qatar played a palpable role in the calls from the Arab League to impose a no-fly zone against the Qaddafi killing machine.[iii]  However, when post-Qaddafi Libya became the killing field of Islamists, neither the Arab nor the Western states had any solution.

The Gulf States’ resolve to develop a full-fledged policy posture of self-reliance was amply demonstrated when Saudi Arabia sent its military forces, at the request of the ruler of Bahrain, to crush demands for democratic reforms in that emirate in March 2011.  The Saudi rulers were hoping that their resolve to come to the rescue of Bahrain would force other “fitna”-oriented forces to think twice before emulating the examples of the Bahraini masses.[iv]  And they turned out to be right, for now.   The Obama administration’s major concession to the Saudi military action was it insistence that those troops were invited by the Emir of Bahrain.[v]  The American-dominated political order was fast crumbling in the Arab world.

The Gulf States’ independent foreign policy witnessed its zenith in a behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to facilitate the July 2013 ouster of the first democratically elected government headed by President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The respective Saudi and UAE satisfaction regarding that development in Egypt could not have been more evident than in their decision to provide the government of General Fattah al-Sisi with $8 billion in aid.[vi]  The dismantlement of the Morsi government also brought to light the first open rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and Qatar on the other—all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  Qatar was on record spending billions of dollars in aid to the Muslim Brotherhood government.  The Saudi and UAE preference for the return of a dictatorship in Egypt was evidently not shared by Qatar.

As the Gulf States were being exposed to the role of regional leadership, they were fast realizing that the creation of a new regional or sub-regional order—despite the fact that it was significantly smaller when compared to the massive task of creating a new global order—was still a task for which they were neither prepared nor had the political skill that is developed over decades and only through an arduous process of trial and error.  They did not even have a sub-regional strategy to stabilize their immediate neighborhood.

The only alternative they had was to bring back the old military dictatorship in Egypt.  Even their success in materializing that reality did not contribute anything to that country’s long-term stability.  After the mass uprising that led to Mubarak’s ouster from power, the Egyptian people were not likely to live under another military dictatorship for long.  To make matters worse, the role of the Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) in establishing a Caliphate in June 2014 in the territories contiguous to Iraq and Syria, was making the Levant increasingly unstable.  It was only a matter of time before that instability would reach Egypt.

As massive a challenge IS has become for all Arab states, Turkey, Iran, and especially the United States—since it desperately wants the continuation of political status quo in the Middle East—none of these sates have a clue about how to bring about that entity’s termination.

On the contrary, ISIS has been demonstrating its skill as an effective fighting and propagandistic entity.  The ease with which it captured Mosul, Tikrit, and overran Ramadi—the provincial capital of Iraq’s largest province—and the fact that its global social media campaigns continue to attract 1000 young volunteers from all over the world each month, makes one wonder whether it can be defeated in the near future.[vii]

One of the fortes of ISIS is to maximize chaos, which is so antithetical to the Kissingerian obsession with regional and global order.  It is only through regional disorder that ISIS hopes to create its own version of order for the caliphate.  However, allowing the ISIS-preferred order to escalate is loathed by all nation-states, and especially the Arab states.  The latter entities know that increased chaos is most likely to result in the dismantlement of their regimes.

But what should the Arab regional order look like?  Remaining focused on the Gulf Arab states, such order would seek the dominance of Saudi Arabia.  Of course, Iran would staunchly disagree with any system that promotes the primacy of that country, for Iran already envisions itself as a rising regional power from West Asia to the Levant.  Another alternative would be an Iran-Saudi rapprochement aimed at stabilizing West Asia, Iraq, and even Syria.  However, given the fact that neither of those countries has yet found any basis for cooperation in Iraq and Syria, there is no reason to believe that they would do so in the near future.

That only leads one to think about the implementation of a regional model preferred by Henry Kissinger, where the United States also becomes a major player, but only as a balancer.  As an age-old defender of the Westphalian system, the United States is uniquely qualified to play that role in a region where national sovereignty is increasingly threatened by ISIS, and where both Iran and Saudi Arabia play important roles in bringing about regime change in Iraq and Syria.  The United States has the potential to emerge in that role, but only if it can lower the enormous ill-will toward Iran that prevails in the American security community and inside the US Congress.

Persuading the Saudis to go along with a security framework in which the United States and Iran would remain important players may not be as difficult as it appears at first blush.  After all, despite all the Saudi grievances toward the Obama administration stemming from its eagerness to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran, rulers in Riyadh know how important the United States remains for the overall security of Saudi Arabia.  Thus, as long the United States remains a player in any future order in the Gulf, no country’s existence is likely to be threatened, especially because, before agreeing to see the United States play an important role in guaranteeing a political status quo in the Persian/Arabian Gulf, Iran would insist that Washington accept the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic without any reservations.

[i] Henry Kissinger, World Order, (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2014); also see John Micklethwait, “As the World Turns: Henry Kissinger’s ‘World Order’,” The New York Times, September 11, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/books/review/henry-kissingers-world-order.html

[ii] Roger Cohen, “Leading from Behind,” The New York Times, October 31, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/01/opinion/01iht-edcohen01.html

[iii] Colin Freeman, Nick Meo, and Patrick Hennessy, “Libya: Arab League calls for United Nations no-fly zone,” The Telegraph, 12 March 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/libya/8378392/Libya-Arab-League-calls-for-United-Nations-no-fly-zone.html

[iv] Fitna is roughly translated as communal strife leading to instability and chaos (Fawda).

[v] Caren Bohan, “U.S. says Saudi forces in Bahrain ‘not an invasion’,” Reuters, March 14, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/14/us-bahrain-usa-invasion-idUSTRE72D6RB20110314

[vi] Saudi Arabia, UAE providing total of $8 billion to Egypt’s new government after Morsi’s ouster, Associated Press, July 9, 2013, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/07/09/saudi-arabia-uae-providing-total-8-billion-to-egypt-new-government-after-morsi/

[vii] Sean D. Naylor, “Airstrikes Killing Thousands of Islamic State Fighters, but It Just Recruits More,” Foreign Policy, June 9, 2015,http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/09/airstrikes-killing-thousands-of-islamic-state-fighters-but-it-just-recruits-more/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=*Situation%20Report&utm_campaign=SitRep0610