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The United States Foreign Policy Balancing Act Above The Middle East Fires
The U.S. Foreign Policy Balancing Act Above The Middle East Fires
The Middle East has been ablaze in revolutionary fervor since December 17, 2010 when a Tunisian vegetable salesman set himself on fire. This occurred after a policewoman fined him and confiscated his cart. He tried to appeal to his municipality but was turned away. He eventually died of his burns. This sparked demonstrations in Tunisia over political corruption, lack of democracy, and the poor economy. These demonstrations escalated until President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali was forced to resign on January 14, 2011.
Revolutionary demonstrations then spread to Egypt and took down Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. Large demonstrations and calls for authoritarian ruler stepdowns have now spread to several Middle East nations. The United States now has a difficult and complex situation to deal with. How are we supposed to conduct our foreign policy in such a diverse and changing Middle East?
In the past we concentrated on our most primary national security interests such as oil security, Communism, terrorism, and Israeli security. Primary national security concerns will remain vitally important to U.S. foreign policymakers but they may not continue to always hold this primary importance. The aspirations for freedom and democracy all over the middle eastern region are very strong and show no signs of waning. I will examine within this article what I feel are the prime short term and long term interests of the U.S. in the Middle East today. I will then try to show how these interests interact and how our actions in each new case will depend on circumstances on the ground as well as the politics of the possible. All of this will be explained with an eye on freedom for the people of the Middle East and our long term goal of peace and stability in this critical region.
I would like to first address the two primary security concerns that the United States has in the Middle East. They are energy security by way of oil and the fight against terrorism. Historically U.S. foreign policymakers have primarily focused on protecting the oil fields and shipping lanes within the Middle East. This has caused us to support several authoritarian governments who have assured us stable access to their oil and to the rest of the Middle East. This policy worked well for many years. Oil flowed plentifully and reliably out of this region to the west for most of the past century. There was a severe oil shortage in 1979 due to the Iranian Revolution proving the dire consequences of turmoil in this region. This just reinforced the opinions of policymakers that keeping pliant Middle East rulers in office was beneficial to the United States.
American Presidents have always advocated for democracy rhetorically but never behind the scenes to these despots where it really counts. The George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq, overthrew Saddam Hussein, and installed a democracy. President Obama made a speech in Egypt in 2009 advocating for freedom and human rights that was widely applauded in the region. Now the Middle East has taken these messages to heart and is taking action to assert and acquire their human rights. As a result the U.S. has the need to choose between supporting authoritarian regimes that are friendly to our oil interests or to back their rebellious citizens who are seeking freedom and democracy.
What should the U.S. government do in these situations? This is a difficult balancing act. Additionally what is to be done about our war on terrorism? Many authoritarian Middle East leaders have been supporting our fight in this arena to one degree or another. This has been true in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Jordan to name just a few. How far should we go to defend them if rebellions develop or should we defend them? Once again there is no simple answer. Backing Middle East dictators has burned us in the past leaving countries that have wide swaths of their citizenry resenting or hating the United States. These actions have helped sow the seeds for the current terrorist wave against us. This puts us directly in the middle of a "Catch 22". In the past we simply backed these Middle East dictators who helped us with matters of American security whether they concerned oil, Communism, or Terrorism. The current revolutionary atmosphere in the Middle East makes this policy a folly. This movement is too strong to simply oppose blindly. Iran was the cautionary tale of the 1970s. The situation is much more dangerous now. Therefore we urgently need a new long term Middle East foreign policy doctrine.
The blueprint for a new long term policy towards the Middle East has already been put in place albeit in an ad hoc manner. Ironically it was started by the George W. Bush administration. That administration's neo-conservative policymakers advocated for a robust foreign policy that included overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq and installing a democracy. They felt this precedent might create a groundswell for democracy in the region. Understandably it initially created great anger and hatred towards the U.S. which increased the incidences of terrorism against Americans. The Palestinians subsequently conducted an election in their territories in which the terrorist organization Hamas emerged victorious. This clearly illustrates that the policy of advocating for democracy in the Middle East is fraught with peril.
Then President Obama made his speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University in Egypt on June 4, 2009. He encouraged better understanding between Muslims and the United States. He also encouraged democracy by stating that all peoples have human rights such as freedom of speech, the right to determine how you are governed, equal rule of law and justice, transparent and honest government, and the freedom to live as one chooses. The people of the Middle East heard this speech loud and clear. I believe it laid the groundwork for the subsequent revolutions that have occurred and continue to occur this year all over the Middle East region.
We cannot now stray from President Obama's message in our conduct of Middle East foreign policy. Of course there will be a need for nuanced responses from country to country as well as situation to situation. The U.S. has differing levels of influence in each Middle Eastern country. We have great influence within the internal politics of Egypt but we have almost none within Libya. This variance of influence holds true throughout the Middle East. The result of all of this is that we need to adapt to each situation differently if we wish to handle them correctly and achieve the outcomes we desire. The bottom line for the U.S. is that we should always be seeking to have the human rights of Middle Eastern citizens upheld with their personal freedom our ultimate goal.
Now I would like to turn to the longest running and probably the most influential issue in the Middle East. This is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This conflict has bedeviled the United States and the world for decades. The other peoples of the Middle East are viscerally connected to it. Therefore the U.S. needs to be actively involved with the two sides to honestly help broker a peace deal. The Obama Administration has been active in this pursuit but with little to show for it at this time. The Bush Administration had proposed a "Road Map For Peace" but conducted very little diplomacy with the Palestinians to help the process along. At the same time they embraced and praised Israel at every opportunity. This dichotomy of support became increasingly evident to the Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East as time went on. Soon U.S. credibility as a peace broker in this conflict disappeared. The standing of the United States in the Middle East suffered greatly as a result.
The Obama Administration has brought a more balanced approach to mediating between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He has reiterated American allegiance with Israel and its defense pact with them. At the same time, he strongly denounced the expanding Israeli settlements in the disputed West Bank. Again this change in policy by the U.S. has been readily noticed by the Middle East engendering much more respect and credibilty in regards to American diplomacy in this region. The basic outlines for a peace agreement regarding borders between these two sides has been in place for over a decade. The ironing out of peripheral yet important issues such as Jerusalem, water rights, refugee return, and Israeli settlements in the West Bank still must be hammered out. Israel is wary about terrorism on their citizens and the split between Fatah and Hamas. The Palestinians are angry about the continuing expansion of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Only the United States with support of the Arab League can bring these two sides together to continue negotiations towards a lasting peace.
These negotiations are extremely contentious but they are the key to the United States' goal of peace in the Middle East. A treaty on this issue would make relations in the rest of this region much easier to negotiate. Therefore the Obama Administration must remain intimately involved in helping to settle this conflict.
How then should the United States government ultimately run their Middle East foreign policy? They have short and long term interests which I have outlined in this article. Often times these interests clash. Can they be brought into better harmony? All situations are different and all will require close examination in regards to the various aspects of the turmoil in order to develop the proper nuanced response. Now this is not the neat black and white answer that most Americans prefer to hear and have explained to them. It doesn't fit into a short sound bite.
I believe that our first response should always be to rhetorically support a people who are demonstrating or rebelling against an authoritarian government. The subsequent move we make will depend on our relationship with that government and the resulting level of influence we have on them. Countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are examples where U.S. influence is great. Diplomacy and economic influence will be our primary tools in these instances.
Unfortunately when it comes to nations such as Libya, Iran, and Syria our influence is negligible. Here we must gather coalitions of nations to implement economic sanctions or military quarantines. The U.S. military is stretched too thin with two ongoing wars and other obligations around the globe to undertake military actions against another country on its own. Besides, working with the other nations of the world to ensure peace and security is the way we acquire and maximize respect and prestige within the global community.
Another factor affecting our responses is how reasonably practical or possible it is to act against an intransigent authoritarian government. Libya is a small nation where air support and strikes are easily conducted. Iran is much larger and more densely populated with heavier defenses. The current U.S.-NATO military action against Libya has been relatively easy to conduct. An action against Iran's nascent nuclear facilities may soon be necessary due to the security threat it poses to the world. It will be an immensely more difficult operation to carry out and therefore will probably occur only if it becomes an imminent threat.
My belief is that the only instance where we should consider using unilateral military action against a Middle East nation or any nation is when a critical national security interest is at stake or there is an imminent lethal threat to ourselves or one of our allies. This is the order of ascending responses I feel the United States should use in dealing with the developing Middle East uprisings. We must be the fair minded interlocutor in these situations to ensure the smoothest transitions in government that we possibly can. This includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which colors the dispositions of the entire Middle East. Abdicating these responsibilities within the Middle East would cause dire consequences for the region and for the United States itself.
This region is critical to our national security for all the reasons I have outlined in this Hub. The U.S. will not always respond perfectly in each situation. There is too much complexity and too many contradictions in the Middle East to expect perfection. But with diligent analysis, diplomacy, and adjustments on the fly, we can steer this explosive time in Middle East history on to a calmer and more peaceful era. An era where freedom, human rights, and democracy are the standard and authoritarian rulers are the rare exception.