The Arab League, an unwieldy 22-nation conglomerate of autocrats and monarchs, has long been the object of scorn. Established in Cairo in 1945 by a half-dozen Arab countries, it was known—if known at all—for its incompetence and hostility toward Israel. The league declared war on the Jewish state in 1948, froze out companies that did business with Israel, and expelled Egypt after it signed the Camp David peace accords. A 2002 summit in Beirut devolved into chaos when Lebanon’s president refused to give Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, a prime speaking slot; the Palestinians walked out in protest, and nothing substantive got done. A 2004 summit to devise a consensus position on the Iraq war achieved so little that Arab commentators derided the meeting as “ridiculous,” “a failure,” and “instantly forgettable.” Both Washington and Jerusalem have completely ignored the Arab League’s repeated offer for a wide-ranging peace deal with Israel. In a March interview, a senior Obama administration official told National Journal that the group “was at best useless and at worst actively unhelpful.”
Eight months later, the Arab League is emerging as one of the White House’s most important—and most unlikely—regional allies. When Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi cracked down on his country’s democratic uprising, the league stunned Washington by asking the U.N. Security Council to authorize a Western-led bombing campaign there. Qatar, one of its smallest members, contributed warplanes, weapons, and cash to the fight. The Arab League has since pledged substantial diplomatic assistance and reconstruction funds to Libya’s new government, taking on a burden that would otherwise fall to Washington and its Western allies.
The organization is also boosting American efforts to oust Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. A steady stream of Arab League diplomats traveled to Damascus to persuade Assad to stop slaughtering his own people; when the entreaties failed, the organization expelled Syria. (Previously, it had expelled only Egypt—readmitted nine years after Camp David—and Libya this summer.) Saudi Arabia, one of the league’s strongest members, has led the U.N. push to punish Assad. The group went even further in recent days, slapping wide-ranging economic sanctions on Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the Arab League for taking a “strong and historic stance.”
There are three reasons for the league’s new cojones. First, Amr Moussa, its longtime head, ceded power in May to Nabil al-Araby, an energetic Egyptian diplomat who, White House officials say, is eager to demonstrate that his organization can stand up to regional governments that commit gross human-rights violations. In this, Araby has a difficult task: The league’s members each get a vote on policy issues, and decisions bind only the states that endorse them. Much like the United Nations, the secretary-general runs the organization, wields disproportionate power during its internal debates, and serves as the public face. But Araby can’t make policy decisions on his own or veto ones already approved by a majority vote of member states.
Second, the balance of power inside the Arab League has shifted. Historically, it was dominated by Egypt, whose autocratic leader was sympathetic to fellow autocrats, according to Joshua Stacher, a political-science professor at Kent State University. Egypt’s influence within the league is waning, giving more power to the Sunni Persian Gulf monarchies just at the time when Tunisia’s democratization made it harder for the Arab League to continue ignoring public opinion. Member states know that their citizens have been enraged by the brutality of the Libyan and Syrian crackdowns carried live on satellite networks such as al-Jazeera. “The Arab League has always been a status quo organization led by status quo authoritarian leaders,” says Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor who served in a variety of senior roles at the State Department. Now it has “started listening when its own people express disgust about what they see on television.”
The biggest reason for the shift, however, is the growing regional concern about Iran. That unease is decades old, but fears have grown as Tehran has accelerated its nuclear-weapons program. Riyadh and other Sunni regimes—backed by Washington—believe that Syria is Iran’s most important Arab ally and a primary conduit for shipping weaponry to its proxy forces in Lebanon and Gaza. “You’ve got a collective fear of Iranian ambitions on the part of many members of the Arab League,” said Aaron David Miller, who spent two decades working on Middle East policy for the State Department before joining the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “You can potentially sever the Syrian-Iranian relationship and get at Iran through the back door by replacing the Assads.” The downfall of Assad’s minority Alawite government and the rise of one led by the country’s Sunni majority would be a significant boost for Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar.
Miller and the others caution that it’s too soon to declare that the Arab League will be a permanent, strong advocate of American interests. The group dropped its support for the U.S.-led Libya intervention shortly after it began and says it won’t back similar operations inside Syria. The impact of the league’s new sanctions on Syria is also unclear, because two members—Iraq and Lebanon—already say they won’t abide by the measures. “It would be premature to say that the Arab League is morphing into a mini-NATO, because it’s not,” Miller said. Still, the Obama administration can use all the help it can get in the region. If the Arab League says it is ready to be taken seriously for a change, the White House will be only too happy to oblige.
This article appears in the December 3, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.