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National Security

Dynamic Instability

The Arab “Iron Curtain” is crumbling and, with it, America’s venerable strategy for the Middle East. Until a new order emerges, core U.S. interests in the region just got a lot harder to protect.


The new power: A Libyan rebel in Benghazi.(GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

This is how it looks when revolutionary change eclipses a decades-old U.S. strategy for pursuing its goals in the Middle East.

In the face of massive protests, the White House cautions the king to exercise restraint in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Instead, his armed forces fire on protesters, escalating the crisis and putting at risk a key node in the American security architecture built to protect the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Days later, the violent unrest spreads to Libya, interrupting that country’s oil exports and causing world prices to spike to more than $100 a barrel; the volatility could threaten the global economic recovery.


In Egypt, soon after massive street protests drive American ally Hosni Mubarak from office, the military-led interim government takes a step that the dictator did not countenance in three decades of rule—allowing two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal, to much fanfare. Cracks appear in the United States’ carefully crafted edifice containing the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In a recent power play, Hezbollah chose the new prime minister of Lebanon. Hamas and Egyptian officials have reopened the Rafah crossing on their border, allowing the government in Gaza to rearm. The State Department characterizes both Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist groups.

U.S. officials worry that civil strife in Yemen and Libya could provide opportunities for local jihadi groups affiliated with al-Qaida, and that Islamists will hijack the democracy movement in Egypt or elsewhere and deal a major blow to U.S. counterterrorism operations.


At a moment when White House officials are taking great pains to stress that the eruption of “people power” shaking the Arab world is not about Israel or anti-Americanism, the United States stood alone against 14 other members of the U.N. Security Council on February 18 to veto a resolution condemning Israeli settlements. In explaining a vote that prompted its own “day of rage” in the Palestinian territories, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice had to concede that the closest U.S. ally in the region is pursuing illegitimate settlement activity that “violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.” Defending Israel becomes an ever-lonelier task.



No one can predict the outcome of the historic change sweeping the Arab world. Given the rapid pace and unprecedented nature of the revolutions roiling the monarchies, dictatorships, and autocracies of the Middle East, the Obama administration has displayed deft diplomacy during its most serious foreign-policy crisis. President Obama has put the United States on the side of a new generation of Arab youth demanding a voice in their own governance, even while quietly prodding venerable allies to initiate democratic reforms and stay ahead of the mob.

But even before the dust settles in Arab capitals, it’s already clear that the region has changed in ways that make it hard for Washington to protect its interests. American strategy had been premised on the bargain that Washington would largely ignore the domestic policies of allied autocrats who helped it get what it wanted: uninterrupted oil exports, a check on Iran, help in fighting Islamist terrorism, and security for Israel. Capital by capital, that bargain and the strategy it underpinned are unraveling.


“There is no question that we are seeing an earthquake in Middle Eastern politics that amounts to the most important moment for the region since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire—and, at some point, we will have to retool U.S. strategy to adjust to those profound changes,” Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of State for political affairs, told National Journal. With the region in such dramatic flux, he said, it is too early to consider a wholesale realignment of U.S. policies or strategic alliances.

“Our diplomacy has to be very adaptive in this period, because it’s supporting a multiplicity of U.S. interests, some of which are competing against each other,” said Burns, currently a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The Obama administration was right to throw its backing behind Arab youths protesting for democratic change, he said, but at the same time, Washington has to protect its traditional interests and, to the degree possible, stand by its friends and partners in the region. “The United States will have to consider whether a Middle East strategy that has served us pretty well for the past half-century is still relevant,” Burns said, “or whether instead we need a new strategic framework.”

No longer can Washington count on complacent autocrats to advance its Middle East interests, nor can it afford to ignore the domestic political currents rising against its Middle East partners. If Egypt is a bellwether for the Arab world, the United States has a new core interest on its already crowded Mideast agenda—helping Cairo make a peaceful transition to democracy. “In the past, the United States was more concerned by, and had more influence over, what countries in the Middle East did beyond their borders,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “So we might privately push internal reforms, but that took a backseat to more-traditional foreign-policy priorities.”

This article appears in the March 5, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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