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-Abidine 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 step downs have now spread to several nations all over the Middle East.
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 all encompassing importance. The aspirations for freedom and democracy all over the Middle East are very strong and show no signs of waning. I will examine within this article the prime short term and long term interests of the United States in the Middle East today. I will then try to show how these interests interact as well as how our actions in each new case will depend upon circumstances on the ground and what is possible. All of this will be explained with an eye on freedom for the people of the Middle East as well as 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 faces in the Middle East. They are energy security by way of Middle East oil and the fight against terrorism. Historically United States 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 rhetorically for democracy on the world scene but never behind closed doors to these authoritarian rulers 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 freedom and human rights. As a result the U.S. needs 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 United States 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 regarding matters of American security. This was true whether they concerned oil, Communism, or terrorism. The current revolutionary atmosphere in the Middle East makes the continuation of this policy a folly. This movement is too strong to simply oppose blindly. Iran was the cautionary tale of the 1970's. 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 in regards to 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 United States 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.
President Barack Obama made a speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University in Egypt on June 4, 2009. He encouraged better understanding between Muslims and the United States. The President also encouraged democracy by stating that all peoples have basic human rights. The most prominent of these that he expounded upon were 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 message 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 this 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 is that we need to adapt our actions to each situation differently if we wish to handle them correctly to achieve the outcomes we desire. The bottom line for the United States is that we should always seek 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-Palestine conflict. This issue has bedeviled the U.S. and the world for decades. The other peoples of the Middle East are viscerally connected to it. Therefore the United States needs to be actively involved with the two sides and honestly help to broker a peace deal. The Obama Administration has been active in this pursuit but they have 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 United States credibility as a peace broker in this conflict disappeared. The standing of the U.S. 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 reinforced 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 United States has been readily noticed by the Middle East engendering more respect and credibility regarding American diplomacy in this region. The basic outlines for a peace agreement have 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. A peace settlement appears to still be far off in the distance. Israel is wary about terrorism upon its 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 U.S. with the 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 key to the United States' goal of peace in the Middle East. A treaty regarding this conflict would make relations in the rest of this region much easier to navigate. Therefore the Obama Administration must remain intimately involved in helping to settle this conflict.
How then should the United States government ultimately conduct their Middle East foreign policy? They have short and long term interests which I have outlined in this article. These interests often clash. Can they be brought into better harmony? All situations are different and 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. Middle East policy does not and should not fit into short sound bites. I believe that our first response should always be to openly support a people who are demonstrating and rebelling against an authoritarian government. The subsequent moves 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 of 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 United States military is stretched too thin with two ongoing wars as well as other obligations around the globe to undertake military further 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 airstrikes 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. But it will be an immensely more difficult operation to carry out and therefore will probably occur only if it becomes an imminent threat. There have been numerous calls for action against Syria. They have been massacring protestors by the hundreds in the streets of their cities. The Arab League has denounced the brutal tactics of the Syrian government under President Bashar al- Assad but has so far refused to call for military action to end the killings. There is no way the United States and the United Nations will take any military actions without the Arab League requesting it. Nor should they. This is the Arab neighborhood and they must take responsibility. They called for action in Libya and received it. Unfortunately they have provided very little in the way of support of that NATO action.
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. We must be the fair minded interlocutor in these situations to ensure the smoothest transitions in government that we can possibly secure. This includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which colors the dispositions of the entire Middle East. Abdicating our 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 article. The United States will not always respond perfectly in each situation. There is too much complexity and too many contradictions in the Middle East to expect perfection. We can steer this explosive time in Middle East history to a calmer and more peaceful era with diligent analysis, diplomacy, some military support, and occasional adjustments on the fly. A Middle East where freedom, human rights, and democracy are the standard should no longer be the rare exception.