So the United States isn’t irrelevant in the Middle East. But if its policymakers keep thinking about how the region was ten years ago instead of how the region will be ten years from now, it will be.
Ten years ago, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali were still in power. Ten years ago, Israel was in the midst of a real security threat at the height of the Second Intifadeh. Israel had not yet built a separation barrier or launced Operation Cast Lead in Gaza or boarded a flotilla with “excessive and unreasonable” force. Ten years ago, Bulent Ecevit was the Prime Minister of Turkey—the AKP revolution led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had not yet begun. The United States hadn’t invaded Iraq and launched the War on Terror. It’s one thing for the United States to pine for those days—it’s quite another to act like nothing’s changed.
Many of the assumptions and certainties that governed American policies at the start of the century either aren’t true anymore or almost certainly won’t be ten years from now. The United States can no longer assume that the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel will still be in force. The United States can’t take for certain that Israel will stay the lone democratic voice in the Middle East. Perhaps most importantly, the United States can’t take for granted that no other entity could match it in regional influence or ability to mediate between regional actors. Today, Israel’s biggest security threat isn’t Palestinian terror, but its own intransigence. Someone send a memo to the State Department.
The reality in the region is changing fast and the Americans aren’t adapting quickly enough. The American action (after the American inaction) regarding intervention in Libya led to the adoption of the now infamous credo “leading from behind,” (even though the hesitancy of 2011 is preferable to the preemption of 2003). The State Department supported the freedom agenda in Egypt but not Bahrain, in Tunisia but not Saudi Arabia, in Libya but not the Palestinian Territories. This selectiveness shows the US to be calculating its self-interest. With the status quo crumbling, the United States has stood by Israel unconditionally, to both countries’ long-term detriment, in obstructing Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
The last one is the most galling mistake, as I wrote in a previous post. The Americans gain nothing from this. “What about Israel’s friendship?” one might ask. What friendship? Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu have never been on the same page. When Obama said that a potential peace deal should be based on Israel’s 1967 borders with mutually agreed upon land swaps, the standard American position for a decade, Bibi was outraged and embarrassed him in front of Congress. Netanyahu and his coalition also scuttled negotiations last year when they refused to continue a moratorium on settlement construction (which is illegal under international law and makes an eventual peace deal harder to reach the longer it goes on).
Yet a stubborn US, that doesn’t take backtalk from anyone, whose two parties haven’t agreed on a single thing in the past year, did what? They gave Netanyahu a bi-partisan standing ovation. Boldly, and rightly, the New York Times’ Tom Friedman said that Netanyahu’s obstructionism has “left the U.S. government fed up with Israel’s leadership but a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s.”
The Arab Spring was a surprise, but that its immediate after effects would bring more anti-American and anti-Israeli voices into power should surprise no one. The Arab street is hostile to America and Israel because of both countries’ perceived arrogance, intervention in Arab affairs, and the perpetuation of the occupation in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza.
The logic goes that the Arab Spring will benefit the US in the long-run. Stable democracies will hopefully emerge in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya (and double hopefully in Syria, Yemen and Iran), they will provide their people with more liberty and economic prosperity and other things that make democracies culturally similar to America. The logic breaks down if US policies stand still while the Arab world moves forward. These countries will become more powerful and prosperous, but won’t be any friendlier to the US than the rioters at the Israeli embassy in Cairo.
Turkey and Egypt, once it throws off the yolk of military rule, could become the new powers in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Turkey has a legitimacy that the US doesn’t have on the Arab street, even though it’s not an Arab state. This is because Turkey has charted its own democratic course, cut its ally Bashar al-Assad loose in Syria, created one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and because it stood behind the Palestinians in the face of Israeli opposition.
The United States should think about the Middle East in 2021. If American policy doesn’t involve, it won’t continue to be a major player in the region. Turkey will hold a great deal of sway over the new batch of Arab democracies, led by Egypt. An isolated Iranian regime will lose its ideological battle over the Arab world, if it doesn’t get toppled itself. Libya and Yemen will still be hot spots. Israel, still occupying the Palestinians with fragility, will face a massive backlash from the Occupied Territories, which the surrounding Arab countries and Turkey will have no choice but support. China will play a distant, but substantive role in the region. The United States, considered wholly toxic, will retreat. A prediction about Iraq or Afghanistan might be too bold.
So what should the Americans do? Realize what the newly free Arab populace wants: an end to American hypocrisy and Israeli oppression in the Occupied Territories. The United States is promoting democracy and self-determination inconsistently, and sticking to its ten-years-ago principles in areas it considers critical to security. This inconsistency belies America’s universal commitment to democracy and freedom and makes the Arab Street inimical to United States policy. The US won’t find its interests secure in the Middle East unless it starts to apply the same standards to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Palestine as it did to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. As for Israel, if Bibi wants to play hardball—play back. Barack Obama or some future American politician is going to have to take the inevitable domestic thumping in order to do what’s best for America and an increasingly wayward Israel—to apply pressure and push for a resumption of negotiations.
The United States should hold Israel, as such a strong ally and as the proclaimed sole democracy in the Middle East, to a high standard. It’s strange that criticism of US government policy, whether by senators or Tea Partiers, is extolled as patriotic while criticism of Israeli policy has become unthinkable.
Obama should’ve told Bibi that if he won’t stop building settlements, he won’t his annual $4 billion from Uncle Sam. If Netanyahu or subsequent Israeli leaders start to make earnest concessions on settlements and Jerusalem, a peace deal might be possible. If the Israelis remain obstinate, as demonstrated by its refusal to apologize to Turkey over the Gaza flotilla, the Americans should attach conditions to Israeli foreign aid, as they do with aid to Egypt, Pakistan and South Korea.
It would be sad to lose Israel as an unconditional ally, but it’s sadder still to see Israel shoot itself in the foot over and over again while some of the bullets hit their American friends. Whether Israel changes course or rejects American friendship, American standing will improve in the region. The US can still get on the right side of history. Time is running out.