Even as Washington struggles to come to terms with the Arab Spring, the Middle East is imperceptibly moving to a post-American era. Both allies and adversaries in the region are growing largely indifferent to America’s prohibitions. And as the Middle East’s shifts become more pronounced, it will become ever more difficult for the United States to pursue traditional security concerns such as disarming Iran or reinvigorating the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Let’s take a tour of the region:
On the surface, there is nothing particularly novel about Iranian or Syrian hostility to the United States. The theocratic Iranian state has long abjured America’s entreaties and seems determined to obtain a bomb at all cost. The Syrian regime has always been more ambivalent, but pledges of moderation made to successive U.S. administrations have somehow never materialized.
In any case, given the changes in the region, both of these states are now essentially beyond America’s diplomatic outreach. The clerical rulers of Iran, sensing an opportunity to project power in an unsettled region, will not allow themselves to be seen as conceding to American mandates. In Damascus, Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression of his citizens has simply put him beyond the pale. Should he manage to survive, the so-called “Syria option” — whereby Israel and Syria trade land for peace — is all but dead.
For nearly 60 years, Saudi Arabia predicated its security on its American patron. The pledges of solidarity always concealed an incongruous relationship between a liberal democracy and a traditional monarchy. The oil-for-security compact, however, was underpinned by a more formidable alliance that worked effectively against common foes ranging from Soviet Communism to Saddam Hussein’s revisionism.
Today, Riyadh and Washington see the region in starkly different terms. The Arab Spring that has generated hopes in the West for responsive governance in the Middle East is seen in Saudi Arabia as an existential threat.
Riyadh is not just questioning the utility of its American alliance, but is moving beyond it. As the Saudi state rethinks its security, it is likely to conclude that it has to rely on its own resources as well as alliances with like-minded states rather than a United States that it increasingly views as unreliable. Alternative external patrons such as China, or a league of conservative Arab monarchies, or even an independent nuclear deterrent, are likely to be seriously contemplated in the House of Saud.
The Palestinian Authority’s decision to seek statehood at the United Nations has drawn much consternation in Washington. The Palestinians have lost the “armed struggle,” but the notion that American-led dialogue can relieve their burden has a diminishing audience among the Palestinians.
Nor is America likely to find much solace among emerging democracies such as Iraq and Egypt. The well-demonstrated nexus between nationalism and democracy makes it difficult for leaders whose position rests on serving their people’s interests to also embrace Washington’s priorities.
Such sentiments are becoming obvious in Iraq. At a time when public opinion in Iraq is averse to continued American presence, it is unlikely that politicians seeking votes in a competitive electoral environment will defy such nationalistic sentiments.
Similarly, the post-Tahrir Egypt is already defying the United States by forging diplomatic ties with Iran. The Egyptian hostility toward Iran was an indulgence of President Hosni Mubarak; the emerging Egyptian government sees little reason to sustain the fallen despot’s enmity toward a regime that enjoys popular acclaim on the Arab street.
All this is not to suggest that new democracies will rupture relations with the United States, but that in certain important respects their policies could challenge American parameters.
The trend away from American dominance predated the Obama administration, and its ramifications are likely to unfold long after it leaves office.
As America’s influence gradually recedes, and its alliance system deteriorates, the U.S. will find itself less capable of realizing some of its objectives. Washington may not have sufficient leverage to prevent the Syrian regime from abusing its citizens, compelling Iran to reverse its nuclear ambitions, or for that matter dissuade the Saudis from obtaining a bomb of their own.
The post-American Middle East may be more democratic in some of its corners, but it is also likely to be more turbulent and unstable.
The struggle of the Middle East during the past century was a determined quest to exempt itself from great-power rivalry and superpower dominance. This is a populace that eagerly participated in bloody anti-colonial struggles, lent its sympathies to those calling for neutralism from the Cold War power blocs, and expressed its solidarity with third-world revolutionary resistance.
The era of self-determination may have finally arrived. But, it is likely to be an era accompanied by its own set of challenges and perils.
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.