The Key Is Not in Libya

Contrary to headlines and official pronouncements, the most important event in the Middle East last week was neither the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Libya nor the commencement of the air strikes. Despite being relegated to the background, the plebiscite in Egypt establishing the basis for genuine democratic order; the stalled attempt to usher in a constitutional rule in Bahrain; and the ongoing turmoil in Yemen remain the more critical regional developments.

It is the events in the heart of the Arab world and not the disposition of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s distant penal colony that will determine the future of the Middle East for generations to come. The challenge for Washington is how to sustain the momentum of the Arab Spring while dealing with the Libyan imbroglio.

All this is not to ignore or discount an obvious reality: The international community has made a prolonged commitment to Libya. President Obama has called on Qaddafi to leave while the Security Council has declared its mission to be the protection of all Libyan civilians.

The first temptation of any administration seeking to limit its participation in an unpredictable and protracted conflict is to enlarge its coalition. As such, Washington and its European allies took great comfort in the endorsement of the Arab League — an organization uniquely devoid of moral authority or military capability.

A league of autocrats and despots is part of the problem and not the solution to the region’s difficulties. Though the Arab League provides a political umbrella that Western leaders seem to think they need, it is important not to scale back the calls for reform. The cause of anti-Libya alliance should not diminish the more significant challenge of pressing the Arab states toward adjustment of their national compacts.

The key to sustaining the momentum of the Arab Spring is still in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egypt is the epicenter of the Arab world, and developments in Cairo have historically resonated throughout the region.

The task is to continuously press the Egyptian military on its existing path of gradually yielding authority to a civilian government. The fact that the Egyptian army maybe called upon to police Libya’s borders and skies should not dissuade the United States from pressuring it to abide by its declared commitments.

Throughout the post-colonial period, Egypt has established the political template that has been widely emulated throughout the region. From pan-Arabism to Islamism, Egypt’s model has always defined Arab politics. The sight of the military peacefully yielding to a democratically elected civilian government will have an enduring impact on the region’s struggling reformers. Should Egypt establish a governing system that is representative and accountable, it can lead the Arab world in a progressive direction.

No less important is Saudi Arabia. Ironically, at a time when the Middle East is becoming polarized along sectarian lines, no state has a greater capacity to heal this breach then Saudi Arabia. Thus far, the House of Saud’s response to the Arab awakening has been to deny reforms at home while casting Bahrain’s struggle for representation as a sectarian plot concocted by Iran’s Shiite theocrats.

For too long, Washington has indulged Saudi mischief because of its reliance on the kingdom’s oil and its support for a variety of American objectives such as containment of Iran and the Arab-Israeli peace process. It is time to reinvent U.S.-Saudi relations.

Riyadh can be instrumental in advancing the cause of stability in the Gulf should it move away from its zero-sum confrontation with Iran and intolerant obsession with the Shiites. The reality is that the Shiite population of the Gulf is neither enchanted by the Islamic Republic nor sees itself as an agent of Tehran. The struggle in Bahrain, as with the rest of the Middle East, is about economic justice and political representation.

Should the United States succeed in nudging the Saudi ruling elite away from its reflexive opposition to change, it can take an important step toward not just diminishing sectarian cleavages but also modernizing the Gulf’s politics.

Hovering over all this is the question whether the United States can disaggregate Libya from its larger Middle East policy. In practical terms this implies a power-sharing arrangement between the U.S. and its European allies. Washington is already managing two wars and must focus its remaining efforts on political reform and economic rehabilitation of the Arab states.

Given the recent United Nations resolution, the West has a moral commitment to the nascent Libyan opposition. But given America’s taxing obligations and its need to concentrate on the larger Middle East, it is Europe that has to bear the burden of Libya’s emancipation.

Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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