On December 12, The Century Foundation held a panel discussion on the foreign policy challenges that await President Obama in his second term brought about by the Arab Awakening two years ago. The panel, moderated by James Traub of Foreign Policy and the Center for the Responsibility to Protect, included Michael Hanna and Thanassis Cambanis of The Century Foundation, as well as Tamara Coffman Wittes of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. (See video of the event.)
Wittes kicked off the conversation stating she believed the Administration was in the process of rethinking our policy in the Middle East, prior to the Arab Awakening, but the retooling of our policies was “incomplete” at the time the uprisings began. The administration, she believes, has to be aware that anything we do in this new environment will be perceived as a political move—whether it is supporting one group or taking a completely hands off approach. In this way, we have to embrace our role and the weight of our responsibility to play a role in the Middle East. Secondly, Wittes points to the strain our attention to and dependence on domestic politics and says this hamstrings our ability to affect real change. Americans are tired of engagements abroad and investing our resources overseas. Finally, Wittes said that past U.S. policy was about eschewing long term goals while always pursuing short term gains. Now, she said, with the Arab Spring, the long term goals are in the here and now and it’s extremely challenging for our foreign policy.
Next, Cambanis drew the audience’s attention to two main ideas that should influence U.S. policy in the region. First, the administration should realize that nothing in this new political landscape is “pre-ordained.” Just because societies have become more religious and conservative, Cambanis argues, doesn’t mean that these governments will remain or become Islamist. At the end of the day, the political situation is “radically transforming” but fundamental interests for all parties have not changed. Secondly, Cambanis says that our response has been on an “ad hoc” basis, and we could have a more successful strategic policy in the Middle East if we were honest about many situations that we are unable to be rational about given “politically impossible realities.” For instance, Cambanis thinks the administration should recognize a nuclear Iran isn’t inherently more dangerous, that Israel is the loan military superpower in the Middle East, and that stability doesn’t depend on how long a leader is in power, but rather stability hinges on internal accountability and stable economics.
Hanna wrapped up this discussion with important points on our strategy in the Middle East. First, it should be clear to all that the old, authoritarian regimes models failed and that this type of system will not work anymore because it’s not sustainable. Next, we shouldn’t make assumptions on what these emerging politics will look like. The United States is excited to see new players in power, but the truth is, we can’t replace the old one party system with a new, single party arrangement to depend on—the situation in each of these countries is “fluid” and won’t likely look the same in the near future. Hanna articulated that the “old bargain of repressive stability does not exist for us anymore” and we must judge actors on how they reform the system. Islamism and pluralism are not easy fits, he argued, and this could spell trouble for Islamist parties in the future. Finally, Hanna spoke about regional “counter revolutions” that Gulf States are pursuing. Hanna believes, however, these policies are unsustainable and that it should be clear that once uprisings begin in earnest, the United States cannot do anything to save these regimes. In this way, he argues, the “primary motivator of Gulf state leaders should be their citizenry.”
All three of our panelists pointed to the need to cultivate many different political groups and actors throughout these democratic transitions. Achieving pluralism is integral to the success of these transitions. Wittes stated, “Having a new dance partner means that our influence is felt in a partisan way.” To fix this, Cambanis said we have to have a “cordial relationship” and dialogue with opposition to make sure that the new leaders of these countries understand that we have relationships with other groups and that they are not our only, irreplaceable partner, which has been the case in the past. Hanna wrapped up the discussion by painting a picture of what the United States must do in the upcoming years. In his opinion, we must send clearer messages about what we expect from these new leaders. At the same time, Hanna argues, we haven’t tried very much to influence these events and we should be trying harder to do so in the future.