The COVID-19 pandemic represents the greatest threat to global public health in over a century. Its considerable impact is also being felt on global politics, security, and economics, amidst serious uncertainty over the trajectory of the virus and the future toll of the disease. The Middle East is no exception, as the region grapples with the coronavirus on a region already suffering from economic stagnation, multiple armed conflicts, and the decay of governance. In this roundtable discussion, TCF’s foreign policy researchers explore some of the most important consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

michael-300x300Michael: The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in an interconnected crisis that has gripped the entire world. It has also ushered in a frenzy of hyperbolic commentary as to what exactly this means for everything. Without falling prey to the temptation to describe radical and inevitable change, it is still nonetheless true that our current moment is in fact, to use a much abused
term, unprecedented. Several months into the pandemic, it is also clear that the disease and its impacts will be with us collectively for months and almost certainly years to come. For the Middle East, we can discern some clear and extremely grim realities. First, the current global recession, which has the potential to turn into a protracted depression, will have severe knock- on effects for the region, including collapsing oil prices, decreased remittances, diminished domestic demand, and reduced global trade. So the entire region is going to be dealing with that regardless of the course of the virus and the disease.

Second, the global nature of the pandemic has focused the attention of the Middle East’s outside players on their own domestic catastrophes; this is particularly true for the United States, currently in the grip of the world’s largest outbreak and its unremittingly depressing domestic political drama. This only further complicates the global picture, as the United States is not only absent from efforts at much-needed international cooperation to combat the virus, but is actively stoking U.S.-China tensions and undermining possibilities for coordinated responses. That is clearly ominous for the Middle East, which lacks capacity to deal with the disease, particularly if the outlook worsens.

Which brings me to my last introductory point: the actual course and trajectory of the disease. None of us are epidemiologists, doctors, or public health experts, so obviously we can’t meaningfully speak to the underlying medical issues at play, but the scope of transmission and the scope of disease are the most important factors as we contemplate what next. So far, the impact of the disease itself has not approached the worst case scenarios we were contemplating a few months ago, as Iran was dealing with the first wave of serious regional outbreak. I feared the worst, and, for now, that hasn’t come to pass, although there are increasingly worrisome signs in the region to suggest that transmission is increasing.

We remain pretty ignorant as to why transmission has unfolded in the manner it has so far. But it could simply be a function of time and a few other mitigating factors that will eventually be overwhelmed by the virus. So it is impossible to be predictive. Instead, it’s probably more useful to think about various scenarios and possibilities. Before we start thinking about the future, I think it would be useful to start our discussion by examining the ways in which regional countries have responded to this crisis to date.

Iran’s Initial COVID-19 Response

dina-300x300Dina: Iran was hit hard by COVID-19 early on. The government’s initial concealment of the depth of the crisis, the delay in responding to the outbreak, and the lack of coordination within Iran’s complex state bureaucracy considerably worsened the outbreak. Iran’s first case emerged in late January, but the government refused to take measures to slow the spread of the virus, including because of the parliamentary elections on February 21.
The country’s poor economic situation—worsened by mismanagement and corruption—and U.S. efforts to continue to squeeze Iran through sanctions made things worse. Calls to impose a full lockdown, while supported by Iran’s military, were rejected by President Rouhani’s government because it could not shoulder the cost of a lockdown. The government did not have the means to provide services and compensation to affected households. In addition, decades of sanctions have decimated Iran’s capable health sector, leaving it short of medicine and equipment.
Despite this, after a slow start, Iran’s response is now up and running. Mobile hospitals with thousands of beds were set up, mask-producing factories were set up inside Mosques across the country, and production of ventilators began in car factories. This, along with the dedication of the people in the health care sector left Iranians proud of what the country did collectively, despite its government and external pressures. But today, Iran is back in the spotlight, with a new spike in cases that may indicate it is already facing a second wave.
Iranians are now even more brutally aware of the incompetence of their government—highlighted by the shooting down of the Ukrainian plane in January and their handling of the outbreak of the virus—and they are less fearful of expressing it publicly. This coincides with the Revolutionary Guards’ efforts to once again paint itself as the saviour of the Iranian nation, leading efforts to disinfect streets and fight the virus.
In the lead up to the presidential elections in 2021, it will be key to watch what entity in the Islamic Republic emerges from this crisis as the winner—if there can be one.

Egypt’s Early Low Numbers

michael-300x300Michael: It seemed early on in the beginning of March that Egypt was headed to a crisis situation, much like Iran. A number of foreign nationals who had visited Egypt had tested positive, and epidemiological studies suggested that the country was likely dealing with a much higher rate of infection than had previously been confirmed by official figures. The actions of the Egyptian authorities seemed to indicate obfuscation and downplaying, in keeping with their traditional approach to crisis—which only served to increase suspicions that the Egyptian government was lying about the extent of transmission. But the attitude and approach of the government shifted following the deaths of two senior military officers; those officers were pictured attending meetings with the entire upper echelon of Egypt’s security establishment, and following their deaths, the Sisi regime seemed genuinely apprehensive, and rightly so, as top leadership had been exposed. Whether out of necessity or cynicism, Sisi and the military establishment seemed to take a step back and allow the civilian government to lead the public health response.

Nonetheless, the expected outbreak didn’t materialize at that time, and Egypt, along with a host of other low-income countries, seemed to be faring better than Europe and the United States.

Relatedly, Iraq, which shares a lengthy border with Iran and has significant cross-border traffic and trade, also defied early expectations. There was a real sense that official Iraqi figures had no grounding in reality and would soon be swamped by the virus, but that didn’t come to pass, raising a host of questions.

Egypt never went into full lockdown, despite initiating curfews and closing houses of worship. Much like Iran, it’s not really clear that such an approach would be feasible for a country like Egypt. But as Egypt has begun returning to normalcy, the spread of the disease has been increasing.

Egypt is not alone in this. Yemen seems to be the clearest example of this in the region, as it struggles with a recent surge in COVID-19 deaths yet lacks any real capacity to test for or otherwise combat the virus. Reports of death are surging, but authorities are not tracking the spread of the disease, either for lack of testing capability or in the interest of suppressing the full scope of the pandemic. And Yemen’s situation is further complicated by the country’s various conflicts and the collapse of its public health sector. What is happening in Yemen should be a warning, but it is a warning that many states won’t have the capacity to act upon.

As Egypt’s numbers have begun steadily increasing, the doctor’s syndicate has begun ringing the alarm on capacity and protection of public health workers, but the years-long underfunding and neglect of the health sector now present challenges that cannot be overcome by directives alone. And that is an alarming prospect for Egypt and other countries that have given up on broader lockdowns and may yet have to deal with a much more serious health crisis. At the official level, the need for greater action should be obvious, as the numbers released by the Ministry of Health show a clear upswing. This has led to some notable public criticism of the Ministry of Health by the doctor’s syndicate, as health workers have increasingly been impacted by the disease. There are reports that the government has threatened medical workers with disciplinary measures as a way to counter absences and medical staff taking leave during the crisis.

The government has also expanded testing, announcing that all of its general hospitals would be offering testing to those displaying symptoms. It also put in place caps on COVID-19 treatment charges at private hospitals, as complaints of price gouging became more commonplace.

In total, it certainly seems that the situation is becoming much more serious, but it also still feels like Egypt, along with a host of regional countries, is dealing with the unknown and real uncertainty in terms of where the country really stands. The economic toll is much more concrete, and we can talk about that as well.

Economic Disaster in Syria

aron-lund-300x300Aron: COVID-19 has been rough for Syria, but it’s mostly an economic disaster so far. You can ignore the rosy numbers put out by Syria’s Ministry of Health and, still, there are no signs yet of a massive outbreak. But the economic impact is clear for all to see.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government first gambled on a partial lockdown, but had to reverse course when the scale of the economic carnage became apparent. On May 5, Assad said the pandemic had forced Syrians to choose between “hunger, poverty, and destitution versus the disease.” Most people will survive a COVID-19 infection, he argued, but “there are no preventive measures against hunger except work.”

Assad had a point. His government knows how to impose a brute-force lockdown, but it can’t afford one. It isn’t well equipped for any other strategy, such as intensive testing or selective isolation of the frail and elderly. That leaves few options.

The plan now seems to be to take the pandemic on the chin, while shielding the economy and key institutions to the extent possible.

michael-300x300Michael: Of course, some of the country remains outside the control of the Assad regime—what has happened in those other parts of Syria?

aron-lund-300x300Aron: In theory, these places could design their own COVID-19 strategies. In practice, they’re constrained by low capacity and high dependence on state actors.

Northwestern Syria is shared between two rival Turkey-backed rebel governments, but it’s not clear either of them could do much in case of a lethal outbreak. The area holds hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians and there’s no credible infrastructure for mass testing, isolation, treatment, lockdowns, or anything of the sort. Limited WHO support is unlikely to do much difference in the absence of basic health care and governance structures to build on.

U.S.-backed Kurdish groups rule northeastern Syria, but much of its health care remains remote-controlled by Assad’s government, since the United States and its allies aren’t willing to put in the civilian funding to construct an alternative system. Kurdish leaders have grown even more dependent on Damascus since Russia and China recently stopped a UN program that brought in medical equipment from Iraq.

Russia now wants to end UN cross-border aid to northwestern Syria, too. By vetoing an upcoming Security Council vote in July, it can ban all WHO support and UN convoys across the Turkish border, including food and basic hygiene supplies. The consequences could be disastrous for people living there, but that’s the point: Damascus and Moscow see this as a way of boosting Assad’s leverage.

COVID-19 could still influence the UN vote. The Kremlin wants the conflict to be controllable and it wants to keep a lid on tensions with Turkey. Come July, Russian diplomats may decide this isn’t the time to kick northwestern Syria over the brink. They can still close down the cross-border aid at a later date, if they want to.


dahlia-300x300Dahlia: Amidst political turmoil ahead of national elections in March, Israel took measures to restrict the spread of the virus relatively early. Quarantine measures for returning travelers began in mid-February and graduated to widespread national lockdown by mid-March through April, only gradually lightening over time. Israel thus limited the spread of COVID-19 to roughly 17,000 cases in total, and 285 known deaths—likely helped by a young population and the fact that Israel has only one major international entry point, easily controlled. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas, in the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, took similar measures—including encouraging the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), closing mosques and public gathering places, and working in coordination with Israeli authorities. Though the Palestinian health and economic systems are profoundly weaker, Palestine’s population is also relatively young, particularly in Gaza. Reporting shows very low infection rates, and only five known deaths, though limited lab and testing capacity is certainly among the reasons for these low numbers.

Advantage for States over Protests

thanassis-300x300Thanassis: The pandemic grossly accelerates the imbalance between state power and its challengers. We wonder how the twinned health and economic crises propelled by COVID-19 will impact state capacity and the popular protest movements that oppose the state; we wonder about the continuing viability of authoritarians, in the face of systemic governance failures, and we wonder about the power of hybrid actors—armed groups that operate within the state umbrella but contest its monopoly over force and resources.

My sense is that, short of a cataclysmic breaking point, which might yet come, the systemic pressures wrought by the pandemic favor states and entrenched elites. Look at Iraq for example; the ailing state, with its ties to foreign powers (including both Iran and the United States), has gained a new lease on life. The political elite—usually, with the blessing of Tehran and Washington—has, up until now, catastrophically failed to govern. Now it has agreed on a new prime minister and government that simply reflects the consensus of a corrupt, incompetent elite. COVID-19 hasn’t propelled a revolution or even a face-saving consensus around reform; instead, it has renewed the terrible power-sharing agreement that gives every single political party a lucrative slice of the government, the citizenry and its needs be damned.

michael-300x300Michael: How will the pandemic affect the protest movements?

thanassis-300x300Thanassis: Iraq’s innovative and inspiring protest movement has not given up, but the dynamics of an economic great depression (accelerated by the collapse of oil prices), coupled with the strains of illness and lockdown, further advantage the governing system, despite its forfeiture of legitimacy. The pandemic might further bolster the moral claims of the protest movement, which rightly points out that the entire elite has failed at every turn to provide basic security, or services, or even a sense of shared destiny for Iraqis. But the collapse of much of society’s infrastructure means that the state possesses still more relative power than it did before. The same calculus probably applies to the governments negotiations with the Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) militias, which need government largesse more than ever to pay fighter salaries, and at the same time will be desperate to cling to the profitable checkpoints and economic fiefdoms through which they have enriched themselves. Relative to the state, the PMF formations will be weaker than before this latest COVID-19 crisis.

Economic Effects

michael-300x300Michael: While the disease itself and its ultimate impact remain unknowns, the economic costs of the pandemic are already clear, globally and within the region. Egypt has been forced to go back to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $2.77 billion loan, which was approved in May. Egypt is not alone in reaching out to the IMF to stave off economic collapse, but its situation is genuinely dire. As Timothy Kaldas has pointed out, Egypt’s recent macroeconomic stability has been based on gains in those sectors of the economy that are most vulnerable to external shocks: “tourism, remittances, foreign direct investment in hydrocarbons and Suez Canal revenue, all of which are expected to decline because of the pandemic and the steep fall in oil prices.” The full extent of those shocks remains unclear, but with the world’s leading economies projecting negative growth in the coming quarters, there is no reason to imagine that Egypt will be spared.

dina-300x300Dina: Iran’s economy has been suffering for a while; plagued by structural flaws and weaknesses in management, and decades of sanctions, it already faced high inflation, unemployment, and significant government indebtedness. The virus created both demand and supply shocks to Iran’s economy: businesses could no longer stay open, unemployment soared, and the government had to step in to assist financially, at a time where it was short on cash. This explains why the Rouhani government insisted on opening up the country even though they barely had a handle on the virus. Interestingly, though, Iran’s stock market is soaring: the Tedpix—its main index—doubled since Iran declared a lockdown on March 27. It seems investors in Iran are not worried by the grim economic outlook the country is facing.

thanassis-300x300Thanassis: It’s hard to disaggregate the economic consequences of the pandemic and its lockdown from the previous, ongoing economic meltdown in the region. We’ve already mentioned the conflicts still ongoing in parts of Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and farther afield in Libya. Sanctions hobble the economies of Iran and Syria, with the threat of imminent sanctions to states such as Iraq, which rely on fuel from Iran. Then there’s the existential threat brought on by collapsing oil prices (which fell because Saudi Arabia chose this vulnerable time to initiate a price war). The bottoming out of oil prices means that Iraq’s national revenues have vanished overnight. The rich oil states will weather the temporary disappearance of this funding stream, but the fragile ones have already experienced it as a fundamental system shock. Finally, there are the preexisting political–economic crises in Iraq and Lebanon to take into account, which had strained both nations to a breaking point even before COVID-19 and the oil price war.

At a minimum, a great number of individuals and enterprises in the region will be completely impoverished. State capacities that existed before this economic collapse might be able to revive if budgets materialize, but in both Lebanon and Iraq, for example, the state did not provide a meaningful social safety net to begin with.

Lebanon’s economic straits have direct consequences for Syria, and to a lesser extent Iran, which both use Lebanon’s dollarized banking system as an access point to the international financial system. Syria’s economy relies heavily on Lebanon’s financial system, which now has precipitously lost most of its viability.

Eventually, the pandemic shutdown will end, but the preexisting financial structures in Syria and Iran will no longer exist. It’s possible that expedient substitutes can be created to serve the same pernicious purposes as the old arrangement—a Lebanese banking system that exists to serve a predatory elite in the Levant, and to keep a corrupt cabal of mafia-style bosses in power in Lebanon.

aron-lund-300x300Aron: Syria’s economy was in bad shape even before the pandemic. The country has gone through war, mismanagement, U.S. and European sanctions, and a currency crisis. The economic rot is feeding inner-circle tensions between Assad and his wealthy cousin, Rami Makhlouf, but, ultimately, it’s ordinary Syrians who suffer.

COVID-19 just made everything a lot worse. Unemployment is soaring and already-high food prices have doubled since April last year. Now that Russia decided to stop grain exports, Damascus struggles to source wheat for bread production. Meanwhile, the World Bank predicts the “sharpest decline of remittances in recent history,” which would be devastating for Syrians, many of whom live off a combination of support from relatives abroad and humanitarian aid.

Aid, too, will take a hit. More than 11 million Syrians relied on foreign aid in January, before COVID-19. With more unemployment, higher food prices, and dwindling remittances, that number will rise. Still, UN statistics show a big gap in international aid funding. The UN’s 2019 aid appeal for Syria managed to cover only 65 percent of estimated needs, and, so far, the 2020 plan is at 18 percent.

If rich donors such as the United States, the EU, and the Gulf Arab nations now decide to prioritize their domestic needs, Syria could be in for still-unseen levels of human suffering. And it’s not just Syria. Slashed aid spending would do terrible damage across the region, including in Yemen, Sudan, Palestine, Iraq, and Libya.

Regional Politics

michael-300x300Michael: I don’t think the disease has fundamentally altered the various political trajectories of the region. As I mentioned at the start, there is a temptation to see inevitable and far-reaching change in our present moment. And, of course, this upheaval could certainly lead to that. But that is far from a certainty.

Egypt continues on its autocratic path with no course corrections in sight. Arrests and repression are a constant, despite fears that an overcrowded prison population could serve as a major vector of transmission.

Iraq has seen political change, but those changes were already underway before the pandemic. Notable of course is the fate of the protest movements in Iraq and Lebanon, which were curtailed and diminished but now show signs of continued vitality.

It’s possible that the status quo will endure, despite disease and depression. In effect, some version of the present, but even worse.

thanassis-300x300Thanassis: A further discomfiting thought is that this great systemic shock won’t change any fundamental political pathologies. Consider how the disruption of COVID-19 in the United States has not yet produced a significant change in political behavior. Recent waves of disruption have yet to produce systemic change in Iraq or Lebanon. In Iraq, for instance, the government sanctioned the international news agency Reuters for reporting that Iraq was undercounting COVID-19 cases. Iraq’s health ministry remains woefully underfunded, months after Iraq took preventative measures to reduce virus transmission. In other words, despite the alarm bells, the establishment feels no need to govern more efficiently or more urgently. In Lebanon, I fear much the same. An economic depression predates the COVID-19 crisis, and might have contributed to keeping virus transmission low, since people have very little money to spend and are even more likely to stay home. There’s been a great element of good fortune in that the virus has not spread, as feared, into populations of displaced people and refugees. But if the worst does come to pass, there’s no reason to assume that failure would interrupt the malfeasance of the governing elite.

michael-300x300Michael: One problem in regard to thinking about the future is the bewildering number of contingencies at play, within the region and more broadly. It’s effectively impossible to engage in any kind of systematic scenario planning at present. The most obvious is the course of the disease, but there are other exogenous factors that can’t be discounted, such as protracted political turmoil in the United States or much more focused U.S.-China competition and conflict. Worst case scenarios are just that, and don’t represent the most likely outcomes, but it certainly feels as though the possibilities at this fragile moment are numerous. Bringing it back to the region, I tend to think in terms of political impact, depression coupled with better than expected public health outcomes would be the most destabilizing possible outcome, but it’s not much beyond speculation.

Regional Cooperation

dina-300x300Dina: The COVID-19 outbreak led to surprising sporadic instances of regional humanitarian cooperation and assistance. Gulf Arab neighbors displayed solidarity with Iran early in its crisis: Qatar offered to transport medical aid to Iran free of charge, Kuwait donated $10 million in humanitarian support, and Oman has sent multiple aid cargos of aid to Iran. Perhaps more surprising was the UAE’s two aircraft loaded with technical equipment sent to Iran around the same time that Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members designated $500,000 from the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) to help Iran purchase medical equipment.

dan-300x300Daniel: COVID-19 also provided the pretext for the UAE’s Etihad airlines to land for the first time inside Israel to deliver aid to the Palestinians, in pallets marked “UAE AID: for Palestine to fight Coronavirus (COVID-19)” (a shipment the Palestinians rejected). Like the flights to Iran, this milestone was another example where exceptional circumstances gave space for the gradual, careful extension of regional trends already underway. While there has been recent speculation that COVID-19 has led to a thawing of U.S.–Iranian tensions, what’s happening again seems more like an extension of recent dynamics, with both countries seeking equilibrium, uneasily stranded between war and peace. So far, while some actors have intermittently held their fire and (as Dahlia describes below) some adversaries have engaged in greater cooperation, the crisis has yet to spark a significant diplomatic breakthrough.

dahlia-300x300Dahlia: Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to present an opportunity for rare constructive cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the region—what might be called disease diplomacy. Yet the pandemic could just as easily become a cover for harmful actions in a political situation that is already dire.

Disease diplomacy would mean leveraging the common health threat for cooperation in ways that transcend normal political sensitivities. For example, during the crisis, Israel sent medical equipment to Jordan, which in turn coordinated to allow Arab citizens of Israel studying in Jordan to return after the borders had been closed. Israel may be communicating with Egypt to help prevent the spread in Gaza (since Egypt largely controls the Rafah crossing), and Israel’s president has called for greater cooperation. Israel itself has coordinated with Hamas in Gaza, allowing medical personnel into Israel for training, and allowing Israeli businesses to contract Gazan factories for production of equipment, which provided small economic gains. Israel allowed Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces to enter the “no man’s land” areas of East Jerusalem beyond the security wall, in a rare move to help implement closure measures. Such moves could generate not only a precedent for handling future outbreaks, but can also prove in principle the value of cooperation, of relief from the strict restrictions on economic development in Gaza, and of easing import restrictions and bureaucracy in the West Bank, required even for medical equipment.

But COVID-19 could also provide cover for political and economic deterioration. Two weeks after coordinating with Palestinian forces into East Jerusalem, Israel shut down a COVID-19 testing station there for failing to coordinate with authorities, a symbolic assertion of sovereignty that could also be medically self-defeating. It would be easy for Israel to justify ever greater restrictions on Palestinian movement within and across borders (via Jordan or Egypt) on the pretense of limiting virus transmission, resulting in even greater immediate and severe loss of income for Palestinians working abroad. Further, Israel is already moving quickly to advance annexation, a prominent priority of the new government. In early February, Netanyahu was reportedly negotiating a quid pro quo agreement with Morocco, offering to secure U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for normalization. Morocco’s intentions are unclear, but should this seemingly obscure pact pass under the radar of a distracted world, the precedent for annexation will grow, eroding the international system at large.

In the end, COVID-19 might simply prove to have little impact on the broadly negative course of Israeli–Palestinian relations. In May, before the crisis was over, PA president Mahmoud Abbas announced the end of security cooperation with Israel in response to Israeli plans to advance annexation of parts of the West Bank—a move that will likely also sour both existing and emerging relations with Middle Eastern countries. With Israel’s government expected to move ahead on July 1, annexation policies appear more imminent than a second wave of the virus.
U.S. Response

michael-300x300Michael: I think it is really notable how diminished U.S. presence and diplomacy is in the midst of this crisis. And that absence is certain to endure as the political crisis in the United States deepens, in addition to the existing public health and economic crises. The United States is not a particularly relevant factor, either in bilateral or multilateral terms. They just aren’t there at all. That being said, there are a number of existing U.S. policies that are effectively on auto-pilot, from escalated conflict with Iran, to green lighting far-right Israeli policies, and maintenance of U.S. military deployments throughout the region, which seemingly continue on their pre-pandemic course. In terms of global geo-politics, count me as a skeptic about the importance of increased U.S–China competition for the region.

dan-300x300Daniel: On the issues the Trump administration focuses intently on, its policies do cast a long shadow, whether it’s egging on annexation or remaining stubbornly stalemated at the brink of war with Iran. But on the issues that will increasingly matter to the region—namely, navigating the double-blow of low oil prices and COVID-19, compounding the challenges of rebuilding from a decade of multiple civil wars—the United States under President Trump seems to have little to offer. The current administration’s assistance to Middle Eastern countries grappling with COVID-19 makes the U.S. response to the 2011 Arab Revolutions look like the Marshall Plan by comparison. A paltry $140 million in U.S. assistance spread across the region barely registers. While the worst case scenarios—in which the virus takes root among desperate populations on the fault lines of regional conflicts—have been slower to materialize than feared, new cases in Yemen suggest we could be living through the precise interval at which that spread could be prevented. That makes the current administration’s failure to do more to surge humanitarian goods to vulnerable populations even more dangerous.

thanassis-300x300Thanassis: Short-term, the United States is, as you note, AWOL. Long-term, the trend is even more alarming. Since 9/11, we’ve had three general approaches from the United States. Under George W. Bush, the United States sought to destroy parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and dispense with traditional international norms, in the service of American dominance in the region. Barack Obama wished for a retrenchment from a region that he disdained, but without giving up America’s militarized foreign policy, and still clinging to a Cold War idea of American exceptionalism. Donald Trump has discarded the rhetoric of values and morality, dispensing with the fiction of American exceptionalism and implementing a purely transactional and short-term approach to those few issues that attract presidential attention.

These two decades add up to some major systemic consequences, not the least of which is the erosion or collapse of international and diplomatic mechanisms that, in the past, provided very real checks on regional conflicts and other dynamics, and that promoted international cooperation in addition to U.S. interests. If and when the United States resumes its interest in international affairs and diplomacy, America will still have considerable influence, but nothing like the dominance of the unipolar moment. More importantly, there will be far less potential for effective cooperation or constructive influence, because of the steady long-term undermining of collaboration and institutions.

Conflict Dynamics

michael-300x300Michael: All this is taking place against the backdrop of continued violence and multiple regional conflicts, and to date, the dynamics of those conflicts—in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen—don’t seem to have been materially affected by the pandemic. As with politics, it is possible that the conflicts will simply continue, but in even more challenging circumstances. There is no reason to assume that increased deprivation and disease will curb or halt fighting and outside interference. But, the patterns and intensity of violence may change if the course of the disease changes dramatically, including possibilities for conflict mitigation or settlement. Worst case scenarios in conflict settings could introduce human suffering on a scale that we have become unaccustomed to. Uncertainty continues to color our perceptions of the present and thoughts about the future. Without greater knowledge about COVID-19, we remain limited in our capacity to think clearly about the future. However, based on the observable impacts that we can quantify at present, the prospects for near-term political, economic, social, and health improvements appear dim.

photo header: People wearing protective face masks walk in the Grand Bazaar after it reopened after being shut down for weeks due to the spread of the coronavirus in Istanbul, Turkey. Source: Chris McGrath/Getty Images