May 30, 2011
Dr. Abdulaziz Sager
Gulf Research Center
The protest wave throughout the Middle East has thrown US regional policy in a quandary. On the one hand with its principles of human rights and the spreading of democracy, the United States supports the demands of the protestors for greater political rights, freedom of expression and the implementation of the rule of law and accountability. On the other, the relationship that the US maintains with many of the power holders in the region has continued to serve US interests well and as such there is little incentive to further rock the boat and risk widespread instability. In an ideal world, the US would like to see an evolutionary not revolutionary process put in place that gradually expands political reforms but which does not risk throwing the Middle East into a dangerous and volatile power vacuum.
Events in the region are however moving at a much quicker pace than anticipated. Virtually every country in the Middle East has been impacted to varying degrees by the political turmoil that started in Tunisia but with the United States playing the role of a bystander. The perception in the region is that the US has not dealt well with the challenges of the new environment. Traditional allies have lost confidence in the US readiness to stand by them following Washington's lack of support for the Mubarak regime in Egypt. This was most evident in the deep disappointment felt and voiced from Saudi Arabia. The view from power holders in the region is that the Egyptian president had served US interests well and would have deserved better. Equally, the public has been left somewhat disappointed given that the US has only slowly and hesitantly come out in support of forces advocating regime change and reform. In some instances, there is still a feeling that the US has abandoned its principles by favoring stability over reform, as in the cases of Bahrain and Yemen for example. The President's main speech on May 19 has not changed that perception.
For the ruling regimes, the reliability of the US is an issue on the forefronts of their minds. This is understandable because what must be clearly understood and what President Obama made clear in his speech is that the United States is shifting its position and recognizing that the specter of political reform is now on the top of the agenda. The magic wand of people power has emerged as a potent force that can no longer be contained. As the President emphasized twice: "The status quo is not sustainable." While quite aware of the consequences associated with the impending change sweeping the region, Washington continues for the moment to follow a wait-and-see approach that involves sitting on the fence until the outcome of the domestic events become clearer. But in the end, the US has already decided to side with the winners meaning that their policy direction is clear. The result is the US winning the people and losing the leaders.
The US assessment is simply part of an interest oriented policy which does not contain permanent friends or open-ended commitments. It means that Washington will not involve itself in any of the internal domestic struggles in the region or try to exert undue influence through the close contact it maintains with the security institutions in the respective countries. The popular uprising has induced a new calculation in US policy circles which concludes that the US is more or less secure by siding with the people given that ruling elites themselves are unlikely to survive in the long-term.
All of this has led to questions about the impact such a position has when it comes to regional security. With the US ready to sacrifice their strong commitment to the Gulf rulers in exchange for siding with the populace, the result will be a more volatile and less certain Gulf security environment. There is no other place in the Arab world where US influence and physical presence is as evident as in the Gulf region. Therefore any shift in US policy is certain to transform the political landscape of the region.
While the reliance on the US for Gulf security issues remains paramount and an abrupt shift in the present US commitment is unlikely, it is nevertheless the case that the American presence in the region is based on a contract between Washington and the Gulf ruling elites. Given that the emerging political arrangements will mean less central control by the existing governments, it should be clear that such prevailing contracts could very well loose at least some of their legitimacy. The US will further no longer be able to completely rely on the positions taken by their once-close allies. With governments in the region increasingly subject to the will of the people and thus strongly influenced by public opinion, existing arrangements with Washington will be subject to increased scrutiny and need new justifications. This also applies to the issue of US bases in the region which at this point exists because of the arrangement and understanding between the ruling families and the US government. As the case of the US base in Okinawa in Japan illustrates, if such arrangement becomes subject to public opinion and a different conception of the national interest, the existence of those bases cannot assumed to be indefinite.
The ultimate outcome is a more volatile Gulf security environment subject to the interests of competing powers and a less influential United States. It could also result in the yearning for some of the stability of the past decades. The rapid development of Arab popular uprisings and its astonishing success has left the US with no or little choices. On moral and principle grounds, the US cannot refrain from extending their support to such developments. Based on long-term interests, however, the US could emerge as the biggest loser coming out of the storm. Winning the loyalty of ruling elites is much easier and far more secure than winning the trust and commitment of the people. As the honeymoon of political euphoria passes, the US will face new and formidable challenges. This in turn may result in having to choose between adapting to the new realities produced by the popular uprisings or revisiting the old practice of ignoring the people and siding with their opponents.
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