Peril and Power in the Middle East


28th November 2011

The year of the Arab Awakening is drawing to a close with an ominous air of peril and paranoia hanging over the Middle East. A movement of genuine promise for more legitimate and accountable government for the peoples of the Arab world is in danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of tyranny, corruption, fundamentalism and conflict. From Syria to Egypt to Libya, Palestine, Israel and Iran, resistance to peaceful change is manifesting itself in ways new and old – and all in the context of a global re-alignment of power that few in the region yet recognize. Preventing the four central challenges of the Middle East – Iran, the Arab Awakening, Energy Security, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – from turning into conflicts with global implications will be a task far more for the countries of the region themselves than at any time in recent memory. For this new reality the parties are almost completely unprepared.

This was confirmed during a visit last week to the Gulf where the collapse of trust between adversaries – as well as allies – was on stark display. Arab leaders expressed as much distrust of each other as they did of their ascendant rivals, the Persians and the Turks. The minimum demands of the Palestinians are as distant as ever from the maximum on offer from the Israeli government. And for a number of regional leaders buffeted by the extraordinary changes forced by popular movements from Syria to Tunisia, a key lesson appears to be lesser, not greater, openness to representative government. The Middle East, more than any other region of the world, gives validity to the old joke that even paranoid schizophrenics have enemies. But to the very real perils arising from deeply divergent interests among Arabs, Turks, Persians and Israelis is now added a degree of heightened paranoia that threatens to multiply the perils with consequences reaching far beyond the region itself.

Critical to understanding the new strategic landscape is an appreciation of the degree to which the United States – since Suez, the arbiter of war and peace in the Middle East – is on course for a long-term disentanglement from the cares and conflicts of the region. While its commitment to Israel certainly – and to its Arab allies less so – long has been more than just a matter of security, it is evident that a Middle East less critical as a source of oil will be one less able to claim the extraordinary expenditure of blood and treasure made by America over the past half-century. As a consequence of technological advances leading to new discoveries and new sources of oil and gas, the next oil shock will likely be one more defined by the growing irrelevance of the Middle East to the United States – however much the region’s ability to disrupt international oil markets will remain.

Energy Security. The estimates of the future U.S. dependence on non-North American sources of oil are as dramatic as they are under-appreciated. The share of U.S. oil imports from both OPEC more broadly and the Gulf, in particular, has collapsed since the 2007-09 financial crisis, replaced largely with Canadian and domestic crude. In 2008, the U.S. imported an average of 2.370 million barrels per day (bpd) from the Gulf and 5.954 million bpd from OPEC as a whole.  In 2010, the average was 1.711 million bpd from the Gulf and 4.906 million bpd from OPEC.

Critically, this is not simply attributable to a cyclical fall in U.S. import demand. Canada alone has exported an average of 2.240 million bpd to the U.S. this year, up from 1.935 million bpd in 2010 and now accounts for approximately double Saudi crude imports. Thus, if U.S. domestic tight oil production touches 2.9 million bpd, and oil sands production increases to 3.0 million bpd by 2020, it could cut OPEC imports by well over half in less than ten years. Conceivably, by 2030, OPEC imports could drop to zero if 2007 daily consumption proves to be a historic high and domestic and Canadian production is increased as projected. (The contrast with China, currently serving more than 50% of its demand through crude imports – a figure that may hit 70% by 2020 – has equally significant consequences for Beijing and its future relations with the Middle East).

Of course, even after departing Iraq and gradually reducing its dependence on Middle East oil, Washington will maintain a substantial force presence in the Middle East, and the capability rapidly to enlarge it as needed. However, the wider context of U.S. strategic repositioning towards Asia, Pentagon budget cuts, and public hostility in host states will challenge this force posture at a time of heightened tensions and uncertainty throughout the region. If the Middle East’s energy security game is in the midst of profound change with dramatic strategic consequences for the future U.S. commitment to the region, so are the dynamics of the region’s political and security challenges.

The Arab Awakening. To appreciate the depth of change in the politics of the Arab world over the past year, it is enough to look at non-Arab Turkey’s leadership role in the management of its current challenges – from Egypt to Libya to Israel and now Syria. Arab leaders are looking with fear and jealousy to the prospect of their region’s politics being dominated by three outsiders – Turkey, Iran and Israel. From Tripoli to Cairo to Damascus, hard-line resistance to genuine representative government is making a self-fulfilling prophecy of the darkest warnings of anarchy and Islamist ascendancy being the winners of the Arab Awakening. Even after the fall of governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, critical momentum still eludes the broader push for change.

Among the monarchies and sheikdoms, the pace and depth of reform are reflective more of an attempt to do the minimum needed to assuage popular sentiment, rather than acknowledging the need for profound changes in the relationship between governed and governors. A bloody endgame in Syria is increasing fears of a sectarian civil war, drawing in outsiders in yet another intervention. An absence of political legitimacy is being joined by a power vacuum, within and among the countries of the region, suggesting that the focus of the regimes in the year ahead will be a defense of the realm at all costs.

Iran. The recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program has triggered another round of speculation about an Israeli attack on suspected nuclear sites in Iran. The Iranian nuclear challenge has been a pre-eminent hard security focus in a period otherwise defined by economic crises and political convulsions. The U.S. commitment to the Libya campaign was circumscribed, in part, by the Pentagon’s priority monitoring of threats – both conventional and unconventional – emanating from Iran. Tehran, of course, maintains that its programme serves solely peaceful purposes, such as power generation and medical research. However, there are widespread concerns over possible military dimensions, particularly when viewed in conjunction with Tehran’s developing missile capability and alleged work on warhead technology.

Paranoia towards the actions of Iran is reaching a fever pitch in the Gulf and Israel. Gulf countries are as concerned about Iran’s meddling in their internal affairs as about its nuclear weapons program (that their own domestic policies towards their Shia minorities are giving Iran fertile ground to meddle in seems rather less appreciated by them). Combine this with Israel’s growing fear of Iran reaching a point of no-return in its nuclear weapons program (something they’ve been warning about since 2005 and one day of course will be true), and the stage is set for confrontation, either deliberate or accidental.

Looking to Iran’s domestic politics, many have questioned whether persistent elite infighting suggest any meaningful regime fragility – particularly in light of the Green Movement’s demonstration of deep and broad opposition to the regime. The reality is likely to be different – and less encouraging of change. A principal source of resilience for the regime has been its ability to apply effectively the lessons of the Shah – his rise as well as his fall. A proliferation of power centres – however much beset by rivalries between the President, the Supreme Leader, the clerical elites, the Revolutionary guards, and the military – share a fundamental fate in having everything to lose from a democratic Iran with an accountable and legitimate government, and everything to gain from sustaining the status quo.

Iran will therefore remain the wild card in the secular trend towards a West less dependent on – and less preoccupied with – the Middle East. Resolving the struggle between Iran’s strategic and tactical interest in a nuclear deterrent and Israel’s in maintaining the existing nuclear balance of power in the region is the one question that won’t be left to the region itself.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. For this perennial crisis of the Middle East, the next year is likely to prove as fraught as ever. With the effective departure of the United States from the negotiations between the two parties, internal as well as external pressure for a final settlement is at a low point. Real perils from Hamas to Hezbollah to Iran combine with a deeply rooted paranoia about the irreducible hostility of Arabs – and now Turks – to the existence of the Jewish state to strengthen hard-liners in Jerusalem. For Israel, moreover, the Arab Awakening has been a profoundly disorienting experience, leading it to appear as skeptical of the promise of a democratic evolution in its neighborhood as the Saudi monarchy – as strange bedfellows as one otherwise could imagine.

Allies in Egypt and Jordan are now poised to demand greater progress on the peace process, and Islamist movements in the ascendancy across the region are likely to settle for far less. For the Palestinians and their erstwhile supporters among Arab states, the upheavals have reduced, rather than expanded, the room for direct negotiations. The Palestinian leadership, disabused about the prospect of any serious effort by Washington to pressure Israel on settlements, is more vulnerable than ever to popular revolt among its own citizens. The rise of a non-violent resistance movement among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is poised to pose profound challenges to both Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Whatever the near-term developments in Palestine, the broader Arab Awakening and the Iranian nuclear challenge, the long-term strategic balance of the Middle East is destined to be defined by the rise in the relative power of Turkey and Iran. Paranoia and peril will have to be separated in this respect more than any other. Their rise will be driven by strategic aims for power and influence with deep domestic support that can’t easily be dismissed as passing pursuits by particular governments in Ankara or Tehran. This is a development that is equally unwelcome to the United States, to Israel, and to the Gulf countries allied over the past quarter-century around a status quo that is gone forever. An era far less susceptible to the hard and soft power of the United States – in any way increasingly reoriented towards Asia – will require a more patient and judicious approach by all players if conflict is to be averted and a new, peaceful, order is to emerge.

Nowhere will the burden of new strategic thinking fall heavier than in Washington. In a recent essay on the legacy of George Kennan, the architect of U.S. containment policy towards the Soviet Union, Henry Kissinger wrote that “Kennan served a country that had not yet learned the distinction between the conversion and the evolution of an adversary — if indeed it ever will. Conversion entails inducing an adversary to break with its past in one comprehensive act or gesture. Evolution involves a gradual process, a willingness to pursue one’s ultimate foreign policy goal in imperfect stages.”

The terrible price paid in blood and treasure for the Wars of 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with the effects of an economic crisis that now threatens a decade of stagnation in the U.S., may well make America appreciate the virtues of evolution, and accept that our ultimate goals can only be met in imperfect stages. The alternative policy of forced conversion of adversaries, based more on paranoia than true peril, is likely only to be achieved at the price of conflicts with potentially calamitous consequences – for the Middle East as well as for America itself.


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