Day 3 at the SSWA: Arab Spring and US National Interests

Today the Summer Seminar welcomed Dr. Christina Michelmore, chair of Chatham University’s History Department who specializes in modern Middle Eastern history, to discuss the Arab Spring and its implications for US Foreign Policy.

Egyptian protesters filled Tahrir Square

She began by providing some background on US policy in the region. Traditionally, that policy has been based on two primary interests: the security of the supply of Persian Gulf oil at reasonable prices and the security of Israel. However, often these two interests conflict.

Since the 1970s, the US has pursued three major policy tracks. First, it has sought a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Second, it has tried to exclude or at least contain hostile external or regional forces. Third, it has supported stable states; that is, those who are friendly towards the US and not overtly hostile towards Israel.

It may come as a surprise to some people to realize just how many allies the US has in the Middle East. Egypt and Jordan have been crucial partners in the Arab-Israeli conflict; Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and especially Saudi Arabia are key oil producers; the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is located in Bahrain; Qatar is a center of media and education; Oman guards the strategic Straits of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world’s oil must travel; and Yemen has been important to the fight against terrorism. All of these countries have some sort of official alliance with the US.

On the other side of the equation, Iraq and Lebanon cannot be considered strong allies because their internal instability makes them unpredictable. However, both tend to be more focused on internal issues. Meanwhile, Iran and Syria are declared opponents of the US and Israel.

Dr. Michelmore also explained that the tensions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims play into the instability in the Middle East. Whichever branch is not represented by the governing elite often faces discrimination, and many governments face large minority populations. Also, many citizens identify more strongly as either Sunni or Shi’a than with a national identity.

US policy has typically supported autocratic regimes in the Middle East if they served our interests, despite the fact that such governments did not share our values. After September 11, 2001, policymakers shifted more towards the idea of democracy promotion; however, this effort was soon frustrated when in some cases free choice led to instability or unfriendly governments (for example, violence in Iraq and the election of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories).

Dr. Michelmore then shifted the focus to the wave of popular protests that began last December in Tunisia and have since spread to most other Middle Eastern and North African countries, known as the Arab Spring. These protests have been led by young people (under the age of 35); have utilized civil disobedience (peaceful protests), social media and cell phones; and have common demands (replace autocracies with democracies, improve education, provide jobs, end favoritism, and protect rights and freedoms.)

She also outlined the principle challenges and risks. First of all, it is difficult for the US to support protesters when we are allied with their governments. Second, we don’t know how it will turn out. For example, is it likely to result in the establishment of democracies in the Middle East?

To answer this question, Dr. Michelmore outlined a number of “useful conditions” to setting up a democratic government. First, social equality and a big middle class are important. Second, if a government depends on just one resource for its income, it is less likely to depend on its people for wealth. Third, better education increases skills and creates higher expectations. Fourth, a strong civil society (one where people join organizations) generally helps. Fifth, democracy is more likely to take hold in a country with a homogenous population (or at least one where all of the people identify strongly with their national identity in addition to other identities). In the Arab world, these conditions do not necessarily exist: there is a large gap between the rich and the poor, many countries depend principally on oil revenues, they have large youth populations who face high unemployment, civil society is week and populations are not homogeneous.

Dr. Michelmore suggests three possible outcomes. First, the elites may resist the protests and maintain the status quo, but it will be a weakened status quo with more instability. Second, some countries may recede into chaos and violence. Third, if elections take place, they may be won by parties unfriendly to the US, such as Islamic extremists.

Overall, she emphasized that this is a complex and volatile situation that is extremely important to US interests, but also one in which the US has little leverage. She also underscored that there is a lot that we don’t know and cannot predict about outcomes in the region.

Following this informative presentation, the students broke up into groups for the day’s policy scenario. Today, the scenario briefly described the situation in five important areas: Libya, Egypt, Syria, Israel/Palestine and Saudi Arabia/Bahrain. The groups were asked to imagine that they were advising President Obama on a speech he will make. What should he say? What policies should he set forth?

Many groups opted for the US to take a more passive role, in some or all of the countries. Although we should support peace and democratic outcomes, it is not in our interests to take a more active role, they claimed. Some groups suggested policy be directed through the UN, that the US facilitate peace talks or that humanitarian aid be given for refugees. Other groups felt that the interests at stake were high enough to merit military intervention – or at least the threat of it – in cases such as Saudi Arabia and Syria. Dr. Michelmore pointed out that although groups came up with a diverse range of responses, all of these policies were determined by judging to what extent our interests are at stake and to what extent certain actions will support those interests. Given that there is a lot we simply don’t know about what will happen, it is not surprising that there was some disagreement over what should be done. Overall, it was once again a very thoughtful discussion on a very timely topic.

By Rebecca Somple, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern