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One Month into the Arab World’s Popular Uprisings

One Month into the Arab World’s Popular Uprisings

The ongoing protests in the Middle East have opened up new possibilities for real change and reform throughout the region but the protests obviously aren’t going to solve longstanding security threats emanating from the region anytime soon. Terrorism, proliferation, state failure, and regional tensions such as the Arab-Israeli conflict remain major threats, and dealing with these problems may become even more complicated as the region moves through what is shaping up to be a major transformation in the balance of power.

The Obama administration will need to multitask as it responds to fast-moving events in multiple countries and works to help these societies deal with overwhelming political, economic, social, and demographic problems. In addition to the new uprisings, the administration will need to continue dealing with the other major challenges that existed long before the uprisings- the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, Iraq’s reintegration into the Middle East, and ongoing threats from terrorist groups based in the region.

The ousters of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia in just a few weeks time demonstrate just how fragile the old order of “stability” imposed by leaders lacking popular legitimacy is. In the past week, the violent repression by Libya and Bahrain shows what some leaders are ready to do to cling to power. This struggle for political change will likely to take years to unfold and the Obama administration has thus far struck the right balance in developing its responses, particularly in Egypt. But navigating the events in the Middle East in the next few months will consume considerable more time and attention on the Obama administration’s crowded national security agenda.

State failure and civil war. The first immediate threat the United States needs to guard against is the collapse of any of these states into brutal repression, internal chaos, and even civil war. The past few days in Libya have offered some hints of how ugly the situation could get. The Middle East is not immune to protracted internal conflicts and insurgencies. Iraq suffered from a vicious civil war for years last decade even with a large presence of U.S. troops, Algeria saw internal conflict through much of the 1990s, and Lebanon had a 15-year civil war starting in 1975. Each of these conflicts claimed upward of 100,000 lives.

In Egypt, the United States played an important role behind the scenes encouraging the security forces to not fire on the protesters- it had leverage based on decades of close ties with Egypt’s security agencies. In places like Libya, America has considerably less influence on its own and will need to work more closely with other countries like Italy that may have more sway. In encouraging stability, however, the United States should not fall into the trap of simply backing authoritarian leaders who have ruled without popular support for decades.

Continued threats from terrorist groups. Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and other groups that have conducted attacks in the region present a second immediate threat. Last year, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan called AQAP a bigger threat than Al Qaeda remnants in Pakistan, echoing CIA assessments from earlier last year. Overall, the popular uprisings have mostly shown Al Qaeda’s growing irrelevance to the political, economic, and social problems facing the region. But terrorist groups could seek to exploit continued disorder to sow chaos. Earlier this month, a senior Hamas commander escaped an Egyptian prison and made his way back to the Gaza Strip to a hero’s welcome- just one of several reported escapes. Another wave of terrorist attacks in the middle of the region’s struggle for political reform could potentially fuel internal conflicts or ignite a broader conflict in the region like the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Obama administration should continue to strike the right balance in encouraging pragmatic political and economic reforms in each country as the historic uprisings across the Middle East continue. The old order is not sustainable- it failed to deal with the crushing economic and social problems in many of these countries. But as this process of reform takes shape in places such as Tunisia and Egypt, the United States needs to take steps to safeguard its security interests in the region. This means continuing counterterrorism cooperation with security services and militaries in the region, just as it is encouraging those agencies to step back from politics and accept more civilian democratic oversight and checks and balances, as I wrote in this paper on Middle East reform. This process will take a long time to unfold- we are likely looking at a period of several years of uncertainty and change in the Middle East.

The Obama administration also needs to keep its eye on its broader goals as it addresses these historic changes in the region- including resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The Obama administration has defined a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict as a core U.S. national security interest and administration officials have said they would “incorporate” comprehensive peace proposals such as the Arab Peace Initiative into its policy. The uprisings in the Middle East will obviously complicate short-term efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in the long run, resolving the conflict will help countries in the region dedicate their resources and attention to dealing with the growing economic and social problems that motivated the protesters.

The clock still ticks on the unresolved Iranian nuclear program, although the Obama administration has worked to isolate the Iranian regime through a multifaceted diplomatic and military strategy. One challenge emerging in the Gulf region with the recent protests is the possibility that certain countries such as Bahrain that are seen as central pillars of containment of Iran are weakened by the legitimacy crisis their rulers face. U.S. policymakers may face some tough questions about whether it is wise to sell weapons systems to countries with shaky governments.

All of this adds up to 2011 shaping up to be a more complicated year for the Obama administration in the Middle East, and one with no easy answers and quite likely a great deal of uncertainty in the months ahead. The uncertainty in the Middle East has contributed to the recent run-up in global oil prices, and high energy prices could risk undermining the economic recovery at home and abroad.

Given what’s at stake, the Obama administration needs to outline its long-term vision for the region, including a Middle East in which governments are more responsive to the needs of its citizens, internal conflicts and conflicts between states are minimized and resolved, and the region is much more integrated with the rest of the world than it was at the start of this century. These are lofty goals and the process for change, which will take a long time, must be driven from inside the region. But the United States can play a key leadership role in helping this troubled region of the world address decades-long problems.

This post was originally published by The Center for American Progress.


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Photo by Takver
Written by Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress

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33 comments

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2:51PM PST on Mar 4, 2011

I think, I don't know, I believe that the U.S is going to be duped into a ww3. Things are serious. Tea baggers are going to go extinct. I want to type this why I am here. It has been said about education that people in other countries are smarter than Americans. I want to remind us, that foreigners come to the states to the fine schools here to get all types of degrees and internships here and maybe stay or go home. I know so I know there was something the argument presented that America ns are dummies and foreigners are smarters.

1:49PM PST on Mar 4, 2011

The only thing that is a threat to America is the terrorists within.

10:17AM PST on Feb 28, 2011

I have confidence in the peoples of northern Africa and the middle east in their struggle for true democracy. I have confidence in their ideals and in their desires. If the western powers can resist their normal forms of foreign policies that brought us Saddam Hussein, Mubarak and the religion state of Iran I believe we will see some democracies being born.

5:32AM PST on Feb 28, 2011

Greg,

WOW!!! I applaud your comments. Such interesting and invaluable FACTS. Thank you. Wish they would open the eyes of all those americans who are fast asleep. They better awake fast, or very soon, they will find themselves, sleeping under the open skies. Their wealth is being stolen, from right under their noses; so shrewdly and swiftly that they dont even see it.

9:50PM PST on Feb 27, 2011

So-- when I hear why don't they give in to each other in congress, with the great differences-- humans vs kissing the ring, That means the" ring" is not going to concede anything unless " the ring" has figured out how to back the peasants in the corner (like renewing the bush tax cuts for the rich) then without that money they can finish taking us down and out cause the bank is broke. But is it? Iraq has oil wells, the governing said the war would pay for the war, somebody got paid wasn't americans. Haliburton and contractors inc made a fortune. We think China and Saudi's are our enemies- we own them. Show us the money. Remember back in the late 80,s and 90,s P. Bush was well vested in China and recently I learned Saudi is us too. America is all over the Planet. We are not broke. Different day a game of pac man -eat your country. Lie to us some more. We are not broke. Just show us the money. going to bed catch you tomorrow.

9:32PM PST on Feb 27, 2011

Almost there! What I see from the last 2 years nothing is going to happen unless the republican party will allow it. So the dems have to kiss their benevolent ring and just maybe their ego will let it happen. Such is it with afganistan. If President Obama would have wanted to de-escalate and come home, the war hawks would be raising hell and they did. Remember When President Obama took his time to think about it. And during that time they sqwarked and swarked and swarked. Then the decision was to stay. So afterwards mr. steele started Obama's war slogan and because not many of us are watching day to day what these politicians are really doing and saying, we are fed news from glenny and friends. And we missed all of that other stuff that happened.--- Just like we missed in february or march 2009 President obama introduced a jobs iniative which the gop boerners, cantor and choir boys shot down cause it was too much to do to right the economy and get help to those who need it. yet the choir boys claim when they campainged that the President didn't start a jobs initiative and I don't know why noone brings this up but it happened. I saw it, I heard it. The republican party do things against this country and when we are found suffering they want the dems who stood up to them to share in their blame and you better not say the repubbs are the blame for anything . But they are. Two cultures one for the rich and war hawks and one for the humans/98% of us. america's deleima.

9:32PM PST on Feb 27, 2011

Almost there! What I see from the last 2 years nothing is going to happen unless the republican party will allow it. So the dems have to kiss their benevolent ring and just maybe their ego will let it happen. Such is it with afganistan. If President Obama would have wanted to de-escalate and come home, the war hawks would be raising hell and they did. Remember When President Obama took his time to think about it. And during that time they sqwarked and swarked and swarked. Then the decision was to stay. So afterwards mr. steele started Obama's war slogan and because not many of us are watching day to day what these politicians are really doing and saying, we are fed news from glenny and friends. And we missed all of that other stuff that happened.--- Just like we missed in february or march 2009 President obama introduced a jobs iniative which the gop boerners, cantor and choir boys shot down cause it was too much to do to right the economy and get help to those who need it. yet the choir boys claim when they campainged that the President didn't start a jobs initiative and I don't know why noone brings this up but it happened. I saw it, I heard it. The republican party do things against this country and when we are found suffering they want the dems who stood up to them to share in their blame and you better not say the repubbs are the blame for anything . But they are. Two cultures one for the rich and war hawks and one for the humans/98% of us. america's deleima.

6:19PM PST on Feb 27, 2011

“US should not be involved due to oil or related to oil” please find the alternative resource such as nature gas and other alternative incl. US oil. Businesses who are interested in oil need their friends financial institutes, old capitalists, will work better with Democratic Administration. If you look at the US history, you won’t be fooled by anyone. It is time for learn more about the history.

5:18PM PST on Feb 27, 2011

I don't care about the oil. We have been warned since the Carter administration of the impediment to our reliance to middle east oil. Now maybe the country will look to new ways of heating our homes, the type of cars we drive or not drive anymore, and heat our water. When will we learn to be self reliant.

3:40PM PST on Feb 27, 2011

First off, I would be skeptical of anything produced by the Center for American Progress. According to Source Watch, "In 2009 CAP's Progressive Media project emerged as a major communications war room on behalf of Obama's domestic and foreign policy agenda and CAP became a strong advocate for escalation in Afghanistan." Although they purport to be a true liberal think tank to counter the prevalence of conservative think tanks, I would be cautious in accepting what CAP commentators say. Katulus' statement, "...as this process of reform takes shape in places such as Tunisia and Egypt, the United States needs to take steps to safeguard its security interests in the region" could be interpreted many ways, not all of them truly progressive, as we've seen from a century of American influence-peddling in the Middle East.

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