Desperately Seeking the Arab Center

The uprisings of 2011 dramatically revealed the weakness of the Arab state. That earthquake unleashed aftershocks that are still being felt, and even states and ruling elites that did not experience severe protests have been shaken. As the Egyptian political scientist Nazih Ayubi observed some years ago, Arab states may be fierce, but that does not mean that they are strong, let alone legitimate.[1]

The modern Arab political order that began to take shape after World War I seemed to have consolidated into durable states following the nationalist revolutionary upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s political scientists spoke of how the Arab state system had “matured.” But they had matured (if that is the right word) into states of persistent authoritarianism of either the “republican” or monarchical variety. While many of these states saw quite impressive economic and social development – due in part to oil wealth – they did not experience significant political openings and remained under the tight control of self-perpetuating elites. With one or two exceptions, organized political participation independent of the governments was suppressed.

Collapsing States

The uprisings of 2011 were by no means the first societal protests against this authoritarian order; there is a history of protests, strikes, and attempted coups in most of the Arab countries. In fact, the first major regime collapse came in Iraq in 2003 owing to the American invasion and occupation. But the upheavals of 2011 were unique in that they were contagious, indicating that there was an Arab community of protest that crossed state frontiers. Not only did rulers fall in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, but neighboring regimes were also shaken, notably Bahrain and especially, of course, Syria.

The upheavals of 2011 were unique in that they were contagious, indicating that there was an Arab community of protest that crossed state frontiers.

Today, a survey of the bleak Arab landscape would reveal four arguably failed states – Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. But the tremors are felt more broadly. Bahrain remains unsettled. Jordan and Lebanon are severely stressed. Tunisia is widely praised as having made a successful democratic transition, but the situation remains fragile. Faced with the triple challenge of potential popular protest, growing Iranian power, and, of course, the Islamist extremism of ISIS and its cousins, the wealthy Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates feel forced to wage a defensive “counterrevolution” against these currents. The human toll – mainly civilians dead or injured, or refugees – is appalling, especially in Syria and Yemen.

Outside powers inevitably have become involved. Just as European powers nibbled away at Turkey – “the sick man of Europe” – a century and more ago, today they cast nervous, and often predatory, eyes on the Arab world – “the sick man of the Middle East.” American hubris sought to remake Iraq and the region as a whole into compliant liberal entities; Russia strives to expand its foothold by clinging to a brutal Syrian regime; Iran bides its time; and Europe dithers. Foreign “boots on the ground,” air strikes, and drone attacks exacerbate rather than ease the multiple ongoing conflicts.

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U.S. Policy in Syria: Weighing Bad Options

The Islamic State’s carnage in Paris and other recent attacks have added more urgency to the challenges facing the Obama administration’s approach to the Syrian crisis. Critics have labeled the approach indecisive, reactive, pathetic, late, absent, dangerous, and other adjectives that reflect the quandary in which Obama and his national security team find themselves.

The speed with which events are unfolding in Syria and associated battlefields – from Iraq to France – forces the administration to constantly consider variations of the following options. But because none of the choices are optimal, Obama and his team often seem immobilized as they attempt to find solutions to what has become a massive political, military, and humanitarian disaster. While future U.S. policy in Syria cannot be predicted, it is likely that Obama, in the waning days of his presidency, will continue to battle ISIS from the air, reject calls for American boots on the ground, and rely on Gulf partners to support the fight against Assad.

Direct Military Involvement

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011 the administration has resisted becoming militarily involved in what it believes should have been a domestic affair leading to the removal of an autocratic leader and his repressive regime through a peaceful transfer of power. Many opportunities for a reversal of this reluctance to use force have presented themselves: the regime’s chemical weapons use in 2013, its ongoing barrel bomb onslaught against civilian targets, and Turkish and other allies’ pressure to establish no-fly zones to provide safe havens for non-combatants and for a potential opposition provisional government or civil administration.

Obama sees no gain from a military involvement that harks back to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries from which he was and remains anxious to withdraw American troops.

Obama sees no gain from a military involvement that harks back to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries from which he was and remains anxious to withdraw American troops. Calls by Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in late 2015 to introduce 20,000 American troops equally to Syria and Iraq increased pressure on the administration. Nevertheless, the outcome of such calls is contingent on whether the countries named by the McCain-Graham initiative – Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – accept fielding the balance of the total number of forces proposed – 100,000. Given these countries’ domestic worries and regional commitments, this would be a tall order. The latest row between Saudi Arabia and Iran following the former’s execution of Shi‘i religious figure Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 others, assures Riyadh’s reluctance to engage in such a scheme.

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Introducing the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ New Article Series, “National Council Analyses and Assessments”

When the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations was established in 1983 and announced that its mission would be education, it stated that serving as a clearinghouse for information and insight would be one of its functions. To that end, the Council is delighted to announce the latest in its initiatives, an online article series titled “National Council Analyses and Assessments.”

The National Council will seek to produce regularly a concise article on an aspect of U.S.-Arab relations or the Arab world, from Morocco to the Gulf and from Baghdad to Berbera and points in between. The authors will hail from across the globe. Each will have deep knowledge. All will have lived experience of the Arab world. The series will attempt to deliver unique analyses and views on contemporary affairs and policies. It will also seek to provide a forum for pieces on broader issues such as women’s rights, climate change, and economic reform.

It is to be expected that readers have various outlets from which to choose for material on the Arab world and U.S. foreign relations. With that in mind, a purpose of the series will be to furnish readers with exceptional, thoughtful, and timely content difficult if not impossible to find elsewhere. Each piece will be chosen and edited with careful consideration of the issues at hand and an appropriate specialist to examine them.

For the launch of the series, two pieces on issues of importance are offered by dynamic, credible, and seasoned voices.

Imad Harb, Distinguished International Affairs Fellow at the National Council and an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, discusses the array of poor policy options that the Obama administration faces in regard to Syria. He concludes that the president will likely continue to battle ISIS from the air, reject calls for American boots on the ground, and rely increasingly upon GCC country friends, allies, and strategic partners to support the fight against the government in Damascus.

Michael C. Hudson, Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University, former longtime director of the university’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and a member of the National Council’s International Advisory Committee, writes on the crisis of the Arab state in the current, post-uprisings period. “Until effective leadership emanating from society emerges,” he writes, “the Arab center — the millions of ordinary citizens who rose up — will remain on the periphery.”

The National Council’s hope is that as many people as possible will become regular and avid readers of the series. To that end, anyone’s and everyone’s comments and suggestions will be welcomed and appreciated.

John Duke Anthony, Ph.D., Founding President and CEO, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations