Arab Countries Weak and Crippled by Rivalry

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

It’s odd, and rather ironic, that the Arab world is more supportive of U.S. intervention in Libya than the United States.

The Arab League has called for a no-flight zone, and so too has the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The Libyan rebels, for their part, have pleaded for Western military intervention for more than a week. Their calls have been met largely with silence. “[The West] has lost any credibility,” said rebel spokeswoman Iman Bugaighis.

Even those most vocal in their support for the rebels, like France, have conceded that it may be too late for military intervention. If the West is unable (or unwilling) to act, many have asked why can’t Arab leaders go ahead and implement a no-flight zone themselves?

It remains largely unspoken but well understood: without the United States, it’s difficult to do much of anything. In a time of supposed American decline, the world continues to turn to the America for moral and political leadership. It may increasingly find that such leadership is not forthcoming – a reminder that you should always be careful what you wish for.

At such a critical juncture, Arab nations are weak, unimaginative, and crippled by rivalry. The region continues to be led by autocrats who speak for themselves, rather than their populations. They are largely dependent on U.S. and Western support (and arms), while their foreign policies are narrowly defined around regime survival.

Strong, vibrant democracies would be more likely to play a more active and assertive role. It’s possible to imagine a proud, revolutionary Egypt, with a rejuvenated military and elected by its own people, that would intervene to help its Libyan neighbors in their struggle for freedom. But that is not the Middle East we have, at least not yet. Five decades of Western support for crumbling, illegitimate regimes has come, inevitably, at a cost. We got what we wanted – dependent, malleable autocrats – but not what we needed.