Winds of Change in the Middle East

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

February 27, 2011

On Feb. 11, 1979, Islamic revolutionaries took power in Tehran. On Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorists launched their attacks on New York and Washington, killing nearly 3,000 Americans. On Feb. 11, 2011, Hosni Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt.

That these things all occurred on the 11th of the month is coincidental, but the events themselves are not unrelated. One of the worst mistakes Americans have made over these three decades has been to overlook their common roots.

The Muslim Middle East sits on a vast reservoir of popular anger and frustration over the region’s economic, social and political dysfunction. The same dissatisfaction that galvanized crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square also drove young Iranians to bring down the shah. And it also has aided the recruitment efforts of Bin Laden and other Islamist terrorists since the early 1980s.

We should not forget that Bin Laden’s original and ultimate goal was to spark a revolution to overthrow the Saudi government, just as his deputy’s, Ayman Zawahiri, was to overthrow Mubarak. Like many frustrated revolutionaries before them, they turned to terrorism only when they were unable to bring about the grand popular revolutions they sought.

Perhaps the worst mistake of the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 was to make terrorism itself America’s principal target. Terrorism was never more than a symptom of this dysfunction and despair, as were the internal conflicts that have convulsed Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt itself in the past two decades. Even Iran’s so-called green movement today is another manifestation of the phenomenon.

The Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” — misnamed, mishandled and quickly shunted aside though it was — at least deserves credit for finally recognizing the real source of America’s problems in the Middle East. The great shame of George W. Bush’s presidency is that the war on terrorism was not a smaller adjunct to that broader effort, rather than the other way around.

We have no one but ourselves to blame for misunderstanding the common sources of our problems all across the Muslim Middle East. The people of the region have hardly kept quiet about their grievances: unemployment, underemployment, massive gaps between rich and poor, callous and corrupt autocracies that did nothing to alleviate distress and much to exacerbate it. The United States got repeated wake-up calls, beginning with the collapse of the shah, but we never bothered to question our convenient insistence that the problems were discrete and manageable by repression and denial.

But the most important question is not why have we failed to understand the problems of the Middle East for so long, but rather what are we going to do about them now?

The Egyptian revolution is an earthquake. It has shaken the Middle East like no other event since the Iranian revolution. It has swept away old paradigms, old ways of understanding the region. It has sparked copycat revolts from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Algeria and perhaps to future spots unknown.

But how the Egyptian revolution defines the new Middle East is still an open question. A great many people will try to use it to impose their visions. It is a moment when the United States can and must enter the fray. It is vital that we take the lead in helping shape how Middle Easterners see the Egyptian revolution.

It is also an opportunity for the United States to overcome our past mistakes, to recognize the real grievances of the people of the region and to reexamine their conflicts and our role in them. The Egyptian revolution and the regional unrest that followed have made it abundantly clear that the vast majority of Muslim Middle Easterners want to live in modernizing, democratizing, developing nations. They want prosperity, they want pluralism and they want the better lives that we in the West enjoy.

The struggle in the new Middle East must be defined as one between nations that are moving in the right direction and nations that are not; between those that are embracing economic liberalization, educational reform, democracy, the rule of law and civil liberties, and those that are not. Viewed through this prism, the new Egypt, the new Iraq and the new Palestinian Authority are clearly in one camp. Iran and Syria — the region’s two most authoritarian regimes and America’s two greatest remaining adversaries there — are in the other.

The other countries of the region will have to choose between a process of reform that embraces progress or repression. This latter course probably will be even harder for governments to maintain as their own people see what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere.

The good news is that a great many of America’s allies have already started down the path of reform. Six years ago, King Abdullah II of Saudi Arabia began a gradual but comprehensive program of reform. Many others across the region have also inaugurated reform programs. We can all agree that their initiatives still have far to go and often have been pursued fitfully, even grudgingly. But they form a basis for progress and a starting point for a conversation about how to bring about peaceful change in their societies and so head off revolutions.

That is another thing we must not forget, despite the remarkable transformation of Egypt: Revolutions are dangerous, unpredictable events. Egypt’s relatively peaceful transition notwithstanding, popular uprisings can easily devolve into chaos or civil war, or they can be hijacked by radical extremists, as the Iranian revolution was. Just because the Egyptian revolution is going well does not mean that we or the people of the region should seek more such events. Embracing unexpected, violent and unpredictable revolutions as a reasonable solution to the region’s problems could lead to much worse problems than what we have so far: failed states, chaos, ethno-sectarian civil war and aggressive militarized states replacing corrupt, repressive but mostly passive autocracies. It would be far preferable for change to occur more peacefully, more gradually and more deliberately.

And that is where the United States comes back in. Redefining the central divide in the Middle East as one between progressive nations striving to build better societies and repressive states seeking to perpetuate the unhappiness of their people is going to require more than mere oratory from the White House. It is going to mean doing something that the Obama administration promised when it first took office but then turned away from shortly thereafter.

It is going to mean embracing and leading a comprehensive effort to enable economic, social and political reform across the Muslim Middle East. Enabling and encouraging such progress does not mean that the United States should impose its vision on the region; it means helping Muslim Middle Easterners devise their own progressive visions. For the poorer states of the region, this may require large-scale economic assistance. For the richer nations of the Middle East, it may mean very different kinds of help.

The Saudis, for instance, don’t need our money, but they may need us to create a safe environment for them to enact reform by addressing matters that create internal problems (like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) or external problems (like the Iranian nuclear program). It will also mean convincing China and Russia that getting on the right side of history is in their best interests. It will mean mobilizing the resources of the entire free world in a way that only the United States can.

For centuries, Europe was an immensely turbulent place, ravaged by war, revolution, genocide, repression and other social ills. Europe’s transformation into something different was greatly helped by American aid and guidance during the 20th century. Today, Europe is the most peaceful and prosperous continent in the world.

Fifty years ago, Asia was racked by similar problems, and again the United States participated in a major effort to help the nations of the region transform themselves. Thirty years ago, Latin America was a nightmare of poverty, dictatorship, insurgency, terrorism and corruption. And again, the United States finally overcame its endless excuses and began helping the states of that region change.

The time has come for the United States to make the same effort to help the people of the Muslim Middle East, the region that has replaced Europe, then Asia and then Latin America as our greatest source of troubles. The Egyptian people have shown us all the path, but it will take American leadership to reach the desired destination.