On October 17, 2011 the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion to debate the response of the United States to the Arab uprisings, its future role in the region, and the constraints on its ability to deliver on expectations. The event featured Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Saban Center. The event was moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic and media communities.
Kenneth Pollack began by underlining the extent to which foreign policy had slipped from Washington D.C.’s policy agenda, saying that the gravity of domestic issues – in particular the state of the U.S. economy – has left little room for debate on foreign policy options. Pollack suggested that it was not apparent from abroad just how powerful the voices calling for a “neo-isolationist” foreign policy had become. Underlying that rhetoric were significant budgetary constraints. It was telling, Pollack said, that the number of U.S. troops to be left in Iraq after the drawback – an issue on which there was bipartisan agreement – had been reduced to just 3,000, under pressure from Congress.
Beyond the financial constraints on a more pro-active policy in the region, Pollack cited the general suspicions and fears of the American public over the direction of the Arab uprisings as a further reason for the administration’s reticence. On its policies toward Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, there had been “awful mishandling” from an Obama administration which was “not that interested in foreign policy in the first place,” Pollack said.
To Pollack, it was clear that the United States should be assisting the current “dangerous transitions” in the Arab world, and he spoke of the great frustration of those in Washington D.C. with a more internationalist outlook. Despite the inability of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to secure large aid packages for the region, however, the Obama administration would seek creative means of supporting democratic transition, Pollack noted.
On U.S. policy on the Gulf, Pollack stated that the Obama administration “recognized the need for change,” but said that the Washington’s “longstanding ties and close relationships” with the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula made it difficult to genuinely push for that change. Furthermore, he saw that in the case of Bahrain, the limits of U.S. influence were revealed, with the administration unable to secure its desired outcome of dialogue between regime and opposition.
Suzanne Maloney began her remarks by stating that one “troublesome effect” of the Arab Spring was that it “heightened the regional competition for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia.” She cited the recent Iranian plot targeting the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. as a sign of that competition, and said that despite the “amateurish” nature of the plot, the firmness of Obama’s response underscored that the threat of Iran was being taken seriously, and that there was likely some high-level official Iranian involvement. Maloney argued that the Obama administration had now “come full circle on Iran,” having reversed course on an initial policy of seeking to open dialogue. Obama was now pursuing a “dual track policy of pressure and persuasion,” which included the most stringent sanctions ever imposed on Iran. This policy may be “politically defensible” and may work on a “strategic level” by damaging Iran’s economy and complicating its regional business ties. Maloney argued that it will not, however, have the desired impact on Iran’s own strategic behavior and security position. There are also difficulties in maintaining the current policy, as Chinese and Indian support for sanctions may falter as their own energy needs grow.
Maloney argued that a shift in policy toward the use of force remained remote, though recent developments did suggest that proxy conflicts in other theaters – such as Afghanistan – were “not out of the realm of the possible.” With regard to wider policy on the region, Maloney emphasized that 2011 was a watershed year. If Washington was “in comfortable territory” with regard to Iran, its ongoing rethink of its policies toward Arab states represented a genuine shift. Maloney argued that we are now seeing changes in the Arab world similar those that occurred with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that U.S. policy will need to reflect these new realities. The United States must now realize, Maloney argued, that it is not the only nor the most effective player in affecting change in the region, and should look to its allies in the region as well as the European Union to support transformational change in the Arab world.
Following presentations from all speakers, the floor was opened for questions. Moderator Salman Shaikh asked whether the United States should in fact be playing a more active role in the region in the first place. Kenneth Pollack argued that though the Washington’s role had not always been positive in the past, the challenge of the Arab uprisings demonstrates an urgent need for U.S. engagement and support. This support could come in the form of resources (for example to help plug enormous budget deficits in countries in transition); know-how (in helping to draw best-practices from successful transitions); or to offer protection against “external predatory powers” who may seek to gain an advantage in a time of instability.
Asked whether the Arab Spring had helped align of values and interests of the United States, Pollack stated that policymakers had maintained false dichotomy between the two for the past forty years, and that the “real difference was between short and long term interests.” It had become clear, he argued, that democratic change was in Washington’s long term interest, though Pollack insisted that reform, not revolution, constituted the better route to achieve that change, given the uncertainties and dangers inherent in the instability of upheaval. Pollack argued that support for that reform should be elevated to become the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy toward the region, and that “all other policies should be geared to contribute to that overarching goal.” It was the lack of obvious tools for supporting both values and interests that presented a difficulty for the current administration, he said.
Maloney meanwhile argued that such a shift in policy has already begun. Hillary Clinton’s statement in support of women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia may have been mere rhetoric, but represented “an extreme shift,” pointing to Washington’s recognition that its long term interests reside in gradual change and proving that there is “no longer a firewall around any country.”
Asked about what possible triggers would encourage more a engaged American public and assertive U.S. foreign policy, Maloney suggested that the extent of frustration and cynicism at home meant it was unlikely that anything short of a “tragic event” would instigate a real shift – and that such a shift would not necessarily be for the best.
On the question of the rise of moderate Islamist parties, Pollack argued that U.S. policymakers would not object to Islamist-majority governments “that seek to serve their own interests, and do not go out of their way to antagonize the United States.” If such governments pursue predictable but difficult policies, that shouldn’t be a reason not to remain allies, he argued.