Does the U.S. have the assets, influence and will to affect the course of Middle East politics?
At first glance, the answer appears self-evident given the extent of the country’s involvement in the region. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has been seized with Arab-Israeli peacemaking and has given Egypt more than $70 billion in aid. The U.S. has deployed military assets in the Persian Gulf to secure oil exports at a cost of $6.27 trillion from 1980 through 2007. Adding the wars and development in Iraq and Afghanistan, the total rises to $6.8 trillion.
After all this investment, U.S. standing among the region’s populations is not high. The perception on the Arab “street” is that U.S. assistance has lined the pockets of now-deposed leaders. U.S. naval activities in the region are seen as protecting the oil interests of American companies. And U.S. diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict is criticized as providing cover for Israeli occupation practices.
In other words, U.S. investments in the Middle East over the past three decades had value when they were made and continuing value tied to the political fortunes of the rulers in power. With the departure of these leaders, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, there is almost no present value for U.S. investments in the region.
In assessing U.S. influence, a second factor is the fact that Egypt’s revolution is nationalistic at its core. Egyptians rose up against Mubarak not only because of the authoritarianism, crony capitalism and corruption that marked his tenure, but also as an expression of pride and determination to “take their country back.”
In this respect, the possibility of influence from the outside is not only limited, but trying to exert it can be counterproductive. Even well-intentioned offers of assistance could be seen as an effort to exercise control over Egypt.
During the 18 days of protests preceding Mubarak’s ouster, many of these elements were evident in U.S. relations with Egypt.
Statements by the Obama administration were examined by both the regime and the demonstrators for evidence of U.S. thinking and support. However, neither the public statements nor the messages conveyed in daily phone calls to Egypt’s leadership had any discernible effect on the substance or timing of events on the ground. The protestors were intent on this being an Egyptian uprising and that determination has carried over into the more nuanced political maneuvering now underway.
Similarly, the military and political establishments made decisions based on their own assessments of internal affairs and the prospect of stability. The generals seemed to understand earlier than most that Mubarak could not remain aloof from the demands of the demonstrators.
The military tried first to make a persuasive case for resolving the crisis with the appointment of a vice president and the announcement that Mubarak would not run for reelection. When this gambit proved to be too little, too late, it was the military that ultimately pushed Mubarak from office. Their calculations derived from internal analysis, with little or no apparent influence from outsiders.
This analysis suggests that the U.S. will not have much sway over the outcome of the Egyptian upheaval, and that it would be wise for the U.S. to avoid pushing ideas or aid on Egypt, unless these are solicited by the next government.
For sure, more assertive policies -- even if well-intentioned -- must be avoided. These would include a U.S. or international plan for Egyptian economic development; a U.S. demand for Egypt to reaffirm its peace treaty with Israel; or some new linkage that Congress or the administration attaches to existing aid to Egypt. Each of these steps would be perceived as cutting across the central nationalist message of the uprising.
Does this mean the U.S. must sit by idly while Egypt and the region undergo potentially revolutionary change? Not necessarily.
There is one set of U.S. policies that would impact positively on developments in Egypt and elsewhere and draw the collective breath of the Arab street: a determined, pro-active, aggressive effort to achieve a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The Obama administration is already on record as committed to this goal; two years of sustained effort without results prove the need for a more coherent and encompassing strategy.
The time is right for agile, creative and sustained U.S. peace diplomacy. American-led advances in the peace process will not determine the future of Arab democracy, but such activity will reassert the U.S.’s leadership role in the one area where its influence can make a difference.
(Daniel Kurtzer is a lecturer and visiting professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.)
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