As unrest continues across the Middle East, the United States must strike a delicate balance between supporting the status quo that has maintained U.S. influence in the region for decades, and posturing itself as pro-revolution in a way that endears it to leaders of successful uprisings.
U.S. posturing, though, is contingent on a variety of factors both historical and anticipatory. The success of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy will dictate whether its influence continues to decline or if it is salvaged at least partially.
American support for the rebel movement in Libya manifested itself first in the form of tentative criticism of the Qaddafi regime’s brutal repression. As the situation spiraled into outright battle, though, and as it became apparent that there was support from governments both Western and in the Middle East, the U.S. threw its weight behind a no-fly zone.
U.S. military assistance of the rebels comes in part because of historic enmity between the two countries, and because of the broad-based nature of the desire for military intervention in the region.
The countries in which the U.S. has maintained a complicated support of the status quo will be the true test of how well Obama is able to advance U.S. interest while simultaneously remaining militarily uninvolved.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has allowed the U.S. to carry out air strikes against al-Qaeda. Saleh’s passive assistance of U.S. military interest has been vital in America’s prosecution of terrorism in the region. When protests broke out there, the U.S. stayed mum; it apparently was waiting to see who gained the upper hand.
Then, just last week, the United States began advocating for Saleh to step down. Given the instability of the government, and its low level of support from the people, protesters are likely to win, and the United States wants to appear as if it supports their purported desire for democratic change.
At the same time, there have been extensive backroom negotiations with Saleh to ensure a smooth exit, providing him with refuge outside the country.
Surprisingly, the United States has stopped short of giving full support to protesters in Syria, a country with which it shares decades-long animosity. This is due in large part to Syria’s ability to maintain stability in the face of protest, so the uprising is unlikely to gain much momentum.
The U.S. hopes to warm ties with Syria as tensions build in Israel between Hamas and the Israeli government. If the U.S. can exploit a weakened Syria, it can perhaps draw concessions both in terms of its position toward Israel and its alliance with Iran, something that makes the U.S. understandably nervous.
The last fact that often escapes the public eye is the degree to which the U.S. has collaborated with the two countries in their mutual battle against fundamentalists. During a wave of uprisings in Saudi Arabia in 2003, for example, the U.S. contributed money and CIA support to combat the attacks.
Their support of those governments and decisions regarding other countries’ protests also hinge on one more crucial factor: the alternative to the status quo. In many, if not all the countries experiencing conflict, it is often difficult to discern the interests of the groups leading the uprisings; many have strong elements of Islamist fundamentalism, the very ideology the U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and the region writ large for the past decade.
The U.S. has had to choose between unpopular rulers, and groups unfriendly to the West. In siding against governments, America is signaling that it believes protest groups would be amenable to at least limited cooperation with America.
It is a risky bet. Even if the U.S. correctly predicts which side will be victorious, there’s no guarantee that it will lead to friendly relations. The victorious may very likely form a virulently anti-West bloc; there is simply no way yet of telling which interests will emerge on top.