I am on a number of progressive listservs where folks are getting as excited as progressives allow themselves over the prospect that the Obama administration may submit a UN resolution to impose a two-state solution and that we may be on the verge of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Setting aside my personal feelings about these policies per se, what I find more interesting is that these steps do not appear to be reducing tensions, as many had long predicted -- although perhaps it is too early to tell in the case of an Iran agreement. Rather, we have seen an unprecedented growth in the exercise of military intervention by Arab states without US leadership or -- in some cases -- US involvement at all. Other developments likewise signal a rise in a more indigenous and more aggressive foreign policy by Arab states directed against Iran and used to quell internal dissent.
1. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have acted to intervene in Yemen using air strikes and naval shelling. A ground invasion has not been ruled out.
2. Egypt has settled its longstanding water conflict with Ethiopia and Northern Sudan with a new treaty, and is developing itself as the major power broker in Northeast Africa.
3. Consistent with this, Egypt is now intervening in Libya with air strikes to disrupt ISIS affiliates there and is in talks with Sudan and Ethiopia for regional intervention in the conflict.
4. The Arab League, after 40 years of trying, has now agreed to establish a permanent joint military force for the purpose of maintaining regional stability. It is likely that Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be -- at least initially -- major donors of military forces, equipment and officers.
These may be unrelated phenomena. Further, they may even, ultimately, be beneficial. Regional stability should depend on strong, local regional powers rather than on an imposed *Pax Americana* which allows regional issues to fester and props up dictators until the pressure becomes unbearable. Additionally, it is no sure thing that the U.S. will go through with its UN resolution threat. It may be clever bluff to move Netanyahu to make concessions (as evidenced by his releasing Palestinian tax revenues).
But what those who favor progressive foreign policy need to recognize is the ancillary consequences of unravelling what had been the tent-pole of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East for 35 years. In doing so, Progressives are in danger of becoming as short sighted and filled with hubris as the Bush interventionists. The Bush interventionists assumed a simplistic picture in which America would be greeted as liberators. They had no back-up plan for anti-insurgency operations, despite warnings from a range of analysts that insurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan was extremely likely. Despite an avowed desire for nation building, the Bush interventionists had absolutely no organized plan for building necessary government institutions or for combating the inevitable corruption -- both by local officials and by military contractors -- that would follow the massive influx of money into the region.
Similarly, Progressives seem to have no idea as to any possible negative consequences from reversing the U.S./Israel relationship and concluding a nuclear deal (and opening trade) with Iran. Rather, because these things are seen as desirable in themselves, it is almost taken as axiomatic that no negative -- or even unexpected -- policy consequences could flow. There appears absolutely no consideration, or even awareness, that a massive shift in the underlying realities of Middle Eastern politics could have anything but positive impact by removing longstanding grievances and sources of tension within the region.
Unfortunately, for better or worse, the two certainties in the Middle East for 40 years have been that the U.S. would support Israel and oppose Iran. This defined the region and shaped the politics and the parties. Foreign policy depends on stability. Much as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan and other U.S. allies (who also happen to be Sunni majority) might have complained about U.S. dominance, it provided a framework within which countries could reliably make plans.
The shift in U.S. policy creates a vacuum and uncertainty among U.S. allies at a time when regional suspicion of Iran is at its height. This is not simply a religious conflict. Iran is a very large regional power, with a different culture, language and set of regional interests. Only Egypt has a larger population. Iran's army is considered tops in the region. It has extended its influence through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. For Saudi Arabia, the uprising in Yemen (whether initially supported by Iran or not) is particularly troubling because Saudi Arabia has a large (and religiously oppressed) Shia population in its eastern province bordering Yemen. It does not take much to persuade suspicious Saudis (and the Middle East is famous for its suspicious paranoia) to believe that if a Shia government takes root in Yemen, it will ultimately attract Iranian support and will ultimately serve as a springboard for a similar uprising in Saudi Arabia.
It does not help, of course, that both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are undergoing their own internal transitions that have brought to the fore a new generation of leadership with their own ideas on how to run things.
Further, the shift in U.S. policy away from Israel -- apparently motivated by a combination of personal friction between world leaders and a desire for rapprochement with Iran -- must also suggest to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab states dependent on the U.S. for security that the U.S. has become a weak reed on which to lean. If the U.S. will throw Israel under the bus, they reason, then no US alliance in the region is sacred. This may seem perverse, given how the Arab states have pressed the US to make precisely this change. But if people were rational foreign policy would be a lot simpler.
Again, none of this is to suggest that U.S. policy must therefore remain unchangeable, lest it lead to regional instability. But it does suggest that progressives (and the Obama Administration) need a broader transition plan that goes beyond the idea that a more aggressive policy against Israel and a rapprochement with Iran will automatically reduce tension in the region and create peace. The US cannot, of course, control everything. But we are responsible for our own actions and we are therefore obligated to consider their impact. At a minimum, we should have some contingency planning that reflects the possibility that outcomes might be messier than anticipated.
The previous Administration, and the conservative hawks who supported its policies, failed to consider any possible negative outcomes. For this they have been roundly criticized. Progressives would do well not to make the same mistake, given the benefit of this example.