The following is an edited transcript of the sixty-fourth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held Thursday, April 28, 2011, in the Rayburn House Office Building, with Thomas R. Mattair moderating.
THOMAS MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The uprisings that began in Tunisia in December and have spread across the Arab world since then have much in common. In the broadest sense, they are demands for economic and political change, but they are also protests against regimes that have very different records of governance and very different kinds of relations with the United States. The Obama administration has been accused of having a hesitant and reactive policy, but it has been dealing with numerous opposition movements that have different constellations of political forces, different leaders, different grievances and different agendas that are not always known to anyone, including the Obama administration. That makes it difficult to know who would come to power first and who might come to power later.
The administration has also been dealing with some regimes that have provided much better governance to their people than other regimes and have been much more open to reform. And the administration has been dealing with some regimes that have been allies and some that have been adversaries. U.S. officials have had to think about our ideological national interests, which support more popular political participation in government, but also about our strategic national interests, which include access to oil and gas and dealing with challenges posed by Iran and al-Qaeda. So it may not be very surprising that the administration, which already had a reputation for pragmatism in foreign policy, has not responded in identical ways to each situation. However, it's fair to ask whether its policy choices in different countries have been the best choices it could have made. Should the United States be more supportive of opposition movements in particular countries? Or should the United States be more sympathetic to what's being called, not entirely accurately, counterrevolution?
These are some of the questions we will have to think about today.
ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies
I was in Morocco at a conference on security in North Africa when this began. It was interesting that the delegation from one country began by talking about the major forces for instability in the other; and, by the second day of the conference, the delegation from the country that had talked about the other country had suddenly encountered so much instability in its own country that it was gone. What was also interesting was the total lack of agreement as to the details of the causes of the security problems that each country faced. So, what I'd like to do, rather than focus on individual cases, is to talk about the underlying causes of what is happening in the region and some of the most important causes of this unrest, and why they are likely to be enduring. Whether today's regimes survive or not, the current causes of unrest are likely to outlast this series of political upheavals in far more countries than they are likely to be solved in.
We recently surveyed many of the indicators that can be used to measure instability on a comparative basis. However, I have to qualify what I'm about to say with the fact that one key result of this review was to show how untrustworthy many of the data are. It revealed that the U.S. government has at least four different estimates of basic data like the size of a country's gross domestic product. The World Bank produces wide ranges of indicators for which there is no clear source or measurement you can trust. Groups like the IMF largely ignore key underlying stability problems, and there is no agreement whatsoever on population-growth data and demographics except when somebody goes back to the same source.
Having said that, there are some factors that do seem clear. We're talking about roughly 20 countries, and they do have some things in common. One is that far too often the governing elite of a given MENA country does not meet the needs and expectation of a people whose population has tripled since 1950 and may well double again by 2050. We are talking about countries where people do not perceive the sources of anger or complaints in terms of simple measures. It's not simply poverty. It is not simply discrimination. It is not simply a lack of jobs, corruption or one mix of causes.
There was an interesting warning about these facts in the 2009 Arab Human Development Report. It wasn't a prediction; it was a warning. Although the report focused on economics, it also provided polling data — and it is hard to find meaningful polls in countries in this region — showing that the people in four different MENA countries did not agree on what they worried about most, what they feared most, or how they should prioritize the causes of their concerns. We have seen other polling data that raise very serious questions about the tendency to use words like "democracy" or "justice." Very often people do not share any common perception of what these words mean. It can range from an elite that sees them in very Western terms to people who, when you question them, rapidly transform "democracy" into a strong leader who favors them, where there are no political parties and where elections are a minor luxury. I think this is a warning that any change in regime is going to play out in dangerous ways in some countries, but play out successfully in others.
If we simply look at the history of Western societies, quite aside from the Arab world, we should also remember that the ability to predict the outcome of revolutions is one capability that every expert lacks. History is filled with cases where historians and analysts were consistently wrong in predicting what would happen when regime change occurred. What we see in many cases — far too many — is that the new "revolutionary" regime regresses to a reliance on repression rather than real reform. The rhetoric of reform is easy; measuring in any transparent way whether reform actually occurred is often extremely difficult. When you do try to measure claims for reform, you often find that people say things for which there are no substantial data to support the results they claim to have achieved.
There are some warning indicators. The ability to achieve reform as a result of what some call the "Arab spring" has almost certainly been affected by the steady increase in the size and role of many internal-security forces. Some of that increase preceded 9/11; some of it has since been driven by the pressure of 9/11 on counterterrorism. Some of it has been a factor because there is a rough correlation between the age of a regime and the growth of its internal-security forces. One problem we have is that, for all the talk of area expertise, political science and reporting, there is almost no way to track with any accuracy how this increase has taken place in any give case. The best source I have been able to find are the country reports in the State Department human-rights report. But there are many cases in which these reports rely on inputs from NGOs and other organizations, and where it is clear later that the event either did not happen or could not have happened in that particular way.
What these reports do show, however, tracks with polling data. Polling data show that people resent abuses by internal-security forces when you ask them about their operations, detentions, related trails and court activity, and the general climate of fear they create. This can be disguised by other poll results. If you ask people in many countries about their general impression of the nation's army and police, the polling can be favorable. In most cases, however, when the same poll asks them about security operations and how the police and army actually treat them, whether they take payoffs and are corrupt, the results become far more negative.
Polls only cover a limited number of countries — and many of the most relevant results are from polls that are not publicly released — but they still provide warnings that one of the most serious areas of corruption lies in the courts, both in criminal justice and in civil and property cases. These results are not consistent from country to country, but there are still enough data to act as a warning that many MENA countries do not have a functional rule of law in the Western sense or a clear separation of powers. As the State Department human rights —reports show, most have at least two court systems. The civil and criminal justice system is usually only casually corrupt. That is, you may not get meaningful criminal justice, you may not get an honest resolution of a business dispute, but the system is not dysfunctional. What does exist in virtually every MENA country, however, is a separate court system for security purposes. In most cases, you do not have a normal legal system in the classic sense but rather detentions, arrests, torture or abuses, phony trials, imprisonment, disappearances and forced exiles.
We also need to look across the MENA region and realize that in many countries political parties either have not been allowed to form or do not exist in any real sense. I have to say, as somebody who once blundered into political science, it is interesting to hear Americans casually use the word "democracy" to describe our system. We are actually a republic, not a pure democracy, that relies on the separation of powers into legislative, executive, and judicial branches; that uses elected officials to moderate swings in public opinion; and whose capability to operate as a political society depends on moderate political parties that have generations of experience in actually governing and in acquiring and demonstrating a willingness to give up power. Elections are not a road to our kind of democracy unless these conditions are met. There are very few cases where regime change has been successful when most of these conditions are missing and there have not been prior working political parties and experience with governance and politics. This is a warning that regime change itself can be a recipe for failure, or require several iterations before a functioning form of pluralism can emerge.
Looking beyond this, there is the combined problem of religion and trust. The MENA region has suffered from a long history of failed secularism. Whatever secular governments advocated didn't work, didn't meet the needs of the people, didn't stop the growing disparity in income, and didn't produce the needed expansion of infrastructure, education and government services. Far too often, a wide variety of secular ideologies and promises have failed to met popular expectations — not necessarily their needs, but their expectations. These failures have helped to feed sectarian, ethnic and tribal tensions, over time, not always in ways that end in civil violence, but at least in rhetoric and sometimes in violence as well.
There have been very material failures as well, and you see surprisingly high estimates of the number of people living at the poverty level. And here let me say, like every number I'm going to quote, there is no fully reliable source for such numbers. If you look at the CIA, it does not agree with the State Department, which does not agree with the World Bank, which does not agree with the United Nations. If you look at the background of some of the data, you find that the basic model for collecting them can be anywhere from five to 10 years old. If you accept the CIA data as being roughly correct, however, the Agency issues estimates of 30 percent at the poverty level, subsistence or below — that's $1.25 a day — for an oil country like Libya. The percentage of people at the poverty level is 18 percent in Iran, 25 percent in Iraq, and 45 percent in Yemen. Yet, the vast number of people who are demonstrators and politically active are not in this group because the truly poor don't have the time or ability to act out in demonstrations. The activists and demonstrators tend to be people who are wealthy enough to concentrate on politics, although most seem to share anger at the growing income disparity, lack of employment and opportunity, and favoritism and corruption.
What you also find, if you try to see whether governments have invested in their people, is a massive lack of credible transparency across the region. Partial exceptions are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Morocco. It's interesting when you actually look at the budget and investment and five-year-plan data, to the extent they exist, for their credibility could be described as "lacking."In fact, the content is often missing.
It is hard to assign any weight to the causes of violence and unrest, even in a given country, but this is a problem caused in large part by the nature of autocratic regimes. Governments that are not democratic have the vulnerability that they have no honest politics to warn them about the depth and nature of popular discontent, and few use polling. They may allow some polling, but it's interesting how often such governments do not allow anyone to measure popular grievances.
This also means, however, that when we look at demonstrators in a square or on television, or at people with guns, or at people who are loud or reaching out to the Internet, we take that relatively small fraction of activists too seriously, without knowing what the people as a whole think. Iran is an interesting case in point. If you read through recent media, you find all kinds of comment about the Internet and tweeting, and popular unrest and opposition to the Iranian regime. Fair enough. There was such activity, and we saw a lot of it. However, if you look at five to six different polls of Iranians — some admittedly of dubious credibility —you find that all showed there was surprisingly broad support in Iran for the election and the regime because such polls went beyond the demonstrators that were visible. However, does the Iranian regime even have a reliable picture of popular attitudes, anger and discontent? It seems doubtful, and that is probably true of most regimes in the MENA area.
For some reason, there has been relatively little attention to the influence of demographics in much of the discussion of current unrest. The data on population growth, however, are truly frightening, and perhaps my colleague from George Mason is going to comment on this as well. You cannot have a threefold increase in population in virtually every country in the region between 1950 and 2010 and meet popular needs and expectations. This creates cumulative pressure for change year by year, and this drives the views of large parts of very young populations. We also see figures that sometimes can exceed 30 percent unemployment for males under 25. The situation is worse for women, but women are often not properly included in these statistics. Moreover, unemployment often seems to peak among the young virtually regardless of education. We don't have precise data, but going to secondary school and university does not get young men (and especially young women) the kinds of jobs they want or are qualified for.
We have some preliminary data that warn about another growing source of discontent: Can young men and women afford to get married and buy a house? The answer, far too often, is no. Some governments, like Morocco's, have made housing a major priority. When Saudi Arabia's king issued a series of royal decrees to help avoid a crisis in the kingdom, he put a massive emphasis on both employment and housing. He did so because population pressure not only affects jobs in the MENA area, but helps create a major deficit in housing, particularly for young couples.
Discontent and anger are reinforced by the impact of hyper-urbanization, which often means cities grow at rates that exceed the capacity of utilities and government services and create sprawling new slums. You look at satellite photography, and you see in far too many cities with large slum areas that governments simply ignore or do not properly serve. The level of urbanization has to have a radical impact on MENA societies, although it seems to get very little study. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the CIA estimates that urbanization went from 8 percent in 1950 to 85 percent today. Even when a nation like Saudi Arabia does create a major housing program, this still has to make talking about traditional societies somewhat dangerous. It has to be a far greater source of discontent in countries that do not properly react to try to meet the combined impact of population growth, migration and socioeconomic change.
You also look at the Middle East and see some very surprising realities in terms of states that have a very low per capita income. You can't always translate economics into unrest, particularly when you can't get useful data on the details of the growing disparity in incomes between the rich elite and most of the nation, but you can say that a country with a very low average per capita income is under stress. Moreover, when the per capita income is low enough, you can be sure that such a state is going to have economic problems for at least half a decade into the future, regardless of how the regime changes.
Let me illustrate just how serious this problem is in the MENA region by quoting a few CIA rankings comparing how countries in the region compare to other countries in the world. Qatar ranks number one or two in the world in GDP per capita. Algeria ranks 128th, Iran ranks 100th, Iraq ranks 160th, Libya ranks 85th, Oman ranks 52nd, Saudi Arabia ranks 55th, Yemen ranks 172nd, and Jordan ranks 141st. It is all too obvious that oil exports do not bring wealth. Many MENA states would rank low even if average per capita income did not disguise such sharp disparities in the real-world distribution of income.
Such data are only one input to the problem. Bahrain, which has been the source of so much unrest, ranks 19th. So, whenever we talk about economic causes, income and employment alone are not clear warnings of the level of discontent. National perceptions and unrest are driven at least as much by income disparity, perceptions of unfairness, perceptions of corruption, perceptions of nepotism, and perceptions that people are denied a fair opportunity and hope for the a future. If you're young, you feel you have nowhere to go, and if you have children, you fear that they have nowhere to go.
There is no common cause of today's unrest, but the sheer scale of many of its causes is also a warning that, even where regime change takes place, as many new regimes may fail as succeed. Calling for reform doesn't mean people know what they want. Calling for a new government may mean they share a common anger and lack of support for the regime, but it does not mean that they even agree on what they are against, much less on what they are for.
The various indicators we have also warn that many regimes that do survive are probably going to go on repeating their mistakes until they are forcibly changed by some new wave of unrest, and then only after all of these problems and pressures have had time to grow worse. The regimes that do make efforts to come to grips with these all issues are also going to need time and popular trust. They not only will need to develop real competence in governance, they will have to be far more transparent and move far more aggressively to win public support, because in all but the wealthiest oil exporters, these problems are far too deep to deal with quickly. Unless current and new regimes can bring their people along with them in an evolutionary way, the regime is not going to have the time and support to fix anything. Many new regimes will either fail or be forced to turn to another round of repression.
If you look for historical parallels, there will still be some "1789s" in the Middle East, but my guess is that there will be a lot more "1848s." The new regime will fail or the old regime will survive at a cost to its people. The full scope of what people are all too easily calling the "Arab spring" will play out over a period of years and lead to new struggles that play out 10, 20, 30 and 40 years into the future.
I realize that all of this has dealt with broad trends, so let me illustrate my points by making some quick predictions of what these combinations of factors may do in the Gulf:
• Bahrain: failed reform, continued repression, sectarian division, and blaming Iran for the mistakes of the prime minister and the cadre around him.
• Kuwait: already bound up by Islamic and service politics, sectarianism, splits in the royal family, but having so much money it really may not matter all that much. So far, however, "democracy"has come closer to paralysis than success.
• Iran: a steady increase in the role of the security services matched by a steady increase in economic problems and popular resentment and anger. As yet, the backlash is not that great, but Iran's increasingly authoritarian elite is making sufficient numbers of ongoing mistakes that things will get steadily worse and more unstable for the foreseeable future.
• Iraq: no sector of the economy on a path to stable reform or growth, with the possible exception of the petroleum industry, and even that is uncertain. Democracy is semi-functional; the rule of law is not functional. Where this is headed is up in the air. It may work out; it may not. We should be neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but the Iraqi people as yet have little to show by way of politics and governance that provide a convincing road to success.
• Oman: trying. The elite is aging. Population growth and overdependence on foreign labor are serious problems. Looking at the planning structure, they probably need a little, shall we say, "generational change." Hopefully, the sultan has begun, but no one can predict if he will take enough action to succeed.
• Qatar: well run, good planning structure, some moves toward reform. With that much money, how can you go wrong?
• Saudi Arabia: extremely conservative and does not share a lot of Western social values. But what's striking about Saudi Arabia is that the government has invested more money with more effectiveness in meeting the immediate needs of the people than any other regime in the Arab world. Providing effective governance and investing in the people may well give the regime —and Saudi Arabia's people — time to evolve.
• The UAE: too rich and with too few natives to fail. Its steadily growing reliance on outside labor may well, however, make it the most successful South Asian country in the Middle East.
• Yemen: one of the cases where even the World Bank may have to abandon hope. There simply does not seem to be a credible model that gets any future regime out from under the weight of Yemen's demographic, economic, water and other issues.
Let me conclude by focusing on U.S. policy. Tom raised the issue of how we such address today's unrest and pressures for change. I think one clear point is that nothing that happens by way of immediate regime change or initial efforts at reform is going to be enough. Another clear point is that the United States cannot force adequate reform and change from the outside. Yet, if we are not prepared to work with each country on its own terms, hoping for most regimes to solve a nation's problems is not realistic. Moreover, focusing on elections and short-term results will fail as well. Talking about sending in the International Republican Institute or its Democratic equivalent to spread instant democracy failed dismally in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it will fail again if we limit ourselves to that kind of solution to the region's problems. We need to create strong country teams and embassy-led efforts to work with each new and reforming regime over a period of years that may extend to a decade. Providing the transfer of advice, planning and training will often be far more important than money.
We also need realism and pragmatism in serving our own interests. With this much instability, we will have to act in our own interests and do soon on a country-by-country basis We're going to have to look at our security interests over time and make some hard choices between countries in a climate where, quite frankly, there is less and less domestic political support for patient and effective efforts by the State Department, the expansion of country teams, and the kind of aid funding that could actually work over time. At the same time, we need to consider whether the pressures to cut aid and our involvement overseas can serve our national interests if we want to help create the level of stability and security that we need as much as critical MENA countries do.
BARAK BARFI, Research Fellow, New America Foundation
I agree with everything that Dr. Cordesman has said and I want to start with just a few basic points about the region before I talk about what I have seen, in each country. First, the term "Hama Rules,"which Thomas Friedman came up with in 1982. They basically say that a dictator can massacre his people in the Middle East. These were the rules that were played by when President Hafez al-Asad killed about 10,000-15,000 people who were rebelling in the Syrian city of Hama. That was a unique experience in the Middle East. There were minority Alawis oppressing the majority Sunnis. No one has really been able to replicate that in the Middle East. I'm more apt to agree with the view that sees the Arab leader as a tribal sheikh, as the Islamic historian Yaqubi described the founder of the Umayyad Dynasty: He threatens and he promises. He cajoles, flatters and threatens in order to achieve policy objectives rather than using brute force. Violence is only a tool that he uses to achieve broader aims, and it is not the only one.
There has been a long debate in Middle East circles about whether the Arabs were like us, whether their values were universal or not. This is the idea embodied in Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. It now appears that the Arabs love freedom as much as we do. The differences between the two civilizations is not very large. H. A. R. Gibb's theories about development seem much more apt today. That said, it remains to be seen whether the Arabs will embrace new modern values or remain wedded to their traditional, neo-patriarchal ones, as Hisham Sharabi discussed in his book.
I want to talk now about the countries I have visited in the last six weeks and then talk about Yemen. First, in Egypt, the revolution shocked many. A lot of people outside Tahrir Square couldn't stand the instability. They kept saying, this is not Egypt; this is not who we are. They were very frustrated. This was especially true outside the square, beyond television cameras. Many Cairenes outside the square were frustrated with the protesters because of the damage to the economy. And Mubarak had some support in society. There were people who, even in the last days, were still saying, Gamal [Mubarak] could be a good president. And it wasn't just isolated cases. You were seeing this throughout Cairo. In the early days of the revolution, many in the West spoke of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover and feared an Iranian revolution redux. That was exaggerated, but the Cairenes I spoke to fear a religious takeover and the loss of their liberties. Appreciating these concerns, the Muslim Brotherhood decided not to seek absolute power — not to run candidates in more than half the districts so that they wouldn't receive an absolute majority.
That said, we have seen an upswing in religiosity among Islamic groups. The end of the Mubarak era and its policy of religious containment has led to the emergence of new and old religious groups. Salafists, who historically have tried to shun politics, publicly emerged and took a vocal position during the referendum on amending the constitution. We've also seen radical groups that engaged in terrorism in the past, such as the Gamaa al-Islamiyya, declare that they want to transition into political parties.
On the subject of Israel, I found that people still support the peace treaty, the Camp David Accords. They don't really want war, but they claim that Israel is violating this treaty, and they want Israel to abide by it. Populist politicians who have low poll numbers will probably seek to exploit the issue and use it to their advantage in elections. We're already seeing this with people like Ayman Nour. But the military will never allow a civilian government to annul the treaty, because it brings in the latest military technology and about $1.3 billion in aid.
When we look to the future and the future leader, there are only a few choices. Amr Moussa must be considered the front-runner in the presidential elections. He's been in the media spotlight since he became foreign minister in 1991. Ten years later he was named secretary general of the Arab League. This means that a generation of Egyptians grew up knowing him on a first-name basis. He won the admiration of his countrymen when he stood up to Israel during the peace process years of the 1990s. The Israelis were so frustrated with Amr Moussa that they circulated a government document around April 1995 that said, "There were ill winds blowing in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry." This was much like Dominique de Villepin in France leading the charge against the U.S. invasion in Iraq in 2003. It made him very, very popular among his countrymen. Finally, Amr Moussa has not been associated with the regime for the last decade, leaving him free of accusations of corruption.
Another contender is Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian chemist who won the Nobel Prize. He's very respected in society, but the fact that he took American citizenship hurts him much more than the fact that he spent time abroad. The West was talking of Mohamed ElBaradei for a year before the revolution, but he's proved completely inept at politics, aloof and far too urbane for the average Egyptian, who is fond of humor. Many Egyptians consider him a foreigner for the decades that he spent abroad. His name recognition is usually tied to the regime's placing him in the spotlight when he was IAEA chief. His potshots at the United States have not won him a lot of support recently. Ayman Nour, the final candidate, enjoys almost no support and will not be a factor in the presidential elections, although the parliamentary elections could be something else.
I was also able to spend some time in Bahrain. The idea of Iranian involvement there is completely overblown. The mullahs gave up trying to export the revolution to Bahrain in the early 1980s. The island's Shia view themselves as Arabs, limiting their feelings of kinship to Iran to merely religious factors. Many Shia travel to Iran, but only to study and to visit religious shrines. They don't really buy into Ayatollah Khomeini's ideology. During my time in Bahrain, I didn't see any Iranian flags or pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini or Khamenei or Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. I did, however, see the Bahrainis chanting slogans like, "This nation is not for sale. Brothers, Sunni and Shia." The mainstream opposition party, al-Wefeq, looks to Arab religious leaders known as marjas rather than Iranian ones. Those who look to Iran for guidance are on the fringes of the political spectrum and do not have much support.
The Saudis used events in Bahrain to send a signal to their own population, the Americans and the Iranians. They were not going to allow their clients, the Al Khalifa family in Bahrain, to fall or get damaged. Bahrain has been Saudi Arabia's best friend in the Gulf Cooperation Council and votes with Riyadh all the time. The Saudi regime has propped up Bahrain for decades with financial support. A challenge to the Al Khalifas could have altered the balance of power within the GCC and tilted it in favor of the Qataris. Shia power in Bahrain could also have emboldened Saudi Shia, who are just across the causeway in the Eastern province. Any weakening of Bahrain's Sunni leadership would have been a victory for Iran in the Saudi-Iranian proxy context that is emerging in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Looking forward, the situation in Bahrain has reached depths never before seen during previous unrest in the 1920s, '50s, '70s and '90s. It will take a long time to repair the damage. Sunnis are afraid to travel to Shia areas. They no longer speak with their Shia friends. Shia people were picked up in the hospitals and taken to interrogation quarters. State television brought on guests who questioned the loyalty of the Shia. The main opposition party, al-Wefeq, has lost a lot of its credibility on the streets. The younger generation will be drawn to fringe parties, such as al-Haq, which advocate no compromise with the regime. Crown Prince Salman, the island's leading voice of reconciliation, is in the same position as al-Wefeq and has lost most of his influence and credibility. In short, the battle may be over in Bahrain, but the hostility will endure. Though the regime is pro-United States, and Washington has not backed the protesters, the Shia are not anti-U.S. They have conflicting feelings and don't understand why the United States didn't back their stand. But there's little chance that they will attack American interests, as happened during the protests following the Israeli incursion into the West Bank in April 2002.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh overplayed his hand when he resorted to violence on March 18. General Ali Mohsen proved himself to be the true power behind the throne when he defected and essentially signaled the end of the Saleh era. Even members of counterterrorism units run by Saleh's nephews sided with the protesters. At this point, Saleh is being propped up by his money, having lost all his military and tribal backing. Saleh did not understand that the rules of the game have changed. The tactics that he used in the past — negotiating in bad faith and turning the tables against his interlocutors — is over. People are focused on one thing: getting rid of him. They're adamant that he go, and they won't leave the streets until he does. As a result, his room to maneuver is quite limited, and the dignified exit he seeks will be refused him.
The opposition has been all over the board in this game. They were slow to respond to the initial protests and then moved to embrace them, to gain some respect. Now they've lost it all by accepting a deal with Saleh, allowing him to remain president until the parliament accepts his resignation. The backroom deal among Yemen's power brokers smacks of everything that the Yemeni protesters want to get rid of.
Yemen does not interest the United States as much as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula does, and with the Yemeni military focusing its weapons on other military units, AQAP is free to plot attacks, strengthen existing relationships with its hosts, and develop new strongholds. The organization has proved itself very adept and doesn't need a large window of opportunity to score. But now that it has been offered more than that, it will be able to exploit the instability. Time to think and plot will translate into more creative attacks that have become the hallmark of the most lethal al-Qaeda affiliate.
Iran had emerged as the big winner of the Arab Spring until events heated up in Syria. The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was a tremendous coup for Tehran. He had "visceral hatred"of Iran, according to American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. He feared its religious radicalism would spread to Egypt. He loathed the Shia and saw them as a fifth column in the Arab world. When Hezbollah operatives were caught plotting in Egypt in 2009, they confirmed his worst fears. Mubarak stood with the United States and Saudi Arabia to contain Iranian influence. His successor is sure to take a more conciliatory view towards Iran. Any new Egyptian policy towards Iran will serve as progress. Mubarak's fall leaves Saudi Arabia standing alone as a counterweight to Iran.
In Bahrain, there was little the Iranians could do because they didn't have an operational network on the island or many supporters there. Despite the crushing defeat for the Shia, Iran emerged somewhat victorious, if only because there's so much enmity directed at the Sunni powers among the Shia. In the zero-sum game that characterizes the Middle East, any defeat of pro-American regimes must be viewed as a victory for Iran.
I want to finish by talking a little bit about the United States and its role in the protests. There is the notion in the United States that America can really influence events on the ground and persuade people to go into the streets or not. We saw this in the criticism of President Obama in June 2009 during the Iranian election protests and the aftermath of the elections. We heard it again during the Egyptian protests. I spoke to protesters in Egypt and Bahrain, and they're not taking their cues from the White House. They're taking their cues from the pent-up anger and frustration that Anthony Cordesman spoke about in his remarks. If President Obama tells them to go into the street, they're not going to go into the street. During the years of the Palestinian intifada, I never heard a Palestinian say he didn't go into the street because President Bush didn't want him to. He went into the street because that's what he felt moved to do. The ability of the president of the United States to influence what people think on the ground is somewhat limited.
Just one last point. I'm hearing that the Israelis are asking the United States not to put pressure on Syria and the Asad regime. I'm not sure where they're getting this information; the Israelis I spoke to in senior positions are quite happy to see political instability in Syria and some damage to the Asad regime.
What I'm seeing on the ground in Libya is joy that the Qadhafi era is over. People have a lot of faith in the National Transitional Council and the politicians there. But if the council is not able to make progress on the battlefront and address the burgeoning economic concerns that will arise in the next few months, people are sure to become frustrated and turn on it. So it's in the interest of America and the West to help the council at this point. People are frustrated with NATO. They don't understand why NATO can't strike all the time. They're always asking foreigners about this. They're also very frustrated that all they hear coming out of America is, are these people al-Qaeda or not? They're always asking us to tell Obama there is no al-Qaeda in Libya, that they just want their freedom. The fighters there are just average people — plumbers, teachers, petrochemical engineers — who go to the front and just want to fight for their freedom.
BASSAM HADDAD, Director, Middle East Studies Program, George Mason University
It is probably too early to make too many statements about what is going on in the region; it's best to stick to preliminary claims or observations. We do know that what we are witnessing, even in cases like Tunisia and Egypt, is not a revolution, however. Neither is it complete regime change. But this is not a pessimistic analysis, judging from a historical perspective. I'm not going to go into why this is the case. I assume we all recognize that these things take time and perhaps are not fast enough for the Facebook revolution. But what we are witnessing is simply a resumption of politics as usual in places like Tunisia and Egypt and perhaps more genuine levels of participation and contestation, which might lead in various directions and might involve reversals.
I would like to begin by critiquing the snapshot view of the uprisings and address the heterogeneity of cases discussed by my fellow panelists. First, it is important for us to recognize that many of us have a snapshot view of what's happening. Even Middle East analysts like myself are not as aware as we would like to be of all of these uprisings. But somehow we try to put everything in a particular mold, and that produces problematic analysis. It's better to hesitate sometimes before making claims regarding regional-level issues or generalizations regarding countries that we assume are going in this or that direction, without having studied and read about what's been happening for the past 30 years. These years were filled with what we are seeing today, including the contradictions, which do not make sense without looking at this history.
The second point is the heterogeneity of cases. We are looking at a region that involves a vast difference among countries in terms of their particular economies, social structure, external relations, internal regional diversity, internal communal diversity, sectarian diversity and so on. In Egypt we saw people centered in Tahrir Square, for instance. Syria is a case where we have a completely different pattern of protest that is nowhere near the center of Damascus. There are many much more significant differences.
I just wanted to say those words at the outset so that we can pause and be humbled regarding our broad generalizations. We do know there are numerous political and economic causes that have been brewing for decades in the region, waiting for a spark to ignite protests in a variety of Arab countries. But we cannot reduce the protests, revolts or revolutions to political and economic causes, though many have been doing so. I'm glad to see that some of the comments made today also were critical of this idea that poverty or even inequality or political repression alone can produce these outcomes. You have poverty everywhere, you have political repression everywhere, not just in the Middle East. You have inequity, you have social injustice, but it doesn't produce these things automatically.
Authoritarian rule did not just violate rights and impoverish large segments of the population. It also crushed sensibilities and destroyed spirits. More than the existence of this or that factor, it is the combination of frustrations on multiple levels, with no exit in sight, that made these societies ripe for an imminent uprising. And "ripe" doesn't necessarily mean that it will happen automatically, of course. In fact, the biggest elephant in the room — that is rarely discussed because perhaps it is not sexy to talk about on television and serious research has not been produced yet — is not a product of authoritarian policies or imperialism or even Israel. It is demographics, the youth bulge in the Arab world.
Syria is a prime example; more than 25 to 30 percent of the population is between 15 and 25, depending on the sources you cite. Every year in Syria, as in other countries in the region, depending on population size of course, more than 250,000 people enter a job market that is not providing for existing job seekers. So, for the past 10 to 15 years, we have had an army of people who are just lounging, waiting for an opportunity. This is something that does not, in itself, cause protests, but if something is sparked, as in the case of Tunisia, there are people ready to go to the streets, because they have very little to lose — and because of a host of other factors, including the domino effect.
It's very important to realize that people would not have been able to step into the streets in Syria had there not been Tunisia and Egypt and the other cases. This is analytically very important. It tells us a lot about the connectedness within the region, despite the obvious differences; and it tells us a lot about the psychological barriers to transforming internal discontent and frustration to something public. The objective requirements for mass mobilization were all there in the late 1990s, after decades of a combination of repressive rule and lack of economic opportunity. This is true, for the most part, across the Arab world, with the exception of some of the oil-rich countries, which have been able to provide the basic necessities for their populations, as well as being places where explicit violence was not the norm.
A few events prolonged this state of pent-up frustration from the '90s and early 2000s, including the attacks of September 11, 2001. Of course, the effect was different in many cases because the attacks also provided the opportunity for many of the rulers in the region to fight their "opposition" legitimately in the name of fighting terrorism. The invasion of Iraq, the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, and the 2009 bombardment campaign by Israel against Hamas postponed what we are viewing today. Countries in the region were affected differently.
What we saw in Tunisia in January is something not one of us predicted. In fact, even those of us who predicted an imminent fall did not predict it would start in Tunisia. I've done quite a bit of research and I don't know of any single analyst who predicted that this would happen this early — and, if they did, they did not predict that it would happen in Tunisia. This speaks to the importance of being careful and taking a pause before making statements. I myself might be overstepping this caution. Tunisia is far removed from the Levantine events that I shared with you. What seemed to hamper movement in the direction of protest in Tunisia and beyond was the fact that people were accustomed to respecting the wall of fear.
This is, again, one important variable; it's not "the" variable. They respected the wall of fear on perfectly rational grounds. Once the psychological barrier was broken, the rest of the story was a matter of time for many such countries, where the so-called objective conditions for protest or revolt were ripe. Syria is certainly a case in point. And though the revolt and the consequences in Egypt are great, considering Egypt's position in the region, Syria's uprisings and their implications are no less consequential. And I dare say, more dramatic, considering what Syria symbolizes for many in the aftermath of Camp David and the destruction of Iraq, twice.
Syria's situation appears from afar to be somewhat enigmatic, but it is not so for long-term followers of developments there. Decades of oppressive rule, complemented in the last 20 years with the rolling back of the welfare state, have produced the kinds of disturbances to Hafez al-Asad's strategy of leveling egalitarianism that the Syrian regime was never likely to withstand for too long. The fact that the Syrian regime accumulated a relatively higher level of what we can call nationalist credentials was not sufficient to prevent or subvert protest, certainly not when Syrian soldiers and secret-service officers were shooting and killing Syrians.
This relatively higher level of nationalist credentials, which is actually touted by many inside and outside the regime, was acquired in part because Syria, as opposed to many states in the region, did not accept prescriptions or conditionalities from international financial institutions like the IMF or the World Bank. Syria today does not have formal relations with these institutions. More significantly, however, Syria is perhaps the last bastion of anti-imperialism in the region at the level of states, and a secular one at that. This is often referred to as Syria's confrontational stance vis-à -vis Israel's policies and U.S. dominance in the region. Thus, Syria has represented more than itself or the regime. It became a symbol of resistance to the unprincipled policies of the United States and the apartheid-like existence of Israel. The fact that the Syrian regime exaggerates the import of this symbolism and has squandered much of this political capital by actively mimicking the brutality of both the United States and Israel in the region when it sought to appeal to this nationalist reservoir does not mean that these credentials do not exist at some level.
It would be a big mistake to discard this factor completely when it comes to regional variables. We are seeing this at play when we compare Syria and Libya, where the fall of Qadhafi — or even of Ben Ali in Tunisia — is simply the fall of one man, whereas the fall of Syria is more complex as a result of Syria's alliances. We will see as time goes by that this conflict within Syria is going to be transferred, at some level, to the regional and perhaps even the international realm.
However, as we saw in the case of Egypt, this anti-imperialism dimension is not what these protests are about. These are local protests against local symbols of prolonged repression and stagnation. The resistance factor plays a more dominant role among publics outside Syria, which explains the relative quiet among the left and center segments of the political spectrum in the region, compared to their vociferous condemnation of the other regimes. Ultimately the Syrian regime has always been more fragile when it came to its domestic policies. And,despite the regime's narrative of external infiltration, the protests are certainly about domestic policies.
Rest assured, however, that the time will come in both Egypt and post-Asad Syria for dealing with Israel and the United States and other topics in the region. Just as there will likely be no return to the sort of repression we have witnessed in the region for decades, there will also be no return to the weak and pathetic stance many of these regimes had adopted vis-à -vis the United States and Israel, at least not any time soon.
What remains is a discussion of how Syria might differ from its Arab counterparts in terms of regime-protester dynamics. I would like to address this at three levels and then say a couple words about policy. What is significant about the Syrian regime is a whole set of factors. The most significant difference between the Syrian regime and the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes is that the lack of an organic regime structure in Egypt and Tunisia does not hold in Syria. The Syrian regime is far more organic internally, at least at the middle and top levels. The higher you go, the more you'll find an organic regime, not one in which some sort of authority other than the top leadership can step in and resolve conflict or transit into something else by removing the head or symbol of power. This is simply not possible in Syria. It's a ship that will either sink or float, however badly.
This informs the strategies of the top leadership. The kind of zero-sum game you see unfolding on Syrian streets between the regime and the opposition is very much a posture that is reflective of that reality. I could be wrong, but I would be extremely surprised if we see cracks at the top. Any cracks will be resolved internally and the ship will keep on moving in whatever direction the victor decides. But we will not see a split between institutional components, the top security services to the top army officials.
Second, there are a number of things we can say about the opposition and the protesters in Syria. Perhaps the most significant starting point is the fact that, in the past 20 or 30 years, the kind of connectedness among individuals in Syria is very different from those in Egypt,for example. In Egypt, civil-society expansion and various civil and political rights were extended. In Syria, this has not been the case. In fact, the atomization of Syrian society into individuals who stay away from politics for rational reasons having to do with fear still colors the Syrian polity today.
Therefore, we see that the protesters or the opposition are united against something, but there is very little indication that they are united for something. That has strategic implications for how things unfold on the ground. As a result, the opposition is somewhat fragmented. It does not have a clear systematic strategy or means of communication, which is evident in the siege of Daraa, which seems to be becoming a model for other cities. You know things are getting really nasty when regimes begin to emulate Israel in its siege of Gaza, for instance. And this is likely to continue if other factors, such as international or regional interference, do not bear fruit. So the protesters are likely to become more and more fragmented; attempts at connecting might not even be feasible within the opposition. The other issue is that the opposition has not yet resorted to violence. This is good; violence will justify and legitimize responses that make what we have seen recently look like a picnic.
One other factor is outside support. If the United States or other countries try to support the opposition, I think it might backfire because of the nature of the Syrian polity. The organic Syrian opposition, for instance, vehemently refuses to support countries like the United States because it will delegitimize them. This is a bit of a different situation than in the other cases.
In terms of the society at large and divisions within it, of course, this does not prevent a coup d'état or a change in regime. But what makes it very complex is that Syrian society is made up of a variety of groups. We can call them sects or communities. I try to avoid calling them sects because that lends itself to the sectarian argument, which I reject. But Syrian society is quite heterogeneous, and in its natural state it's very difficult for groups to come together to define what they want. It's much easier to come together to define what they do not want. This is one of the reasons why, despite the tens of thousands of protesters, millions of Syrians who do not like and perhaps even detest the regime are not going into the streets. It is not because of support for the regime but because of fear of the unknown, something that could produce the kind of chaos Syrians still remember from what happened next door in Iraq or what is happening today in Libya.
So the regime has opportunities to drive a wedge between the protesters and to reduce the flow of Syrians into the streets. Of course, the continuing violence by the regime is likely to spin all these variables I discussed out of control and bring more and more people into the streets despite these seeming impediments. There is a threshold of violence, but I do not know what the threshold is. I do know that, if it's crossed, a lot of these cautionary statements will dissipate.
What does the United States need to do with respect to foreign policy in Syria or in the region at this time? We need to ask ourselves a couple of questions. On what basis are we making policy recommendations? Are we assuming that continuity is desirable? Or should we rethink the basis of U.S. policy in the region? The current uprisings, in my view, coupled with what has happened in the United States over the past 10 years including what happened to the economy in 2008, signal that it is high time for the United States to reconsider the basis of foreign policy — not necessarily foreign policy itself, as things don't change that quickly and perhaps shouldn't.
I have no illusions that social justice will even have a place in a reconsideration of the basis of U.S. foreign policy. This is not something that sane analysts would advocate. My fear, however, is that even rationality will be sacrificed, yet again. I mean at least holding back forces that exact undue influence on U.S. foreign policy at a time when the world is changing and the United States is no longer on top of the world without potential rivals. Absent rationality, do not bother to introduce any social-justice concerns, but I think it is prudent to recognize that there is this other player in the Middle East, even if it's embryonic: people power. This is something I think we must contend with, especially if we're looking at the long term, not just at the next presidency or the next election.
Karim Mezran, Director, Center for American Studies, Rome
After these great speakers, it's quite challenging for me to come up and say something that will interest you. So I'll stick to Libya and bring up a few policy points to discuss. I live in Europe and the Middle East, so I'm highly influenced by European perceptions about what is happening. There are two points that I haven't seen analyzed much here. The first point is that finally, after many, many years of joking about it, the Arab press and the Arab street have come into the picture. People have taken into their own hands, for whatever reasons, the decision to revolt against regimes. This is something we've been accustomed to seeing in other parts of the world, but not in the Middle East. Second, in regard to U.S. foreign policy, while I agree completely with Barak Barfi that none of the Arabs went to the streets because President Obama told them to, the perception was that, for the first time, something has changed, at least apparently.
The impression is that, for the first time the old saying, "He's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch," has been changed. The United States will not stand by a dictator when he is attacked or contested or revolted against by his own people. Policy will change the moment good governance is not true anymore. This is probably one of the reasons that, in Europe, they think there is imitation of one country by another. They think there won't be much reaction against it.
The debate on Libya has also been focused, until very recently, on why it has happened: What was the genesis of this revolt? Was it natural? Was it spontaneous? Was it guided? Was it the fruit of somebody else's interference in domestic affairs? This has been discussed a lot; journal articles have been written about strange connections here and there. But I would like to stay away from that and get directly into what is happening today. I think that the situation is getting bad and becoming a stalemate. It is important that we find a way out that does not imply the complete destruction of the country. For many people I talk to this is an almost inevitable trend: The choice has been made to go to war, and that's the only possible solution.
What is happening is that the insurgents — the rebels, the patriots, whatever you want to call them — are mainly concentrated in Cyrenaica. These are mostly young people, professionals and so on, supported by this international coalition led with a lot of enthusiasm by France and England — and with much less enthusiasm by other actors, such as the United States. Bringing up the rear is the government of Italy, which has no clue about what's going on in its former colony and its most important export market. The French are furnishing weapons, technology, and now more instructors. We know that there have been more before, but officially they're just coming in right now. Bombing is happening and raids are occurring, not only the coastal cities, but also in the interior. We have reports of bombings even down south through Sabha and other cities.
At this point, it seems clear that the transitional council of Benghazi, and troops and volunteers, are capable of holding on to the port of Cyrenaica, but not much more than that. These troops are undisciplined, poorly trained and disorganized; they control less than a third of the territory and much less of its resources. There is an incredible number of rivalries among self-appointed members of the council. Nobody really knows who controls the troops.
The situation in Tripolitania is even more delicate than that. Strange as it seems, the army has held its ground. The soldiers are fighting, the officers are not defecting for the most part. The much-vaunted mercenaries do constitute a part of these troops, but a minimal part. Qadhafi has shown that he has minimal, but some, consensus around his government, at least in the region. He has kept control over the southern part of the country. Fezzan is still largely in his hands, and the troops are intact there. Nobody knows what to do. They seem to be loyal to the government and they're still there, untouched. Tactically, this means that Qadhafi has a way out down south, where money, weapons and mercenaries can keep on coming in. Therefore, the barrier in the northern part of the country is almost meaningless — along with the embargo, which is also considered to be important.
The vast majority of the citizens of Tripolitania are somewhat supportive of the regime. They would prefer to be governed by Qadhafi rather than trading him with someone who has served in his regime but is from Cyrenaica. There are rumours about groups and gangs preparing for guerrilla if troops of the Transitional Council were to arrive in Tripoli.
In Tripolitania, there is a strongly held belief that the revolt was spontaneous, but it triggered an attempted coup d'état that was organized months before by France and traitors within the regime. So the idea is that this is a Cyrenaican affair, something that happened there: "They want to overturn the balance of power; we are not going to accept it."This is a widely held belief. Other people say that there is the perception, within the inner entourage of Qadhafi, that the war can be won, that there is no way that the West will intervene militarily in an effective enough way to get to Tripoli and conquer the country. I don't think this is true. There is heavy pressure within the same circles and a realization that the era is finished, that the regime is over, and a way out has to be found or created.
The fact that the troops are holding their ground doesn't mean much, nor does the rhetoric through which the regime is aggressively presenting itself in the press. This has always been the case. It's typical of the regime and its personalities. You shoot very high, but on the ground, you act differently. Therefore, I don't think the dominant perception within the regime is one of victory. It's that there is a stalemate, and they can hold their ground until something happens. They're not working for anything to happen; they're waiting for something to happen from the outside.
Another point should be made. As things stand, I do not think, even if Qadhafi is killed, the regime implodes, and people from the transitional council of Benghazi are parachuted by the French into Tripoli victorious, that this will mean the unification of Libya, peace and reconstruction. I actually believe that it will mean the opposite. The scenario in my mind is Iraq. We entered with the belief that removing Saddam Hussein and disbanding the army would bring democracy and everybody would be happy. Mutatis mutandis, the same thing would then happen to Libya. I don't think that will happen. I'm highly pessimistic that either a stalemate or a sudden victory of the Benghazi council will solve anything. The other possibility, Qadhafi's holding out, I don't even take into consideration. In my opinion, there is absolutely no way that the regime can survive. If it ever had a reason for being, it has definitely been exhausted.
I do not think that a serious attempt to offer Qadhafi a negotiated way out has been attempted. The African Union attempt was not done properly and was not intended to succeed. One has to understand the inner workings of this regime; one has to understand the dynamics of the elite group and the dynamics of Qadhafi as a man. Never believe that Qadhafi is crazy or that he was out of touch with reality. He is like any other dictator: he wants to live; he doesn't want to die.
A negotiated offer should be made that would save his face, but at the same time prevent him from having any role in the future of Libya. That can only be done by the United States. A negotiated offer should be made that would convince him to leave power and to remain in Libya in total isolation in Sirte or Sabha or any other Libyan city or location. He should be kept isolated without the possibility of contacting anybody in Libya. Qadhafi has to leave his role, and somebody in the transitional situation has to take power on his behalf in Libya — a figure less tainted than he is, who is part of the inner dealings of the regime, but who could hold his ground. The most important thing is for the army to be reassured that somebody will take over the administration of power, maintain whatever structures there are, and maintain the army. There needs to be somebody to guarantee the continuation of the government for weeks or months to start negotiations with the transitional council of Benghazi.
At this point, history can help. Libya was created by the United Nations many, many years ago, and I think that there could be a role for the United Nations to intervene with a commission like the one Adrian Pelt organized at the end of the '40s and early '50s that led to the independence of Libya. Such a commission would be able to select a number of representative Libyans, people who have not been part of the regime but have, because of their family, tribe, charisma or social position, enough standing to be able to represent the whole of the Libyan nation. They would form a commission to draft a constitution and act as a transitional government under the protection of the United Nations. The new constitution would be drafted and, after a certain period, elections held.
I understand that this might be a difficult and complicated plan in many respects, but it's the only alternative for diplomacy to play a role instead of war. What we see otherwise is a tragedy waiting to happen: the complete destruction of what is left of Libya. If no negotiated way out is offered to the regime, we're going to see a few weeks, if not months, of heavy bombing, of fighting, of stalemate, of breakdown of civil order in most parts of Tripolitania — a civil war.
One last point. Whenever I speak about this, it provokes a reaction: This is not in the national interest of the United States. The idea of leaving Qadhafi in Libya is also alien to most diplomats and politicians. I agree that it's not a vital interest of the United States. I also hear that there is no al-Qaeda in Libya. I agree that the revolt does not have al-Qaeda or Islamists behind it. They are very few and scattered. But this doesn't mean that an anarchic system, a civil war, gangs and criminal racketeering dominating parts of the country will not lead to the formation of sanctuaries and training camps for terrorists or for Islamist organizations.
The continuation of the war would also mean the impossibility of maintaining the great man-made river structure. This means very little water would come to the coastal cities, creating a water problem very quickly for over 2 to 3 million people. Food is already lacking in Tripolitania. There are riots in the gas stations; there are empty shelves in the supermarkets and the stores. It is beginning to become a problem, and with this kind of collapse, you're going to have a huge humanitarian crisis right in the middle of the Mediterranean basin. Italy, France and company are already complaining about 15,000-20,000 Tunisian immigrants. I wonder what will happen when 100,000-200,000 starving Libyans walk into Tunisia or Egypt. That will then become a vital interest of the West, at least, if not the United States.
Q & A
DR. MATTAIR: As someone who works on Iran, I'm interested in the question of how much Iran has gained, particularly in Egypt. I think that Iran's potential for more influence in the Arab world is limited, considering how they have treated their own opposition. Egypt is a Sunni Arab country, and the military will still be there playing an important role. They've talked about establishing diplomatic relations with Iran, but the foreign minister has also said that the Gulf is a red line and that they oppose an extension of Iranian influence into the Gulf. It sounded as if they were willing to stand with the GCC.
DR. CORDESMAN: I think it's far too early to make any judgments about what is going to happen in Egypt. Whatever happens, it's going to have a much more direct impact on U.S. access to the Gulf, Israel, and what happens in the Levant, than it is on Iran. As to whether Iran benefits from this overall pattern of events, what has happened in Bahrain — whether or not Iran has been responsible, and I do not believe it has — has triggered in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other countries a very direct increase in their willingness to confront Iran. That's been very clear from the visit of Secretary Gates and others to the region.
Less clear is what's happening in Iraq, which to me is much more critical. What's playing out in Iraq is so far from clear, even to the Iraqis, that exactly what Iran will or will not get out of it is equally problematic. You look at Syria and you wonder exactly what Iran will get out of the crisis of unrest in that country. The answer is, I don't think much — if anything. If the Syrian regime stays, there will be a very long period in which the regime has to concentrate on surviving as a regime. It will be less able to play games in Lebanon, and less able to play games inside the rest of the region.
We also have to remember that we haven't exactly seen Iran exult in any given set of developments, or seen unity in the efforts of the Iranian leadership over the last few months. We certainly have not seen Iran move toward economic or internal stability. The fact that it has been pushed into canceling subsidies, leading to popular discontent, is an issue we'll have to see play out over time. For all of these reasons, choosing a winner or loser at this point is very difficult. But within the Gulf, and particularly the southern Gulf, Iran has emerged as the loser. The GCC states, I think, are more concerned about Iran than they were before this. It isn't simply Bahrain, it's Yemen and Iraq. These matter a great deal more to the Gulf States in practical terms.
MR. BARFI: I don't think it's so much an increase in Iranian influence as a reduction in resistance to Iran, which will strengthen its relationship with its clients in the Arab world, particularly Hezbollah and Hamas. If we look at what's going on with Hamas in Gaza, there's been a reduction in the Egyptian desire to coordinate with Israel an embargo against Hamas. This will eventually strengthen Hamas and Iran.
Mubarak was an anti-Iranian pillar. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were a pivotal anti-Iranian axis in the region. As a counterweight to that, you had the Qatari, Syrian and Turkish axis. With Mubarak now gone, the Saudi Arabians stand alone. And the Saudi Arabians don't like to lead policy initiatives in the region. They like to stand quietly in the background and dole out money. So it's going to be very, very difficult for Saudi Arabia to stand on its own. If we look at Egypt's other relationships within the Arab world, Bahrain is a great example. Mubarak was very close with Bahrain and the ruling family, particularly because he saw it as a bulwark against Iran.
So that's where I see Iran gaining. That said, it was gaining until what happened in Syria. Syria is very important to Iran. It's a game-changer in the region if Syria falls, because it's a conduit for Iran to reach Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. So if anything happens to Syria, that would jeopardize the relationship and would be very damaging to Iran.
To move to the Gulf, I totally agree with what Anthony Cordesman said about Syria-Iranian interests being damaged there. A lot of people here in Washington are overly eager to see an Iranian hand in a lot of conflicts, particularly in a place like Yemen. But we're not really seeing Iranian involvement in Yemen, and, as I said, we never really saw it in Bahrain. Iran is gaining influence, mostly because of the removal of a pillar of opposition to Iran.
Q: I'm interested in Dr. Haddad's statement that the protestors are united against something, but not for something. Is it possible that there's a potential leader within these protestors? My second question is to Dr. Mezran: Do you see a role for the Qadhafi sons and daughter in the transition?
DR. HADDAD: There is no shortage of potential leaders in the Syrian opposition. The problem is one of representation. People like Riad Seif, an industrialist and self-styled social democrat, lives in Damascus and spent five years in jail after the failed Damascus Spring in 2001 because he was outspoken. He might speak for a segment of Syrians, but not for others, as a result of the lack of communication we are witnessing today in Syria. Others, like Michel Kilo, an author who has been a leader of part of the opposition throughout the past 10 years, also spent several years in jail and is out now. He's a vociferous critic of the regime. This is an opposition that has been in prison, some of them in solitary confinement. These are not sympathizers with the regime, but they are advocating a pause in Syria. They're looking at a complex set of variables, both domestic and regional, as well as also the question of where to go next. Are we just calling for a regime change?
These are just two examples of people who agree on basics, such as the importance of a better leadership or the principles of democracy. But this indicates how difficult it is to come together and agree on what needs to happen. If there is no gravity behind those leaders — gravity that would have come from a lot of interaction — it's questionable to what extent they would be supported by factions or aspects of the opposition. As more time passes, we might see something of the sort develop, but we will also see other opposition members with different opinions on how to proceed. It's a grim picture, and, if I'm aware of it, the regime is aware of it.
DR. MEZRAN: I think that the negotiated solution would imply an offer to Qadhafi that he has to either play the role of Saddam or a variation of the role of Mubarak. In the first case, there is no role for anybody. In the second case, in exchange for his abdication, the lives of his kids would be saved and there would be an international guarantee that they can live outside of Libya. This deal could be reached. But a role in Libya for Qadhafi or anyone in his family, I tend to exclude at all costs.
Q: Lots of money is spent on education, and as Dr. Cordesman mentioned, in Saudi Arabia, in particular. Yet there is a huge mismatch between need and availability. In Saudi Arabia, almost half of all graduates have done their work in religious studies. The youth are frustrated, vocal and mobile. But the polls that I've seen say that their political views and even their religious views are not that much different from those of the rest of the public. So why do we highlight the youth?
On the domestic nature of the protests, the reality is that the Arab-Israeli issue is at the core. The support that Arab leaders are getting from the outside is something that we cannot ignore. The hatred for what has happened is embedded in what we have seen. But we cannot ignore the fact that oil is the most important issue in the Arab world, as far as the West is concerned. Today there was hardly a mention of oil. But even the perception that oil can really help Iraq is fading. There has been a lot of reneging. There's even a strong resistance to the first contract that went to the Chinese. The oil and service companies are having second thoughts about some of the decisions they've made. What impact will the political changes in the Arab world have on the oil industry?
DR. CORDESMAN: The mismatch between education and job creation is just as great in Egypt and Iraq as it is in Saudi Arabia. If anything, the country that has seen one of the worst collapses in education is Iraq, in part because of the role of the Sadrists, but also because that ministry got so little attention in recent times. In fact, it was almost exempt from major aid activity, again partly because of the Sadrists. But you have to be very careful. Simply because you have secular education doesn't mean it creates jobs or opportunities.
Why do you have to take the youth into account? First, because they are the dominant part of the population now, and they are going to be growing for a very long period of time. Second, I don't know what polls you've seen, but the polls I've seen are much less sanguine, particularly about young men. The problem lies in the difference between political consciousness and anger. One of the Arab development reports indicated that more Moroccan college graduates wanted to emigrate than stay in Morocco. That's not a sign of security, even in a relatively moderate and secular country.
On oil, I think we didn't get into it simply because it is so clear. Just two days ago, the Department of Energy issued its latest estimate. It showed that the United States will be dependent on oil for 41 percent of its liquids through 2035, which is as far as they projected. That says there will be absolutely no meaningful difference in U.S. strategic dependence on petroleum as far as we can model, and this is from the Department of Energy. It did not include indirect imports — Asia uses oil to produce our goods — or American dependence on the stability of the global economy, where other countries have to import.
When you look at the numbers, however, only a very narrow range of oil-exporting countries now translate "oil wealth" into programs and spending that give their population the necessary support and can meet their expectations. Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE are wealthy enough that they can do this, particularly for the domestic part of their population. Saudi Arabia is far less wealthy in per capita terms but has done a good job of allocating resources to meet popular needs during at least its last three five-year plans, and now promises better efforts in both its most recent plan and its new set of royal decrees. The other oil-exporting countries either don't have enough petroleum or fail to use it effectively.
Estimates by the Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency indicate Iraq may get about half to 60 percent of the production goals set by the Iraqi government some five years later than the Iraqi government says. I have seen estimates by the government and the oil companies that exaggerate the speed and level of increase in oil exports and job creation that are all politics and no substance. They sometimes call for a level of petroleum-related employment that is an order of magnitude higher than the past job requirements created by other petroleum sectors in the region. Moreover, far too often, even if "oil wealth" does increase sharply, it is not spent in ways that provide the proper benefits to native populations or in ways that create enough jobs outside in the petroleum sector.
As for the MENA countries that do not now have high oil wealth per capita, the Energy Information Agency (EIA) has issued trends by country that provide a clear warning. Some oil-exporting countries do not rank well in terms of overall per capita income relative to non-oil countries in the Middle East, even now. Given current population growth, there may be a steady decline in real per capita oil wealth in spite of major increases in oil prices. The "petroleum disease" is still a major problem for many exporting countries in MENA and will probably remain so whenever these countries rely on oil alone to solve most of their problems.
DR. HADDAD: The question of the youth, I think, is embedded in the larger issue of demographics. In the 1960s, the Syrian population numbered in the few millions. State welfare policies were able to satisfy a plurality of these people and some of their dependents. Today, the population of Syria is 22-23 million, mostly outside the circle of beneficiaries from these state policies. That alone creates a very serious problem; that's why I focused on demographics.
Regarding the youth and the reason they make it explosive, this is the first generation or mixture of generations in the past 10-15 years that, for a fact, has few opportunities, if any, inside Syria or their other native countries. This has produced a situation that developed over more than a decade. I've recently been in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria and spoken to young people. Adding to the pressure-cooker effect is the demonstration effect in Tunisia and Egypt, in addition to the exposure effect. These are very well-connected and wired youth, even if they are not from upper- or middle-class backgrounds. Add to this what the research that's now being conducted on the youth in the region calls an ideological shift.
A lot of these people are not as encumbered as their mothers and fathers with Islamism. So we see something like post-Islamism developing. It's not anti-Islamism; it's post-Islamism or post-communalism. We see a post-Arab-nationalism developing also, but not against Arab nationalism. We see the youth coming together for basic needs and basic freedoms. This is quite common across the Arab world, from Libya to Bahrain. The numbers and the level of disenfranchisement among the youth make for an explosive situation that we are likely to see in other countries in the coming five years.
DR. MATTAIR: This question is from someone watching the live streaming: One of the features of the Arab Spring is the apparent irrelevance of Israel in the playing out of events. Can panelists comment on the impact of the Arab revolts on Israel's own regional policy? How, for example, would the fall of the Asad regime in Syria impact inter-Arab and Arab-Israeli policies?
DR. CORDESMAN: Israel will play a major role, but that role will vary by country and regime, and it may not become clear until Israel knows how regimes are changing over time and exactly what to react to. Some recent events are an indication of the role Israel will play. Israel began to react immediately when Hamas and Fatah agreed to reach some kind of rapprochement. Almost before this agreement was announced, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Fatah and the Palestinian Authority would have to choose between Israel and the peace process, and Hamas. However, other Israeli leaders like Shimon Peres quickly disagreed.
Much will depend on the actual course of events. As yet, we have not seen a major shift across the border that has affected the arming of Hamas. But much will depend on the political evolution of Egypt, and it's not clear which choice Egyptian governments will make. Egypt is easing some of the pressure on Gaza, but it has other interests. Given the pipeline-security problems that have occurred in Gaza and the dollar income to Egypt that affected, there has already been a strengthening of the Egyptian security forces in the Sinai.
Arms smuggling has to come from outside the immediate border area with Gaza. It's not clear how Egyptian actions are going to work out in terms of security and the arming of Hamas. It's also not clear how the "Arab spring" has affected Hamas. It is very actively dealing with its own Islamist extremists, who are a threat to Hamas, presenting problems for its stability. Hamas could try to cope either by becoming more hard-line or by accepting some kind of support for the peace process and gaining support from the outside.
This is one more illustration of the fact that we to need to wait before we draw any key conclusions. The first phases of this "Arab spring" have been largely a matter of people's concern with their own urgent needs, not with Arab-world or Arab-Israeli issues. They're now dealing with domestic perceptions and domestic issues, but, inevitably, there's a morning after. That morning after hasn't come yet, so how seriously anyone is going to turn toward the Arab-Israeli issue is unclear, and so is Israel's reaction. I think we need to give the issue time.
MR. BARFI: Israel, in general, likes the status quo in the region. It doesn't like instability or an upset to the established order. The Israelis were very close to the Mubarak regime. Long after President Obama had stopped talking to President Mubarak, senior Israeli officials were still speaking to him. I know one who spoke to Mubarak the day before he resigned. They had a nice conversation, old friends for 20 years. There's not much domestic pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu to move forward with the peace process at this time. So, with no domestic pressure and Israel feeling wary of the Obama administration, we're not likely to see any progress on that track. In general, Israel needs to feel strong to make concessions. Having lost one of its most important allies in the world in Mubarak, it's really worried about what will happen next.
In my opinion, Israelis welcome what they're seeing in Syria, because Bashar al-Asad has been such a source of instability in the region since he came to power in 2000. He's made decisions that his father would have never made; he's basically in Hezbollah's back pocket. Hezbollah took him to war in 2006, and he hadn't seen that coming. Hafez al-Asad would never have allowed that to happen. So they view him as immature and the instability in Syria as some type of benefit.
On the Hamas track, I have to disagree with Anthony Cordesman. I think Hamas has benefited from the fall of Mubarak. He was very wary of Hamas. He saw it as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which it descended in 1987. He was very reluctant to engage with Hamas and move any of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation forward. The release of the soldier Gilad Shalit, which Omar Suleiman was negotiating, never really moved forward because Mubarak didn't want to deal with Hamas. Now that he's no longer on the scene, his policy of embargoing Hamas and blockading any type of aid or movement of goods into Gaza is going to be reconsidered and changed. So when we look at the Israel-Egypt track, it's lost so much that it will likely not move forward on any type of negotiations with the Palestinians. Israel doesn't see any sense of urgency to do so at this point, barring something happening with the Palestinian UN declaration in September.
DR. MATTAIR: Barak, even in light of the fact that the Egyptian military is still really central in Egypt and has a close relationship with the American military, you still are concerned about Iranian gains? Wouldn't the Egyptian military set pretty clear limits on how far Israel can be provoked and how much influence Iran can have?
MR. BARFI: I don't think Iran is going to make inroads with some of these countries — in Egypt, for example. In the long term, you're not going to see an Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement. You're not going to see an increase in trade; there's just too much distrust. There's going to be a reduction in resistance to Iran. The Egyptian military is not going to persuade the civilian leaders to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. The resistance to any type of gain by Iran is going to recede. Mubarak saw this as a zero-sum game.
DR. HADDAD: It's true, the Israelis are extremely worried. If you followed the Israeli press during the Egyptian uprising, you know the extent to which the Israeli polity, especially the politicians, were concerned. And, I think, for good reason. In the past, Israel existed in a sea of Arab incompetence and authoritarianism that violated all kinds of human rights and international law and so on. Israel's abominable policies were hidden or couched in external relations that allowed this to happen. But now these policies, whether racist settlements, ethnic cleansing or what have you, are likely to show up more and are likely to be compared to changes that are happening in Egypt. These may not rise to the level of our desires, but they are certainly not what we used to see in the past. So there is reason for Israel to be concerned. We also are likely to see a return of politics to the region, especially if we have more such disturbances, which would reduce the incompetence of these Arab regimes around Israel.
Q: Dr. Cordesman, you brought up the Fatah and Hamas reconciliation. Hamas won the free and fair election in 2006. Condi Rice had pushed for the election, but the Bush administration didn't like the outcome so didn't recognize the Hamas leaders and got them overthrown. Now, after the reconciliation, Hamas is going to be part of the interim government and in elections will very likely come back to power in a coalition. Will we do business with them?
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will likely come to power in parliament or have a leading role. In Bahrain, democracy would bring to power an Iranian Shiite government. What do we do? Are we going to play games with the Islamist regimes? In Lebanon, they're part of it. What is the American interest?
Professor Haddad, you said the government in Syria is organic. What types of governments do you see evolving after the post-dictatorial period? Do you think they'll be Western-type democracies with church-state separation? Will they let Islam play a role?
DR. CORDESMAN: I do not take the view that the United States can somehow take responsibility for the all problems in the area, especially for the tensions between Hamas and Fatah and the fighting over Gaza. I also find it a little difficult to consider that Hamas won an election in popular terms; it came to office largely because the Palestinian Authority's factions divided against each other. I also do not see that such a government's coming to power is a reason for the United States to support a movement that has danced around whether it is or is not calling for the destruction of Israel, but whose senior leadership continues to indicate that it is [and felt the United States should not have hunted down Bin Laden. — A.H.C. 5/13/11]
If anyone has illusions that this aspect of U.S. policy is going to change within the foreseeable future, it isn't going to happen. I would hope that Hamas would evolve, partly because it is having serious internal problems in Gaza with its own extremists. At the same time, I hope that Israel and the United States will not make final judgments about whether Hamas may change. It is clear that there are some leaders in Hamas who are willing to take a more pragmatic view, both in working with Fatah and in working with Israel.
Finally, everybody shares responsibility for what is happening in resolving the Arab-Israel conflict. To be blunt, however, I think that responsibility lies far more among those directly involved than it does with the United States. The United States can't magically change the world from the outside.
I think the answer to your second question is, no one can answer it yet. I believe that we will face continuing problems as new regimes evolve and in dealing with the surviving regimes that repressed their peoples. What bothers me most is that we will need very strong country teams on the part of U.S. embassies. We will need to give them discretion and money to run aid programs where those work. We can't solve the problem through public diplomacy at the Washington level, or by legislating in Congress, or by sending in NGOs without realizing that the track record of NGOs is often as negative as it is positive. This, however, requires boosting the State Department teams in such countries and providing discretionary aid funds. It requires a change in the culture in the State Department that, frankly, has favored fortress embassies over allowing foreign-service officers to take risks and be operational in dealing with foreign governments and opposition movements.
It also requires a fundamental revision in USAID, which the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) has made brutally clear is not going to happen without a great deal of further planning. It requires effective and competent leadership of USAID. Having watched the impact of USAID's senior leadership in shaping its efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq — as good as USAID's people in the field sometimes are, I know of no part of the U.S. federal government that can be less competent, less transparent and less capable.
DR. HADDAD: On the question of the Syrian alternative, the Syrian regime for the past 48 years has set the bar extremely low in terms of domestic policy, much lower than for regional and foreign policy, so I don't think it's going to be difficult to surpass that. But when it comes to the question of Western democracy and whether we are likely to see something emerge in that direction, I wonder what in public discourse is meant by "Western democracy." Do we mean the historical tradition of racism, sexism, classism and slavery, all of which were based on genocide, which coexisted with plutocracy, democracy for the few who were upper-class propertied white men? Or are we talking about the Western democracy that developed over 300 years to produce the stable institutions we enjoy today? Syria, Egypt and Tunisia will not produce that anytime soon. They will produce something as nasty and problematic as American history was. Perhaps it will be squeezed into less than 300 years.
I think we should temper these questions with a historical perspective. People in the region who are quick to condemn what is happening in Egypt as problematic lack a historical view of how these things develop. I think we should recognize that this is going to be a very long and protracted process, and more so to the extent that external powers are involved in it, interfering based on their own policies and their own interests rather than the interests of the people of the region.
Q: With the recent announced changes at the Department of Defense and CIA and the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, I would suggest that the United States will be primarily focused on the Afghanistan-Pakistan area over the next few years. This focus would suggest that the United States may not be as engaged in the events of the Middle East as it could be. Will this be a good or a bad thing for the countries affected by the Arab Spring, considering how poorly U.S. policy is viewed in the region?
DR. CORDESMAN: I was not terribly amused by the headlines in The New York Times and The Washington Post. It was amazing to discover that the CIA had become "militarized."When you look at the growth pattern in its staff, which is hard to describe in detail in public, this is just flatly untrue. Given the increase in intelligence analysts, its overall staff and where they are assigned, that is not what has happened. Some of the report also confuses people as being in the CIA who aren't.
In terms of Afghanistan and Pakistan, what we call an OCO account (Overseas Contingency Operations) shows that we are going to be spending a very significant amount of money on the military in Afghanistan and Pakistan through at least the next fiscal year. The administration has not announced what it will do in Afghanistan in FY 2013, which may lead to a serious cut in total spending. Moreover, the fact that the U.S. government is now at war in Afghanistan has never meant it somehow ignores China or North Korea, or that it is ignoring other key strategic issues like Iraq and the strategic importance of the rest of the CENTCOM area. Remember that General Petraeus was the commander of CENTCOM before this.
It certainly doesn't mean that Leon Panetta is going to the Defense Department to focus primarily on Afghanistan at a time when he must dealing with a massive domestic debate over the future of spending and the overall shape of U.S. forces and U.S. strategic commitments.
The policy clusters in the Department of Defense and the Department of State have just as many country desks working non-Afghan and non-Pakistani issues as they ever had in the past, and all of our major strategy documents and budget plans look far beyond the war — important as it is — and are caught up in dealing with a host of ongoing major policy issues. Frankly, there probably should be a morning after on the part of The New York Times and The Washington Post where they focus on how these changes in Obama's national security team will affect the full range of issues the community and the Defense Department actually have to face, because their immediate focus on the war, as if our national security structure could be that narrow, is some of the worst transition reporting I've seen.
DR. MATTAIR: So the Gulf will remain important.
DR. CORDESMAN: The United States must deal with Iran, shape a new strategic relationship with Iraq, restructure its military posture in the rest of Gulf to reflect the end of the Iraq War, work with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on major U.S. arms sales, deal with instability in Bahrain and Yemen, continue the struggle against terrorism and al-Qaeda cells in Iraq and Yemen — and do so in a particular strategic context: the Energy Information Agency projected this spring that the U.S. and global economy will stay strategically dependent on the secure flow of oil exports through 2035 and beyond. The Gulf will remain a constant focus of U.S. strategic interests. More generally, the United States will remain concerned with all the countries that affect its strategic interests and that present risks or are dealing with serious issues. This may leave Luxembourg as a country too secure and stable for the United States to worry about.