Archive for Monday, December 12, 2011

Arab uprisings reshape map of U.S. influence

December 12, 2011


— About 18 months before the Egyptian uprising that would doom Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. diplomatic cable was sent from Cairo. It described Mubarak as the likely president-for-life and said his regime’s ability to intimidate critics and rig elections was as solid as ever.

Around the same time, another dispatch to the State Department came from the American Embassy in Tunisia. In a precise foreshadowing of the revolts to come, it said the country’s longtime leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had “lost touch” and faced escalating anger from the streets, according to once-classified memos posted by Wikileaks.

So what was it? Was America blindsided or bunkered down for the Arab Spring?

The case is often made that Washington was caught flatfooted and now must adapt to diminished influence in a Middle East with new priorities. But there is an alternative narrative: that the epic events of 2011 are an opportunity to enhance Washington’s role in a region hungry for democracy and innovation, and to form new strategic alliances.

There is no doubt that Washington was jolted by the downfall of its Egyptian and Tunisian allies. The revolutions blew apart the regimes’ ossified relationships with the U.S. and cleared the way for long-suppressed Islamist groups that eye the West with suspicion.

But declaring a twilight for America in the Mideast ignores a big caveat: The Persian Gulf. There are deep U.S. connections among the small but economically powerful and diplomatically adept monarchies, emirates and sheikdoms, which so far have ridden out the upheavals and are increasingly flexing their political clout around the Arab world.

The Gulf Arabs and America are, in many ways, foreign policy soul mates. Both share grave misgivings about Iran’s expanding military ambitions and its nuclear program. The Gulf hosts crucial U.S. military bases — including the Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain — and is an essential part of the Pentagon’s strategic blueprint for the Mideast after this year’s U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

In summary: America’s influence took blows from the Arab Spring, but also remains hitched to the rising stars in the Gulf.

“America has lost the predictability of friends like Mubarak,” said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “But, at the same time, its allies in the Gulf are on the rise. So I would call it a shuffle for America. Maybe a step back in some places, but not in others.”


Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 6 months ago

This reminds me very much of a comment I have made many, many times:

The first thing you need to understand about another culture is that you cannot understand it.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 6 months ago

Which reminds me of an interview I saw a few years ago with an Arab leader (though it could have been with a leader from many different cultures and might even include some of our own conservative pundits). They were discussing our First Amendment and specifically, our right to free speech. The Arab leader said something to the effect that if included in our freedom of speech was a woman's right to dance naked on a pole, then no thanks to freedom of speech. Of course, we take our freedom of speech very seriously. We have sent our sons to war to protect that and many other freedoms. But the fact remains, that it was within our freedom of speech that the Supreme Court found a woman's right to dance naked around a pole. What we need to understand is that no matter how sacred we hold certain ideas and principles, there are other people and other cultures that will not. Even with some that we find so fundamental, we could't possible imagine living without them.

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