For the United States, a doctrine of general humanitarian intervention in Middle East revolutions will prove unsustainable unless linked to a concept of American national security. Intervention needs to consider the strategic significance and social cohesion of a country (including the possibility of fracturing its complex sectarian makeup) and evaluate what can plausibly be constructed in place of the old regime. At this writing, traditional fundamentalist political forces, reinforced by alliance with radical revolutionaries, threaten to dominate the process while the social-network elements that shaped the beginning are being marginalized.
U.S. public opinion has already recoiled from the scope of the efforts required to transform Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Do we believe that a less explicitly strategic involvement disclaiming a U.S. national interest will make nation-buildingless complex? Do we have a preference as to which groups come to power? Or are we agnostic so long as the mechanisms are electoral? If the latter, how do we avoid fostering a new absolutism legitimized by managed plebiscites and sect-based permanent majorities? What outcomes are compatible with America’s core strategic interests in the region? Will it be possible to combine strategic withdrawal from key countries and reduced military expenditures with doctrines of universal humanitarian intervention? Discussion of these issues has been largely absent from the debate over U.S. foreign policy regarding the Arab Spring.
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For more than half a century, U.S. policy in the Middle East has been guided by several core security objectives: preventing any power in the region from emerging as a hegemon; ensuring the free flow of energy resources, still vital to the operation of the world economy; and attempting to broker a durable peace between Israel and its neighbors, including a settlement with the Palestinian Arabs. In the past decade, Iran has emerged as the principal challenge to all three. A process that ends with regional governments either too weak or too anti-Western in their orientation to lend support to these outcomes, and in which U.S. partnerships are no longer welcomed, must evoke U.S. strategic concerns — regardless of the electoral mechanisms by which these governments come to power. Within the framework of these general limits, U.S. policy has significant scope for creativity in promoting humanitarian and democratic values.
The United States should be prepared to deal with democratically elected Islamist governments. But it is also free to pursue a standard principle of traditional foreign policy — to condition its stance on the alignment of its interests with the actions of the government in question.
U.S. conduct during the Arab upheavals has so far avoided making America an obstacle to the revolutionary transformations. This is not a minor achievement. But it is one component of a successful approach. U.S. policy will, in the end, also be judged by whether what emerges from the Arab Spring improves the reformed states’ responsibility toward the international order and humane institutions.
2012 Tribune Media Services