Friday, February 25, 2011

Seismic shift as the wave washes in

For the first time in perhaps a millennium, the Arab people are taking charge of their own affairs. Since the 11th century, after conquests by Mongol, Persian and Turkish armies, Arab lands have been controlled by foreign powers. Most of these lands were ruled by the Ottoman empire for centuries. By the late 18th century, as Ottoman power was waning, the era of European expansion began and for the next 150 years, the Middle East fell under its sway. In the aftermath of World War I, Britain and France carved up the remnants of the Ottoman empire, creating most of the modern Middle Eastern states.

WE ARE in the midst of a revolution in the Middle East, one that has unleashed long-suppressed forces that will continue to send shock waves across an arc of countries from Morocco to Iran. We are all looking at each crisis individually, as it breaks out. But, if we step back, we can see that this is really a seismic shift, and will in time reverberate throughout the entire region.

After World War II, as Europe's empires collapsed, the Middle East became a region of intense superpower rivalry. Moscow and Washington lined up a set of allies, to whom they each promised military protection and aid. Then, the Soviet empire crumbled and the United States became the sole outside power. Most Arab countries had to make their peace with Washington - Libya's renunciation of its nuclear programme being a vivid example. Iran has tried to set itself up as the alternative power balancing American hegemony, but it has had limited success outside of Lebanon.

Throughout these almost 1,000 years of foreign domination, the Arabs always had local rulers. But these sheikhs, kings and generals were appointed or supported by the outside imperial powers. Most of the Middle East's monarchies were created out of whole cloth by the British - Saudi Arabia being the important exception.

These local rulers were more skilled at negotiating up - with the imperial authorities - than they were at negotiating down - with their people. They ruled their people not through negotiations but force and bribery (once the oil money began to flow).

Over the last few years, two major American shifts have opened up the Middle East. The first was Washington's recognition that American support for the region's dictators has bred a vicious strain of Islamic opposition - violent and deeply anti-American. Since then, Washington has been publicly and privately more ambivalent in its support for the Middle East's rulers, pushing them towards reform. (This is well documented by the WikiLeaks cables from the Middle East.)

The second has been the waning of American power itself. The Iraq war and its bloody aftermath, a still chaotic Afghanistan, an Israeli-Palestinian deal that seems as far away as ever, all highlight the limits of American power.

Both Mr George W. Bush and Mr Barack Obama deserve some credit for what has happened. Mr Bush put the problem of the Middle East's politics at the centre of American foreign policy. His articulation of a 'freedom agenda' for the Middle East was a powerful and essential shift in American foreign policy. But because so many of Mr Bush's policies were unpopular in the region, and seen by many Arabs as 'anti-Arab', it became easy to discredit democracy as an imperial plot. In 2005, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak effectively silenced a vigorous pro-democracy movement in his country by linking it to Mr Bush.

Mr Obama has had a more quiet approach, supporting freedom but insisting that the US does not intend to impose it on anyone. As unsatisfying as this might have been as public rhetoric, it has had the effect of allowing the Arab revolts of 2011 to be wholly owned by Arabs. This is no small matter because the success of these protests hinges on whether they will be seen as organic, indigenous, national movements.

So far, the Obama administration has handled each crisis as it has erupted, balancing the interests and opportunities presented in each country. That is understandable in a fast-moving, fluid situation.

Bahrain is a close ally, hosting a US naval base, with a somewhat reformist monarch. Libya is a repressive, rogue state with a cruel and crazy man at its helm - and Washington should move far more forcefully against him. But at some point, the Obama administration will have to step back and think about a new American strategy for a Middle East that is in the midst of this world historic change.

By Fareed Zakaria