By Jared Feldschreiber
With unique circumstances in each country, the simmering tensions following the Arab Spring can vex even erudite Middle East experts. As part of the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit, a panel of experts moderated by World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman examined the limited options for Western powers, shedding light on the power vacuum in the Middle East. The panel included Washington Post’s Senior Associate Editor Lally Weymouth, Middle East Forum expert Daniel Pipes, Foreign Affairs Managing Editor Jonathan Tepperman, and Amnesty International Advocacy Director for Middle East and North Africa Sanjeev Bery.
For the panelists, any initial optimism from the Arab Spring was dashed after Western embassies were breached during violent Islamist protests. This kind of anarchy was punctuated by a coordinated attack on the Libyan Embassy that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The panel agreed that the West has less influence on the region than ever and will need to learn to deal with Islamist politicians that increasingly dominate the Arab world.
Real democracy in the region is still a long ways off, said Foreign Affairs' Jonathan Tepperman, and there is little the United States can do to compel good democratic governance. “It would be a mistake to think this is all about the United States,” Tepperman said.
Western policymakers long supported autocrats to maintain the status quo as the U.S. placed greater support for regional stability over democracy. In the past, autocrats—and policy makers in the West—feared anarchy and the specter of Islamic terrorism. Before the Arab Spring, the region’s autocrats banned Islamist parties and jailed suspected Islamists. Today, as Islamists have won big in recent elections, the question is: What are the next steps for the West as their influence in the Middle East wanes?
Middle East Forum analyst Daniel Pipes argued that the United States should “always, always, always oppose the Islamists. And always support the moderates, liberals.” As such, Pipes argued against U.S. engagement in Syria. “I worry about the Islamists taking over in Syria… I appreciate the benefits of getting rid of the Assad regime; a foul, foul regime. I am not enthusiastic about helping the rebels, though… There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that says we have to be engaged in every foreign problem.” Weymouth then added, “the Syria issue is dead, until after the [U.S.] elections.”
Andelman described the initial excitement of a group of young Libyan journalists who visited World Policy Journal. They had press freedom “for the first time in their lifetimes,” he said. Uncertainty in the country, however, persists about who will grab control. Andelman wondered if there was a finite time to that sense of freedom. “They found that in post-Gaddafi Libya, their reporting environment, their ability to function on behalf of their people had never been more free and more liberal. But at the same time, they did not have a good sense of where their country was going and that disturbed them more than anything else.” This opened up a heated discussion between two of the panelists, disagreeing on the level of trust in the newly elected Arab governments.
Tepperman saw great strides in some of the Arab countries on their road toward democracy. “The great fear about Islamists in power [was the notion of] One Man, One Vote, One Time. That fear is very much in the forefront for the secularists and pluralists [but] the signs so far coming out of Tunisia, and especially Libya, is surprisingly good,” he said. To which Weymouth responded, “I disagree entirely. It is unacceptable that our embassy was stormed,” saying it could have been stopped by what were the United States' traditional allies or even the U.S. itself. In Libya, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Ansar al-Sharia were involved in the attack on the embassy. "It was a planned attack—a guy who got out of Guantanamo who was a member of al-Qaida heavily armed. From an American perspective, this is entirely unacceptable.” She is referring specifically to detainee Sufyan Ben Qumu, who was released from Gitmo in 2007, who some allege was involved in the attack. A U.S. representative in the House Armed Services Committee, however, has denied that there is any evidence that Qumu attacked the U.S. embassy.
As to the question of striking Iranian nuclear facilities, the panel emphasized that Israel will require full support from the United States to be effective. “The United States can definitely prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” said Weymouth. “Israel can strike some of the programs, according to experts I spoke to there, but in order to strike underground, you really need the bunker-busters. You need a joint operation,” she added.
Everyone on the panel understood the ramifications of a strike on Iran's facilities as a definite game-changer for the entire region, which can lead to a Middle East nuclear arms race. “Iranians have the skills and material to recreate it. But an attack in itself would have so many repercussions; it would change the dynamics,” Pipes said. Direct meddling in Middle East is all but impossible now, and for the first time, Western powers will need to grapple with Islamist party politics on its own terms.
Jared Feldschreiber is an Editorial Associate at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Mosa'aberising]