Arab world turbulent unrest strategically threatening US

Jan 31, 2011 12:00 AM

The Greater Middle East or the Greater Arab World extending from Tunisia to Egypt and reaching Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan are today in a state of turbulent unrest. Tunisia has provided the incendiary spark which has set afire the Arab World long politically suppressed by authoritarian regimes and kingdoms. Geostrategically and geopolitically, the Greater Arab World is of crucial strategic significance for the US as the region sits atop the world’s greatest reserves of crude oil and natural gas. This extended region also abounds in choke-points through which must pass the supply route of energy requirements of Europe and Asia.

The Arab World was a theatre of Great Power rivalry during the Cold War between the US and the former Soviet Union. Today China is using its ‘soft power’ to establish substantive linkages in the Arab World and Russia has been able to make strategic forays in the region aimed at winning over US traditional military partners. The US has enjoyed a virtual strategic predominance over this region ever since 1945.The US has ever since ensured that its strategic predominance in the Middle East was ensured through US-friendly regimes governing these geo-strategic nations. In the pursuit of this strategic objective, the US was permissive in tolerating authoritarian regimes and monarchic regimes ruling these nations, even though it was contradictory to the basic tenets of US democracy.

The US was ruthless in ensuring its strategic predominance over this strategically vital region and did not hesitate in resorting to military interventions and even full scale major wars like Gulf War I in 1991 and Gulf War II in 2003 against Iraq to prevent regional hegemony emerging who challenged the US in the region. The US strategic architecture in the Greater Arab World not only rested on major Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia but also smaller nations like Jordan, the Gulf Sheikhdoms and Tunisia too.
Secure in the belief that their strategic utility to the US would ensure that the continuance of their regimes would be underwritten by the US, these authoritarian rulers and monarchs ended up in being politically unresponsive to the political aspirations of their peoples and also their economic woes.

The end-result of these two-way US-Arab regimes mutuality of vested interests was that the authoritarian regimes in the Arab world have continued being ruled by a single virtually despotic individual for thirty years as was evident in Tunisia and so also Egypt This story stood repeated in the US-friendly monarchic regimes in the Arab World too.
The significant reality that must be stressed initially in this paper is that the violent and turbulent unrest that has broken out in Tunisia and in Egypt and which threatens to engulf the Greater Arab World has not been sparked off by any Islamic fundamentalist ideological initiative or some pre-planned political strategies of any dissident groups. The turbulence has been sparked off spontaneously by simmering political and economic frustrations perpetuated by despotic regimes. However dangers abound that Islamic groups could jump on to this popular upsurge and exploit it for their own ends and queer the pitch of the spontaneous political outbursts on Arab streets.

The US today is faced with a grave strategic dilemma as to how to safeguard its long contrived and configured strategic and security architecture in the Middle East and as to how to ensure the emergence of US friendly regimes in the wake of the present political turbulence that has arisen in the Middle East. The challenge for the US becomes more graver when in the present turbulent unrest it is being widely perceived on the Arab World streets that the US over the years has been complicit in the perpetuation of despotic regimes that suppressed them. The overall situation is strategically threatening for the US in terms of its continued predominance in the Greater Arab World when countries like China which has over the years silently nibbled at the edges of this predominance preach that the global power of the US is on the decline.

The aim of this paper is to fathom the strategic implications that arise from this turbulent unrest in the Greater Arab World and this is being done by focusing on the following issues:

  • US strategic architecture in the middle east: the domino begin to fall

  • Middle East turbulent unrest was foreseeable not unexpected

  • ‘Political transformation’ not ‘revolutionary transformation’ seems to be driving force of turbulent unrest

US strategic architecture in the middle east: the dominoes begin to fall

The US initial experiment in devising security architecture in the Middle East in the 1950s based on multinational collective security military alliances, like to begin with, the Middle East Defence Organization and later the Central Treaty Organization were unsuccessful and proved strategically fruitless. The US later focus on the security architecture based on the “Twin Pillars’ edifice of Iran and Saudi Arabia also soon crumbled. Learning from this experience the US ventured on a more bilateral pattern of defence relationships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Region Sheikhdoms. Similar understandings were also arrived at by the US with lesser prominent Arab nations but yet crucial like Jordan.

In Gulf War I US strategies paid off as it broke the myth of Arab unity and Islamic World unity when Arab nations participated alongside the US in the war against one of their own, namely Iraq. A repeat performance did not take place in Gulf War II a decade later as Saudi Arabia opted out. In the wake of 9/11 the picture changed still more when the Islamic fundamentalists groups like the Al Qaeda and the Taliban and their constituents elsewhere propagated that the US was at war with the Islamic World.
Egypt has been, over decades, the cornerstone of US strategic architecture in the Middle East along with Israel. It receives over $ 1 bn a year in military aid. Egypt as the most politically influential Arab nation with combat tested Armed Forces and a relatively more moderate Islamic state has been a valuable strategic asset for the US especially in the context of Palestine and Israel. Egypt in many ways has been a restraining influence on the Palestinians and more specifically the radical Hamas which controls Gaza bordering Egypt.

Tunisia equally strategically important for the US having fallen to the current turbulent unrest and Egypt today is in the throes of a far more pronounced turbulence. With the impending exit of President Hosni Mubarak who is unlikely to ride out the massive street clamour for his ouster a vital strategic asset of the US falls with uncertain results for the US. The fall of the Egyptian domino of the US strategic architecture is likely to set in motion the sequential crumbling and fall of other dominoes that comprise the line up of US other Arab military allies. Reverberations can already be witnessed in Jordan, Sudan and Yemen. And if all this happens then what awaits the fragile Gulf Region Sheikhdoms with sizeable Shia populations in their midst. They could crumble more faster than anticipated. The US would be hard pressed to devise alternatives to the domino that it had configured to sustain its security architecture in the Middle East.

Middle East turbulence was foreseeable not unexpected
Middle East political turbulence was foreseeable and cannot be said to have been unexpected. Diplomatic and intelligence establishments in the US and the West which have the most crucial stakes in this region seem to have been so preoccupied with focusing on the Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hammas and the Taliban and in that fixation they seem to have lost sight of the societal volcanoes that were simmering in this region and whose eruption could unravel their entire security architecture in the Region.

In 2009, my paper entitled “Iran’s Political Turbulence: The Strategic Fallout” (SAAG paper No. 3289 dated 3 July 2009) the following observations were made while commenting on the regional fallout of those demonstrations:

“Monarchial and authoritarian regimes in Middle East can expect increased political turbulence and political challenges to their authority.
People in these countries will be encouraged by Iranian pattern of political demonstrations against all authoritarian rule and not permitting free political activity.
Increased political turbulence in Middle East could alter the strategic landscape.”

Admittedly, difference exists in that Iranian turbulence in 2009 may have been partly inspired externally, and the present political turbulence in the Arab World are spontaneous and indigenous outbursts, but the root cause remains the same and that is a revolt against political repression and poor economic conditions.
More than the US, the Arab regimes themselves are more largely to be blamed because even when the incendiary sparks flashed in Tunisia, they continued to be dismissive of the crisis unfolding in their midst.
This evidenced by the responses to the cautionary warnings made by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton at Doha in the week following the Tunisian revolt., that “ too many places in too many ways, the region’s foundations were sinking in the sand” and advising Arab regimes to become more politically responsive. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Organization of Islamic Countries retorted that the US should not interfere in domestic affairs of Arab nations.

The dismiss of Arab regimes to calls for political reforms is now seemingly catching up and threatening the very existence of these regimes. “political transformation” not “revolutionary transformation” seems to be driving force of turbulent unrest. This may be a debatable assertion in a rapidly unfolding Arab turbulent landscape but yet briefly merits to be recorded as any misreading of the underlying urges that define this Arab turbulence can distort policy formulations of the US as the predominant power in the Middle East.

On present indications no evidence is forthcoming which suggests that the Arab masses current turbulence is being driven by impulses seeking “revolutionary transformation”. This upsurge has not been preceded by or crafted by any Arab political opposition groupings espousing a revolutionary change, other than the ‘regime change’ of oppressive regimes which have throttled them for decades.

Therefore it is “Political transformation” that is being clamour for on Arab streets. The Arab masses whether in Tunisia, Egypt or in other Arab countries where this turbulence is likely to unfold, seemingly stems from political suppression, denial of economic activity, abuse of power by authoritarian regimes and the dominance of security establishments. This is echoed by a noted academic from the American University in Beirut. If that be so then US responses to this Arab upsurge cannot be aimed at perpetuation of Arab authoritarian regimes. The US would require a wholesale transformation of its current Middle East policies.

Arab world turbulent unrest strategically threatening for the US: analysis
The Middle East as it is has been a formidable challenge for the US strategically even before the present Arab World turbulent unrest. In the Non-Arab World the US has been unsuccessfully grappling with the Iranian nuclear program challenge and Turkey unshackling itself from its intensely proximate strategic linkages with the US. Both Iran and Turkey as Non-Arab nations are major regional powers and cannot be discounted in US Middle East strategy. In the Arab World, the US has lately been witness to Saudi Arabia resorting to ‘hedging strategies’ to escape US's pressures and is now in a state of ‘cosy relationship’ with China and Russia.
Middle East Six Power Peace Initiative to find a workable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has made no headway and nor is it likely to do so.

In the Levant, Syria and Iran seem to be making headway in Lebanon where they were displaced from during the ‘Cedar Revolution’ some years back, masterminded by the US.
Without going into the specifics of the strategic losses, the strategic threats that the US may have to cope with in the unfolding Arab turbulence, the following overall assertions can be made on analysis of the unfolding situation:

Globally, as the US had commenced strategically focusing in filling the Asia Pacific security vacuum caused by it in the last decade with a more robust strategic presence and focus against a rising China, the US would once again now be strategically diverted to the Middle East.

Regionally, Egypt as the ‘strategic centre of gravity’ of US Middle East strategy seems to be endangered. The Army there may stabilize the situation but not without the exit of President Mubarak. Political uncertainty is likely to follow over which the US may not have control.

Regionally, Egypt and Jordan engulfed by turbulent unrest endanger the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty and Israel’s security, and which has ensured an uneasy peace in the region.

Regionally, the US if unable to retrieve political stability in Egypt would be faced with a strategic catastrophe, as it would be left with Israel only as the ‘lone sentinel’ of the US in the Middle East to safeguard American strategic interests.

Politically, US global predominance gets endangered by Middle East turbulent unrest in face of irretrievability by the US as the loss of image would have ripple effects and contribute to the perception that the Unite States is a declining power.

Economically, the loss of effective control of the US over incoming Arab governments as a consequence of the present turbulence can severely hit the US economic recovery and global economic recession, since energy security could be affected.

Nuclear proliferation in the region could be one of the endangering spin-offs of the present turbulence. Islamist groups and Islamist armed militias would have that much more free play to further their interests in a disturbed environment.

Concluding Observations
The US has been virtually the sole arbiter of the strategic, political and economic dynamics of the Arab World. Ever since 1945, the US even in the heyday of the Cold War strode the Middle East like a ‘Colossus’
In terms of options to deal with the turbulent Arab unrest which shows signs of spreading wider in the region to engulf traditional military allies in the region, the US will have to cope with contradictory options of opting for perpetuation of the status-qua or take a call on actively facilitating the “Political Transformation” of the Middle East by regime changes Military interventions in the current scenario would be ill-advised.
Turbulent unrest in the Middle East threatens comprehensively the strategic interests of the US more than that of any other global players and consequently the US would have the lonely task of virtually single-handedly to restore stability in the region.

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