The concept of an “Arab world” has been a long-standing aspiration of the populations in that region, but it has never been a reality. Instead, Arab nations have waged bitter political, ideological, and religious disputes for decades, and outside powers, including the United States, have sought to channel the discord to advance their own agendas. That pattern continues in the 21st century, often with unfortunate results.
Although the Allied Powers established tactical alliances with Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire in World War II, Western involvement in the Middle East became far more prominent during and after World War II, reflecting among other factors, the growing importance of oil to modern economies. The decline of British and French power, combined with the onset of the Cold War, made Washington and Moscow the principal outside players in the region’s politics. As they viewed the Cold War landscape, US officials saw the Middle East as both a potential arena for communist meddling and, because of the nature of conservative, Muslim societies, a possible source of allies against Soviet imperialism.
Washington’s search for Arab strategic partners soon played out against the backdrop of divisions in the Arab world, and American leaders frequently failed to understand the complex dynamics at work. The surge of radical Arab nationalism, with the rise of Egypt’s Gamal Nasser being the main catalyst, worried US policy makers, who saw such regimes as Soviet allies, if not Soviet puppets. That belief caused US officials to throw their backing to conservative (indeed, reactionary) Arab powers led by Saudi Arabia.
That tilt toward extremely conservative, status quo regimes has, at least until very recently, remained a cardinal feature of US policy. American officials were not necessarily fond of the Saudis and their religious allies, but Riyadh did help keep the oil supply flowing at tolerable prices and backed Washington’s goal of thwarting Soviet power, not only in the Middle East, but in such places as Afghanistan. Crawling into bed politically and diplomatically with the Saudi royal family and similar ruling elites, however, has come at a high price. Over the long term, it has put the United States in a no-win situation. Washington’s support for thuggish, corrupt, and increasingly unpopular rulers has badly damaged America’s reputation among beleaguered populations. The willingness to be the patron of such regimes is second only to the extreme pro-Israeli character of US policy as a grievance in the Arab street.
The tendency to oversimplify the murky, complex divisions in the Arab world was evident again in the prelude to the Iraq war. Proponents of war to overthrow Saddam Hussein ignored major fault lines in Iraqi society. US policy makers seemed both surprised and dismayed that a country comprised of Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds might not have a high degree of national cohesion once a ruthless central government was no longer in control. Washington may be overlooking the importance of similar factors in the current civil war in Syria.
The so-called Arab Awakening has underscored the disarray in US policy as well as the continuing divisions in the Arab world. Rhetorically, the Obama administration seemed to grasp that the existing policy of supporting “friendly tyrants” like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was no longer viable. Yet the substance of Washington’s policy has been slow to change, and there is considerable doubt about the sincerity of the administration’s expressed support for democratic aspirations. The campaign to oust Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has again put the United States into a de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other ultra-conservative governments. Arab populations (especially the majority Sunnis) have no love for Assad and his principal backer, Shiite (and non Arab) Iran, but Washington’s continued coziness with Riyadh has not gone unnoticed.
Even more telling, US leaders seem ambivalent (at best) regarding the military coup that overthrew Egypt’s first democratic government. Just as Nasser’s rise alarmed Washington seven decades earlier about a blend of Arab nationalism and socialism, Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government caused consternation in US policy circles about the impact of Islamic radicalism. The Obama administration’s unwillingness even to describe the Egyptian military’s ouster of Morsi as a “coup” intensified cynicism about Washington’s professed commitment to democracy. True, the conduct of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood followers while in power was hardly a model of democratic behavior, but the placid US response to the coup (including a belated, and only partial cut-off of aid to the Egyptian military) appeared to validate suspicions that the United States supports democracy only if the process produces a ruler highly deferential to US interests and goals. That perception will certainly not enhance Washington’s reputation among Arab populations.
The strategy the United States has pursued in the Middle East since the onset of the Cold War has reached the point of functional bankruptcy. In particular, the habitual preference for reactionary regimes has put the American republic on the wrong side of history. The so-called Arab world is an increasingly diverse region with an array of (often conflicting) political, economic, and religious trends. It is much too early to determine whether the Arab Awakening will lead to a proliferation of democratic (or at least quasi-democratic) governments, or whether the turbulence of the past few years will give way, as it apparently has in Egypt, to new, autocratic regimes that differ little from their autocratic predecessors. One thing, though, is clear: retrograde regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and its allies will find it increasingly difficult to survive. US leaders are making a serious mistake if they continue to tie America’s policy and fortunes to such governments. Washington needs a new, more nuanced approach that views the various Arab nations as the diverse entities they are, instead of treating them as a bloc, or even worse, as mere pawns in a larger US geopolitical strategy.