Middle East scenarios (well, not really…)

On January 30, I made this presentation to a Herzliya Conference panel entitled “Short-Term Scenarios for the Middle East” (short-term being defined as the next three years). I didn’t actually present any scenarios, for the reason explained in my very first sentence. But I did ask what I think will be the most salient questions (except for Iran, which I’m not touching). Among the panelists was Ed Djerejian, former United States ambassador to Syria and Israel. I’ve always found him to be a feisty good sport, and he stood by the quote of him that I brought. But the session was run by Chatham House rules, so you only get my side of the story. (Other panelists: Sir Mark Allen, Riad al Khouri, and David F. Gordon. Moderator: Shmuel Bar.)

Short-term scenarios are obviously more dangerous than long-term ones—dangerous, that is, to whoever formulates them. Consider that a year ago at this conference, Husni Mubarak was under siege but clinging to power. Bashar Assad was claiming that he had nothing to worry about, and the London School of Economics was still proud to have Saif al-Islam Qadhafi as an alumnus.

It’s been a humbling year for prognosticators, and in this age of the internet, it’s easy to go back and retrieve embarrassing predictions. I allude to those that exaggerated the power of the Facebook youth, downplayed the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood, or described the Salafis in Egypt as a “tiny minority.” Some people have been so stung by their own predictions that they’ve vowed to abstain from making them again. Tom Friedman of the New York Times did that three weeks ago: “The Egyptian uprising is the equivalent of elephants flying…. If you didn’t see it coming, what makes you think you know where it’s going? That’s why the smartest thing now is to just shut up and take notes.” Whether Tom will keep his New Year’s resolution remains to be seen. But it’s now commonplace for chastened analysts just to admit that “no one knows” what will be in the Middle East.

That’s actually preferable to another approach: discounting the short-term altogether, especially as it looks so messy, and taking comfort in the long term. Ambassador Djerejian and I go back a long way, so he won’t mind if I quote something he said last September (at min. 4:30) to make my point. (You see, Ed, you’re not in office any more, but I’m still stalking you.)

I think in the long arc of history, what’s happening in the Arab world is akin to what we, the United States, stand for, both in terms of our values and our national security interests. But in the short term, there are going to be some detours, some bad actors are probably going to come to power in some of these countries, extremists will try to hijack this popular uprising. But I think in the long term, the fact that they are going to have broader political participation, more viable uncorrupt economies, is a good thing, and we have to support these movements.

Now I’m not going to pick on Ed. What he said reflects the Washington consensus: while the short-term is unpredictable and full of bumps, things will stabilize in the long term, and to our advantage. In this approach, short-term scenarios full of detours and bad actors can be disregarded, since long-term trends will correct for them—and these trends smile upon us. The most irresistable one is the spread of freedom, conceived in the American way.

I happen to believe that if things go awry in the short term, there will be hell to pay later, and I’m not alone. I respect the long-term scenario-building of the National Intelligence Council. But there’s a reason they redo their 15-year projections every five years. Still, I’m not going to burden you with short-term scenarios. That’s partly because, as long as I’ve been studying, following, and living in the Middle East, the crucial events have been flying elephants or, if you will, “black swans”—developments beyond all but the most far-fetched scenarios. Instead, I’ll pose a few questions about the future. Your answers are the scenarios.

  1. Is the “wave of revolutions” over? We’re now a year into events, and there seems to be a pattern. The wave hit the presidents-for-life in the so-called “republics” hardest. It swept some of them away. But the monarchies seem to have weathered the storm. When I was at The Washington Institute in November, I attended a session with the Tunisian Islamist guru Rashid Ghannouchi, and he said this: “Today, the Arab world is witnessing revolutions, some of which have succeeded and some of which are about to succeed. The republics have almost completed [this process], and next year it will be the turn of the monarchies…. The young people in Saudi Arabia do not feel they have fewer rights than those in Tunisia or Syria.” When the Institute published this, the Saudis went ballistic, and Ghannouchi claimed his remarks had been distorted. But he said it, and presumably people are thinking it. The answer to this question is especially important to everyone who depends on Persian Gulf oil.
  2. Is there an alternative to Islamism? Islamists are taking every ballot box by storm, usually by a margin twice that predicted by the “experts.” There are those who believe this advantage won’t last. Elliott Abrams last week wrote that “time is part of the antidote to extremism,” and anticipated that Islamists would mellow during that time and do worse in the second and third free elections. But if so, someone else will have to do better, so who might that someone else be? Who has the formula for beating the Islamists at what is becoming their game? The answer to this is especially important to Israel: Islamists may be prepared to play with the West, but to them Israel is forever unclean.
  3. Is the map of the Middle East going to change? We’ve already seen some map changes result from the ballot box: the split between the West Bank and Gaza was prompted by an election, and the split of Sudan into two, by a referendum. What about Libya and Syria? And Iraq? In 2016, the Sykes-Picot agreement, which drew the map of the Middle East according to British and French interests, will be a century old. It survived decolonization. Can it survive democratization? (For those who like the 1989 analogy to the “Arab Spring,” I remind them that 1989 changed the map of Europe.) The world wants to see democracy in the Middle East, but it doesn’t want the map to change. There may be a contradiction between these two desires.

So instead of the customary three scenarios, I’ve asked three questions. Your answers are your scenarios—short-term ones, because we’ll have answers to all three questions within the next three years.

And that brings me to my last point. President Obama has often mentioned the imperative of being on the “right side of history.” He’s said that on Egypt, “we were on the right side of history.” Qadhafi, he said, was on the “wrong side of history.” And the Middle East, he said, “will be watching carefully to make sure we’re on the right side of history.” The danger here is the assumption that events unfold in accordance with certain laws, and the most we need to do is position ourselves. This thinking provides an excuse for inaction—the belief that there is a predestined path to history, from which there are, at most, “detours.”

But there is no “long arc,” because people have choices they’ve yet to make, and those choices will affect outcomes. On the three questions I’ve asked, there may be policies that the United States, Europe, and even Israel can implement, to tilt the odds in favor of certain scenarios and against others. And since we too have to live with the consequences, why not? Let’s hope that, despite having plotted the ‘long arc” of the “right side” of history, we haven’t entirely given up on making it.