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“Regime alteration” new US policy in Middle East?

According to the Wall Street Journal, that’s the outcome of “weeks of internal debate on how to respond to uprisings in the Arab world”.

To put it more succinctly, they’ve decided the “Bahrain model” is superior to the “Egypt model”.  I’m not sure I disagree.

In the Egypt model, the end result was the US throwing Hosni Mubarak under the bus … finally … and fully supporting the protesters.   Of course it didn’t end up pleasing either side in Egypt and it certainly didn’t please other Arab governments in the least.   They felt that President Obama had abandoned Mubarak and were worried he’d do the same to them as protests mounted.  The US eventually throwing it’s full support behind the Egyptian protestors had the governments of other countries very concerned.  Among them, interestingly, was Israel:

As Mr. Mubarak’s grip on power slipped away in Egypt, Israeli officials lobbied Washington to move cautiously and reassure Mideast allies that they were not being abandoned. Israeli leaders have made clear that they fear extremist forces could try to exploit new-found freedoms and undercut Israel’s security, diplomats said.

And there is evidence in Egypt that Israel’s concerns have a just foundation.  So, the administration approached the protests in Bahrain somewhat differently:

"Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule," said a U.S. official. "Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail."

The reason it is “too important to fail”, to repeat the cliché, is because it is home to our 5th Fleet and other war fighting headquarters.  The fear was that if the government there fell, the new government would have ties and leanings toward Iran.  Suddenly “stability” became much more important than it had previously been. 

The solution hit upon has the goal of “help[ing] slow the pace of upheaval to avoid further violence.”

Why slow the “pace of upheaval?”  Well the most obvious reasons are to attempt to maintain stability and important strategic alliances while also attempting to persuade the effected governments to negotiate in good faith with protesters with the eventual goal of implementing reforms in each country which would make the government more representative. 

Yeah, admittedly, a little on the moon pony side.  The alternative choices, however, are few.

As the article points out there is a lot of opportunity for failure in this particular approach, but while it may be a lower probability approach, if it works it would actually end up strengthening the governments and our ties with them.  And in all honesty, there is no real “high probability” approach for the US in this situation.

However, the argument against it working are founded in some simple truths – A) autocratic governments don’t like to give up their power, B) people in revolt are leery and cynical about promises like that and impatient for change and C) a slower pace might allow other more destructive factions the time to organize while “negotiations” are under way.

Obviously, as one official said, this is all done on a “country by country” basis – with the obvious exception being Libya.  Libya’s in a civil war and it’s outcome is anyone’s guess – although, as I’ve mentioned, usually the most ruthless side wins, and right now the most ruthless side appears to be that of Ghadaffi.   Meanwhile the world dithers and discusses while the massacre proceeds.

Back to the new diplomatic approach.  Do I think it will work?  It might is the best I can say.  It obviously depends on good faith negotiations being a priority for both sides and a real willingness to make change.  Do I think that exists?  I’m not sure.  My gut reaction is “no”.  Instead I wouldn’t be surprised to see governments use the time such a policy offers as a means to consolidate their power while throwing a few bones to the protesters. Do I think it is worth a try?  Yes, given that the choices are limited and instability in the region is not in the best interest of the US.

But, let’s also be real about its chances – we’re talking about two very different views of outcome here (government v. protesters) and reconciling them wouldn’t be easy even if both sides were fully committed to good faith negotiations.  The question is have these governments been scared enough to actually agree to make significant changes or are they simply buying time and using the US as a means of doing so?

Old cynical me, again referencing Human Nature 101,  thinks it’s probably the latter.



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18 Responses to “Regime alteration” new US policy in Middle East?

  • “Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule,” said a U.S. official. “Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail.”

    The rubber meets the road: it’s very easy to bewail the alliances the United States has (and has had) with unsavory characters like Mubarrak, the Shah, Diem, Batista, Chiang Kai-shek, etc., etc., but the fact remains that the choice we often face is one between “bad” and “horrible”.  Is it better for the United States to have a brutal dictator who is more-or-less secular and more-or-less pro-American running a country, or a regime that is outright anti-American?  The choice,  though distasteful and even liable to cause trouble down the road, is pretty obvious.

    I guess this is another “Gitmo moment” where the administration realizes that their lefty moon-pony theories about how the world works and what the United States should / shouldn’t do work a whole lot better in the faculty lounge than they do in reality, and that being “pragmatic” may mean getting our hands dirty or even bloody.  They are also confronting the reality that revolutions / uprising don’t (gasp!) always have peaceful democracy as their universally-desired outcome.  “Why, some of those people rioting in the streets and fighting the regime – brace yourselves, because I can hardly believe it myself! – don’t want democracy!  Impossible as it may seem, some of them actually want to depose the regime so that they can establish a new regime with THEMSELVES as the permanent rulers!  Who would have thought it???  Even worse, some of the would-be new dictators may actually be more despotic and murderous than the current one!  How could this have happened???”

    McQ[T]he argument against [“slowing the pace of upheaval”] working are founded in some simple truths – A) autocratic governments don’t like to give up their power, B) people in revolt are leery and cynical about promises like that and impatient for change and C) a slower pace might allow other more destructive factions the time to organize while “negotiations” are under way.

    Yes.  Add to it that it isn’t often merely a question of the protesters being impatient for change: they often have bloody feuds to settle with the regime.  When people not only desire to remove the regime but also decorate a few lampposts into the bargain to even the score for years of murderous oppression, they usually aren’t too patient.

    McQ [U]sually the most ruthless side wins, and right now the most ruthless side appears to be that of Ghadaffi.   Meanwhile the world dithers and discusses while the massacre proceeds.

    Well, at least it’s a step in the right direction: usually “the world” just sort of ignores massacres.  Khadaffi must be wondering what the hell is going on: last year, the Brits were willing to trade a murderer for oil, and now they are calling for his head.

  • Ah, the magic game of “packaging”, played again by our MEEEsiah as he comes up hard against reality.
    It ain’t like the faculty lounge, is it, Binky…?!?!?
    And our world just keeps getting more dangerous, and not JUST to Americans…

  • The road will be hard. The area is stagnant. Demographics show change is inevitable. You should stop being so pessimistic. Islamism isn’t so bad, because we had slavery.

    What’s that you ask? Do I actually have anything interesting or different about this particular situation?

    Well, no. But I have to post SOMETHING to get you righties lathered up. It’s part of my sixty hour work week. And not because I gain perverse pleasure from irritating the living h^ll out of you guys. Nope. It’s my job. That’s the ticket.

    So I had to post something, but I have nothing new to say about this specifically because it’s the weekend so the talking points haven’t been completely distributed yet. I’ll be back in a few days with a complete explanation for why policies that were the worst possible thing in the world if done by George Bush are a fine and wonderful thing when done by Obama of the christlike visage. With proper post-modern definition of terms, of course. Plus cavalier handwaving away of any objections you make to my points, no extra charge.

    • Oh please, all these revolting folks in the Middle East are merely “cling to guns and religion” and are undeserving of Obama’s attention.

  • Global Warming … Global Climate Disruption  (sounds like the Klingon version)
    Regime Change … Regime Alteration  (does that come with Martinizing ?)

  • I am a little unclear how we are going to affect what goes on in countries like Libya or Bahrain. It seems to me the best course of action is no action at all. Sit back and watch, biting your nails if you must, and deal with whoever is in charge when the dust settles. As they say in the medical profession, “First, do no harm”. The consequences of almost any intervention on our part will probably cause some harm. 

    • I disagree that we can do little or nothing, especially with states like Bahrain.  First, Bahrain is a tiny state with little more than oil and their share of oil is pretty small.  It has less oil than Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Qatar, etc. yet 60% of their GDP is oil-based.  If Western countries agreed to reduce their purchases from Bahrain, it would serve as a huge stick.  Likewise, we could offer carrots in terms of foreign aid/development.
      I think there is a bigger issue though.  I’ve mentioned it before, but the US currently has no comprehensive or coherent policy for the Middle East.  We say some dictators should resign while we bow, literally, before others.  We say democratic elections are needed but we condemn democratic states.  We hunt some terrorist but give aid to others.  Currently, we are jumping from crisis to crisis and often land too late.  You say the consequences of almost any intervention will do harm.  I disagree.  I think that not having a F#@KING clue what we’re doing we cause more harm in the long run.

  • Obama will go down in history as the president who “lost” the middle east.


    A mob of nearly four thousand Muslims has attacked Coptic homes this evening in the village of Soul, Atfif in Helwan Governorate, 30 kilometers from Cairo, and torched the Church of St. Mina and St. George. There are conflicting reports about the whereabouts of the Church pastor … and three deacons who were at church; some say they died in the fire and some say they are being held captive by the Muslims inside the church.

    There is more.
    Yep.  Modernity and pluralism just a-bustin’ out over there…

  • There are problems with America backing ruthless regimes:  

    A – America is not ruthless itself (an endearing quality you should keep) and in a confrontation where ruthlessness is key will lose almost every time.   Footage of American supported regimes gunning down unarmed protesters has some potential to swing American public opinion against the sitting administration.  America is a democracy where local politics trump international concerns and is a fickle supporter of allies.

    B – The whole approach is basically zero sum, bad vs bad choice, and is not an aspirational struggle which American ideals can win.  Democracy might not be on the protesters agenda, but the freedom to make money inspite of the government is.  The very reason why that man in Tunisia set himself on fire was to reduce government interfence in his ability to make a living.  This economic freedom is an American type aspiration that can win hearts and minds (or at least wallets and stomachs). 

    Both reinforcing ruthless regimes and propping up democratic revolutions that aren’t – these are the wrong approach.  Instead America should be pushing economic refrom in its allies. 

    • Interesting aside: I basically agree with your point about the US not being ruthless in a meta sense. But at a much different level, it’s not true at all. I remember a friend of mine telling someone about his time as a platoon leader in VN and saying “there is nothing more ruthless in this world than a 19 year old American soldier with an M16”. He’s right and that’s where our enemies often screw up. They think the lack of ruthlessness exhibited by the national leadership is indicative of all Americans in every walk of life. And then they test us, get a military response and are surprised that we’re not decadent, wasted and weak, but instead focused, ruthless and strong.

      I remember reading something like that in a book by a NVA general who said the NVA was absolutely astonished that A) US troops fought as well as they did, B) They didn’t break and run and C) They fought to the death. None of those were things the NVA expected when they first confronted US troops.

  • It was not only Obama who lost the Middle East but also several of his predecessors who placed their own interests and desire to be admired for their achievements in the region above the interests of the people actually living there. That’s why the relationship has been so inconsistent over the years and it will take a lot of time to improve it in future.

    • Our policy of “stability” has been a policy we’ve followed there for about 60 years. I’m not so sure it was his predecessors placing “their own interests and desires to be admired for their achievements” above the “interests of the people” in the region than it was them putting the interests of the US first. Of course, that’s their job.