It is a strange time in the Middle East. Leaders that lasted for decades are being toppled in days. These are leaderless revolts against corrupt leaders. No one knows what regimes take over in these leaderless lands. We see contradictions everywhere.
How clear was the picture just a couple of months ago? The Sunni Arab coalition of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan was secure under strong leaders. Regimes like Libya, Algeria guarded the back of this Sunni Arab phalanx. To the South, the prosperity of the Gulf Countries, primarily Dubai, Abu Dhabi, was changing the perception of Arabs in the world. America, the country with the strongest military and the largest economy, was a staunch ally of the Sunni Arab Coalition.
The Sunni Coalition was a bulwark against an expansionist Shia Persian Iran as well as against an expansionist non-Arab Turkey. Thanks mainly to Iran, Israel became a strong ally of the Sunni Arab coalition. The rupture of the Turkey-Israel relationship made Israel even more dependent and allied with the Sunni Arab Coalition.
The relentless drive by Saudi Intelligence and Egyptian Intelligence against Al Qaida had nearly crippled the movement in the core Arab coalition. America had become involved in Yemen to root out the Al Qaida movement there.
But that was so two months ago. The past few weeks have seen spontaneous revolts all over the Middle East. And the Obama Administration has been caught in a trap of its own mission, of its public rhetoric.
President Obama came to power with the belief that the World had expectations of his Presidency. We think it is his core belief. His stated mission was to repair America’s relations with Muslims. With his beliefs and with his statements, President Obama surrendered ambiguity in the first few weeks of his Presidency. And ambiguity is the greatest weapon in diplomacy and geo-strategy.
The reality is President Obama cannot remain Barack Obama without supporting the people’s revolts and jettisoning leaders that have been American allies for decades. The trap of the Cairo speech literally forced the Obama Administration to publicly repudiate the leader who ruled Cairo for three decades. The trap of its core belief forced the Obama Administration to ignore, with unnecessary contempt, the feelings, opinions and requests of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. And he is the only Arab leader today who enjoys support of his people.
It was as if the Obama Administration decided to support the goals of Iran. No wonder Israel watched in sheer disbelief.
Then came Bahrain. It jolted the Obama Administration. The revolt by the Shia majority was unexpected. Before they could catch their breath, came Libya. You could see the Administration’s heavy rhetoric against Mubarak dwindle down to a few platitudes about Libya without mentioning Gaddafi’s name.
And Libya is the scariest crisis to date. Egypt is still Egypt, ruled by the Egyptian military. Tunisia is too small. Bahrain could possibly be resolved by some horse trading and concessions by the ruling Sunni family. But Libya seems to be coming apart in a violent civil war. Chances are the civil war could be short and Gaddafi could disappear in a couple of different ways.
But unlike Egypt, the military in Libya looks splintered, It was never a united disciplined force any way. So post-Gaddafi Libya seems up for grabs at least at this stage. So the question worth asking is who benefits?
In the focus on Iran, people seem to have forgotten the one common global enemy of America, Mubarak, Gaddafi and Saudi Arabia. The enemy called Al Qaida.
The events of the past few weeks have been a blessing for Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Jawahiri. Their sworn enemies are falling one by one. The regimes that waged brutal war against Al Qaida are being changed. They are being replaced by leaderless movements made up of different groups with different idealogies. The economies of these countries have been virtually shut down with little prospects of recovery in the near future. So the people who celebrate the overthrow of corrupt leaders will face unemployment and poverty within a short time.
Could you think of a more fertile ground for Al Qaida? The unintended consequence of the 2003 Iraq invasion was the ascendancy of Iran. We wonder whether the unintended consequence of the Middle Eastern revolts will be the rise of Al Qaida in Libya and then in Egypt. If this happens, then America would have served as an unwitting ally of Osama Bin Laden just as America proved to be an unwitting ally of Iran. Ally may be too strong a term. A better term for a short term or transient relationship is “bedfellow” with all its cross currents.
A stronger Al Qaida presence in Libya would be a nightmare for Egypt. The Military Council of Egypt seems unsure of itself and will not take any steps that might come across as suppressing Egyptian people. This might allow Egyptian Al Qaida (the group of Ayman Al Jawahiri) to build support within Egypt.
It would be a worse nightmare for America. Drone attacks might work in Yemen. They will not work in urban Libya, not with today’s populist movements in the Middle East. And Drone attacks need the support of strong leaders, a species that is rapidly becoming extinct in the Arab world. With Al Qaida on the rise, it would be nearly impossible for America to get out of Afghanistan, Al Qaida’s traditional base.
What word would you use for Saudi Arabia’s problems? Look at the map. Al Qaida, the sworn enemy of the Saudi regime, at its back in Libya and to an extent in Egypt; Al Qaida getting stronger to the south in Yemen, a country with 1,000 mile border with Saudi Arabia; the Shias influenced by Iran to the South in Bahrain, and to the west in Iraq with Hezbollah ruled Lebanon in the north. How do you spell encirclement? Israel might be an ally against Iran. But Israel is of no help in a struggle against Al Qaida.
Fortunately, such events take years to develop. King Abdullah seems secure and loved by his people. But he is 87 years old and his crown prince is 84 years old. Will the new leadership from the Saudi royal family be able to manage the complex web of relationships within Saudi Arabia? Will the Saudi people accept a new leadership based on heredity?
And above all, how will the Obama Administration manage the complexities of the new Middle East? Will the Obama policy evolve into more ambiguous statecraft? Will the Saudis trust the Obama Administration again? Is there a choice for either America or Saudi Arabia?
These are questions we ask. We wish we knew the answers.
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