Washington eager to have Beijing share load in Mideast affairs

Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-11 22:48:02

Editor's Note:

Military intervention in the Middle East over the last decade has left the region struggling with persistent turmoil. The Arab Spring has failed to produce positive transformation. How should we evaluate Washington's Middle East policy? How does Washington view China's increasing presence in the region? Global Times reporter Lu Jingxian (GT) talked to Michele Dunne, Director and Senior Associate, Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about these issues.

GT: Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran in January. The Western media has cast a wary eye on the trip. How does Washington view China's role in the Middle East?

Dunne: The United States and Europe have felt a bit overwhelmed by all the problems in the Middle East. The region is going through a very tumultuous period of change. I believe this change is related to the region's demographics—particularly among its young people—and the failure of many Middle Eastern governments to meet the needs of their citizens. This has created many uprisings and civil conflicts. I think the United States and its European allies are eager to have the help of other world powers in contributing to efforts to improve the lives of citizens in the Arab countries and Iran so that the area can be stabilized. I do not sense in the United States a negative attitude or concern about China's role in the Middle East at this time; rather, I sense a welcome willingness to work with other global powers to increase the welfare of Middle Eastern populations, particularly in economic terms.

GT: The terrorist attacks in Brussels have exposed Europe's vulnerability. To some observers, Europe is bearing the brunt of Washington's Middle East policy. What's your take?

Dunne: There are a number of factors that have contributed to instability in the Middle East. I think the root of the problem is that the region has a very young population, and governments have not provided them with adequate educational and employment opportunities. There is a sense of alienation between governments and citizens. This was the case in Iraq, for example, well before the US-led invasion in 2003. I think many Americans look back at the invasion of Iraq as not having been a wise choice, but I also think that many of these problems have no relationship to the invasion. The fact that Syrians rose up against President Bashar al-Assad, that Egyptians turned against then president Hosni Mubarak, and Tunisians opposed then president Ben Ali are all examples of this.

These problems have to do with discontent within these countries directed against the governments, which have not responded to the needs of their citizens in many Arab countries in particular. There is definitely more than one cause of the instability, but I think it has much to do with a lack of government responsiveness. This creates a very big dilemma. I would say that it will create a very big problem for China as it has for the United States and Europe that on the one hand we want to cooperate with Middle Eastern governments against terrorism and to coordinate with them to peacefully resolve conflicts such as the one in Syria. But on the other hand, the governments we work with in some cases are causing the very problems that we believe are becoming a threat to our own security.

GT: The Arab world used to be ruled by strongman politics. This power structure has been disrupted and many countries are consequently wrestling with chaos. Is the situation worse than it is used to be?

Dunne: Change is happening in the Arab region and the clock cannot be turned back. I do not believe the United States started the revolutions and uprisings of 2011 that rocked the Arab world. If US policymakers had the capability to reverse time back to 2010, maybe they would do so, but it is not a choice. The citizens of these countries revolted against their governments for their own reasons.

We do recognize many of the things that people were asking for: decent government services, acceptable public education, and a fairer economic situation. In many of the Arab countries, the benefits of economics, trade, globalization, and so forth had been confined to a very small circle of people around the ruling elite. They were not available to the rest of the population. The level of engagement of Arab countries in the global economy is extremely low. They have a sky-high level of unemployment, especially among young people. This is destabilizing. It is not sustainable for economic benefits and the ability to carry out economic activities to better one's economic situation are confined only to the ruling elite. This became very clear in 2011.

This is the problem with the strongman model of governance. For the most part, the strongmen of the Arab world have not understood that benefits of economic growth need to be broadly shared. For most Arab citizens, if they could have good educational systems, good public health access, and the ability to improve their economic welfare—if they could receive decent treatment from public officials— they would be happy even if they didn't have complete political freedom. But the reality is they have not had those things. They have not had enlightened leaders, even ones who were not democratic. They have been treated very badly by their governments. That is what they revolted against.

GT: Evolving regional dynamics have somehow exceeded Washington's expectations. Will the United States recalibrate its Middle East policy in the future?

Dunne: If we look around the world, when countries and regions go through a period of change, it takes a long time. I am not surprised and I think anyone who knows something about the Middle East would not be surprised that after a long period of authoritarian rule was overturned, things did not stabilize very quickly. No one could or should expect that Arab countries could find a new mode of governance, whatever it will be, in just a couple of years. It is not reasonable to expect that. This region is in a period of change that will be measured in decades, rather than months or even years.

It is unfortunate and difficult for the people in the region who are living through this. US decisionmakers are not happy to see people in the region suffering, but they are not really surprised. Yes, there are revolutions in the Arab world—with young people calling for bread, freedom, and social justice—but it is not surprising that they have not been able to bring these changes about in only a few short years.

GT: President Barack Obama has downsized the US military presence in the Middle East. Is this decision a result of his personal style or will this trend continue under the next presidential administration?

Dunne: President Obama is retrenching, but is not completely withdrawing. The United States still has a very large military presence in the Middle East, but his pullback is related to two things. One of them is a natural recalibration after the 2001 terrorist attacks, which brought about a very unusual period of US unilateral military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was a reaction to the perceived threats of terrorism and it was clear this would not last forever. After this reaction, over time the United States has come back to something more like a normal US posture in the region, so that is probably the most significant part. Then there is President Obama himself who opposed the invasion of Iraq and was eager to end the US presence there as quickly as possible.

As for what will happen with the next administration, no one knows who will be elected, or even who the candidates will be. There are many unknowns right now. Some of the candidates have significantly different views. I would say if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, her somewhat traditional foreign policy approach is something that I think would be very familiar to the world. Her ideal form of US foreign policy and US power might be quite similar to that of her husband Bill Clinton when he was president, or even similar to the approach of his predecessor George H.W. Bush. The United States would be returning to something of a more traditional way of exerting power and influence in the world. We don't know who the Republican candidate will be—some of them have very different and unusual ideas about foreign policy, so there's no way to predict.

The other thing though is that I have served in several US administrations as a former diplomat, and I have seen that US policy often reacts to events in the world. It is very difficult to predict foreign policy. For example, when George W. Bush was elected, he spoke of a very humble foreign policy; he was talking about less US diplomatic and military involvement in the world, including the Middle East. But September 11 happened. Today, there is so much going on in the world, and so many conflicts emanating from the Middle East—with flashes of terrorism, waves of refugees, and so forth—that whatever president is elected will have his or her ideals, yet will have to meet the realities of what happens in the world. I think there will be some changes. I don't think the next president's policy will be identical to that of President Obama because after the 2001 terrorist attacks, US foreign policy went very far in one direction, and President Obama has taken it very far in a different one. I think maybe there will be something like a return to the middle.

GT: The nuclear deal with Iran is one of the major foreign policy legacies of President Obama. Some Republican candidates have threatened to abolish the deal after they come into office. How should we see future relations between the United States and Iran?

Dunne: Potential Republican candidates differ very much from one another. It's not over yet. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are in the lead right now, but there are many within the Republican Party who are very unhappy with them as candidates, it remains to be seen. Quite simply, we don't know yet. It's true in general that the Republicans view the nuclear deal with Iran much less favorably than Democrats do. They are suspicious of it. At a minimum, if the next US president is a Republican, he will scrutinize the deal very carefully and be very worried about Iran violating the deal, or using it as a cover to covertly pursue nuclear weapons. If Iran respects its side of the bargain, by the time the next president is elected, this deal and the lifting of sanctions both will be significantly advanced, and it will be very difficult to reverse it. But if Iran doesn't respect its side of the deal well, that will provide an excuse, possibly, if the next president wants to reverse it. But it will be very difficult because once the sanctions are lifted and there is a lot economic engagement with Iran, it will become really hard to reconstruct the economic pressure that existed on Iran to give up or to submit to limitations on its nuclear program.

GT: The Islamic State (IS) is still ravaging the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere. What makes it so difficult to defeat?

Dunne: There are several different theories about why the IS has become such a threat. We know the IS came from Al-Qaeda, which has existed in the Middle East for a long time. Al-Qaeda was born basically out of opposition to the Saudi monarchy and Egyptian government. Initially, the organization was composed mostly of Saudis and Egyptians and it decided that because it was unable to overthrow these leaders that it would attack outside powers who supported these leaders. That's why Al-Qaeda began to attack US targets, for example. It all comes back to this issue of people within the Middle East opposing their own leaders and then attacking foreign powers who they think are supporting these leaders.

After the invasion of Iraq, the government that took power was very unjust to the country's Sunni Muslims. This, in addition to the opposition t0 the US-led occupation of the country, allowed Al-Qaeda in Iraq to take off. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was eventually defeated by the Sunni tribes of Iraq; however, this did not occur until the United States increased its troop presence and increased its political pressure on the Iraqi government. After US forces withdrew, these injustices were allowed to resurface and Sunnis were completely disenfranchised. Yet, Al-Qaeda in Iraq never could have become the IS without Syria. There are many discussions about whether it was the US-led invasion of Iraq or the failure of outside powers to stop the civil war in Syria that actually caused the IS to take off, because they could never have gained the strength in Iraq that they did without a base in Syria.

That explains the presence of the IS in Iraq and Syria, but the fact that local jihadist groups have been seen in Egypt, Libya, and other countries, and the fact that they have affiliated themselves with the IS, demonstrates that this has to do with local grievances. It involves local groups who oppose their own governments, and they are affiliating themselves with what they believe is a successful brand—the IS. This is related to a rejection of existing political and economic order in the Arab world. There have been extremist groups and jihadist groups in the Arab world for many decades. The problem is if they can easily replenish themselves with new recruits all the time, so they are very difficult to defeat.

GT: Part of China's "Belt and Road" initiative extends through the Middle East. Could the region become a potential flashpoint in China-US relations?

Dunne: The climate at the moment in the United States is more welcoming of burden sharing for securing the Middle East and shipping routes. China imports much more of its petroleum from the Persian Gulf than the United States does, and the United States feels that it is bearing the burden of defending the Persian Gulf and its free shipping routes. I think there is openness to sharing those burdens. However, as China becomes more active and seeks to protect its economic interests in the Middle East, it is going to run into some of the same problems that the United States and others have encountered in the region. That is to say that in many cases the governments in these countries do not adopt policies that really allow for free commerce and free trade and they do not educate their populations well. China will find itself facing many of the same problems related to governance in this region that other outside powers, such as the United States, Europe, and even the Gulf countries have found themselves grappling with.


Posted in: Viewpoint, Dialogue

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