Lately, the headlines are filled with the latest events in Syria, and maybe a story about the unrest in Egypt. However, this focus on the problems of the moment risks missing the bigger picture. In recent years, every state that has the potential for wider regional leadership has suffered major setbacks and seen its influence reduced, exacerbating the current confusion.
This situation is similar to Ian Bremmer’s concept of a “G-Zero world” in which there is no hand at the wheel of global governance. Today, even the strongest Middle Eastern states do not have the power to effectively stabilize the region, leading to a localized “G-Zero” effect. The result of this leadership deficit will be more of the same: a region trapped in chaos. This absence will also work against the interests of the United States by prolonging instability and promoting radicalism.
Leadership here does not mean military domination, religious hegemony, or even overwhelming popularity. Instead, it means the ability to build transformative institutions and regional architecture, spearhead economic reform and integration, and serve as a model for others to follow. This collaborative and developmental type of leadership is exactly what the Middle East needs—and the type it won’t get.
Before the upheavals of 2011, the best candidate for filling this leadership vacuum, and the most desirable from a U.S. standpoint, was Turkey. For a number of years, Turkey under the leadership of the AKP and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demonstrated a remarkable capacity to blend democracy and Islam, as well as sound economic policies that resulted in Turkish GDP per capita more than doubling since 2003 . Internationally, Turkey became extremely activist and aimed to reshape the Middle East in its own image, launching several regional integration initiatives and seeking to present itself as a post-sectarian Islamic democracy. However, Erdoğan’s Turkey was blindsided by the Arab Spring, and developments since then, ranging from a backfiring Syria policy to the authoritarian reaction to the Gezi Park protests have damaged the Turkish brand in the Middle East. Although Turkey’s economy remains strong, its ability to shape other countries’ perceptions and actions has been diminished.
After Turkey, prospects for effective and positive leadership decline sharply. Although Iran is as activist as Turkey, its support for terrorist groups, constant opposition to U.S. and Israeli interests, and sectarian leanings make it unlikely that Iran could ever preside over a healthy regional-integration process. Saudi Arabia has managed to stay relevant, and will continue to punch above its weight thanks to its oil wealth, but it is clear that the Kingdom’s petrodollars cannot pave the way to regional dominance; if they could they would have done so years ago. Finally, Egypt remains convulsed by internal struggles, and will remain more of a spectator than a player for the foreseeable future. Egypt certainly has the capacity to assume a dominant role; its past as the beating heart of the Arab world attests to that. However, this is unlikely unless it truly solves the conflicts and contradictions it is currently grappling with.
The result is a Middle East filled with confusion, political stagnation, and the frightening prospect of sectarian fragmentation and wider conflict. While some might point out that Washington has historically acted to prevent the emergence of a regional leader, the chaos today is too potentially explosive to tolerate. For U.S. policymakers attempting to secure American interests and ensure national security, the absence of even a modicum of stability means plans are always at risk of spinning out of control or backfiring dramatically, as the political sands continue to shift.
In order to cope with this situation, the first lesson that American policymakers must learn is that there is no quick fix. The Middle East will continue to stagger on without positive leadership for at least the next several years, and quite likely more. Regional public opinion, most notably in Egypt, is so anti-American that any gestures or speeches, no matter how carefully calibrated, will be unable to change any minds in the short term. A more important lesson is that the United States must fundamentally change its approach to the Middle East if it wants to avoid losing even the limited influence it has now. Instead of trying to keep all potential regional powers from gaining influence, the United States should focus on encouraging the emergence of a potential leader that is both regionally legitimate and compatible with American foreign-policy interests.
There are a number of steps Washington can take to pursue this long-term goal. First, President Obama should announce the immediate cessation of aid to Egypt’s military and redirect that money to a massive package of truly civilian aid that can give Egypt a fighting chance to eventually follow in Turkey’s footsteps. That aid program should be paired with a carefully designed and implemented PR campaign that will push back on the anti-American sentiment currently running wild in the region. Obama should fully empower Secretary Kerry to pursue the twin diplomatic opportunities opening in the region: between Israel and Palestine and the United States and Iran. Success there, no matter how unlikely, would put America in the strongest possible position to move toward a new balance that will solidify in the Middle East.
Daniel Lakin is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.