April 21, 2011

Heirs of Nasser, Tawreet, and Shades of Gray

A few things need to be said about Michael Doran's essay in Foreign Affairs:

1. The idea that the Bush Administration was entirely populated with people who knew nothing about the Arabic-speaking world is false and ugly. Doran was teaching at Princeton and had published widely on the Arabic-speaking world before joining the administration. He is a first-rate scholar of the peoples and history of the Middle East.

2. I was emailing with Parag Khanna this morning and told him I think it's too early for him or anyone else to be making broad claims about what these events mean for the Arabic-speaking world as a whole. As Doran correctly notes here (and Lisa Anderson notes elsewhere in the same issue of Foreign Affairs), this is hardly the first time the Arabic-speaking world has been swept up in revolutionary fervor in the past century. And as Anderson notes, the challenges of a state like Libya and a state like Egypt going forward are completely different.

3. Doran is correct, in my estimation, to be worried about current and future violent non-state actors in the Arabic-speaking world and the ways in which Iran might support them. This is something that would have worried a responsible policy maker as much in December 2010 as today -- and I don't just say that as a guy who wrote his dissertation on Hizballah.

4. Let us not be so blinded by what Iran may or may not do that we fail to take the opinions and preferences of Arabs seriously. Doran writes:

Faced with the accountability of the democratic process, Egypt's new
rulers will not feel nearly as free as Mubarak did to side with
Washington and Jerusalem when the next round of conflicts involving
Israel erupts. In the post-Mubarak era, the resistance bloc has a new
weapon: the Egyptian crowd, which is now freer than before to organize
on its own. Renewed violence will undoubtedly spark massive street
demonstrations, not only in Egypt but also in Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi
Arabia. But it is in Egypt where the bloc will concentrate its energies,
providing the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups with a pretext for
organizing the mob and casting themselves as the conscience of the
Egyptian people. They will demand that the military sever all ties with
Israel and the United States -- and it is far from certain whether
Egypt's insecure army officers will have the mettle to withstand the

I have no big problem with much of what Doran writes here. I do have a problem, though, with his emphasis on what he calls "the resistance bloc" -- Iran and Syria together with violent non-state actors like Hamas and Hizballah. Iran and its allies aside, Egyptians do not very much like Israeli policy toward the Palestinian people. Iran, Syria, and Hizballah could disappear off the face of the Earth tomorrow and that would still be the case. So when Egyptian leaders do not respond with the same timidity to the next Israeli incursion into Gaza as Hosni Mubarak did, those leaders will likely be reflecting the genuine policy preferences of the Egyptian electorate -- not creeping Iranian influence.

5. Issandr, in an epic rant on Arabist, wrote the following:

If things do come
to a head between Saudi Arabia and Iran, I know which one I'll be
rooting for: Iran, while its current regime is awful, is at least a
sophisticated civilisation. Its current regime will hopefully one day
fall. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, represents one corrupt family and
its alliance with the most fanatical, retrograde interpretation of
Islam in the world. Their downfall cannot come soon enough.

I'm not sure I would go that far (in fact, I know I would not), but the focus on Iran and Iranian influence in the Middle East is indeed a little curious considering the fact that Saudi-sponsored radical Sunni extremism has killed a lot more American citizens than Iran ever thought about. Saudi Arabia, with its oil reserves and spare refining capacity, is an exceptional case in terms of U.S. policy, I realize. But it's puzzling to me how Doran can take such a "black" view of Iran and Iranian influence and such a "white" view of Saudi Arabia and Saudi influence. To paraphrase one of my favorite works by the noted orientalist Robert Earl Keen, in the Middle East, we surely live and die by shades of gray.