December 17, 2011

The Leverage Problem

For the past several months, I've been working on a big project related to U.S. policy toward the Middle East at the Center for a New American Security. (My research partner is Duke's Bruce Jentleson, whose research I have long admired.) During that time, I've had the opportunity to interact with a wide array of former and current U.S. policy makers as well as the kinds of na'er-do-well academic specialists on the region whose work I have always found to be thought-provoking. One thing virtually everyone can agree on is the dilemma in which U.S. policy makers find themselves: in a region that is rapidly democratizing, the United States is over-invested in the least democratic institutions and regimes in the region.

Where things get tricky is when one tries to decide what to do about that. The principle problem is one that has been in my head watching more violent crackdowns in Bahrain and Egypt: the very source of U.S. leverage against the regimes in Bahrain and Egypt is that which links the United States to the abuses of the regime in the first place. So if you want to take a "moral" stand against the abuses of the regime in Bahrain and remove the Fifth Fleet, congratulations! You can feel good about yourself for about 24 hours -- or until the time you realize that you have just lost the ability to schedule a same-day meeting with the Crown Prince to press him on the behavior of Bahrain's security forces. Your leverage, such as it was, has just evaporated. The same is true in Egypt. It would feel good, amidst these violent clashes between the Army and protesters, to cut aid to the Egyptian Army. But in doing so, you also reduce your own leverage over the behavior of the Army itself.

At some point, of course, the United States has no choice to cut all ties to a regime or institution. We are not, I feel strongly, quite there in either Egypt or Bahrain. But as I hear of more and more of my friends in the region beaten with crowbars and pelted with rubber bullets by the forces charged with protecting the citizenry, it's fair to wonder whether or not the United States is using the leverage it has to its greatest effect.