No Need to Panic
By Steven Simon
How, and how much, will American foreign policy toward the Middle East be changed and reshaped by ongoing events? The answer depends on how interconnected the Arab world really is. Accepting that changes taking place in Egypt are likely to change the bilateral relationship with the United States, the question is, are there analogous changes taking place in the region?
In Israel, a transition already seems to be underway, one which has led to diminished U.S. influence. It is probably true that, if Egypt were to abrogate its treaty with Israel, the Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu administrations might find common cause. But most observers don't actually think the treaty at risk, despite the Muslim Brotherhood's talk of preparing the Egyptian military for war.
In Lebanon, a transition is also underway, in which Hezbollah's and Iran's influences have been boosted, and Syria's long-term objectives been made more secure than anytime in the past five years. These changes preceded the Cairo earthquake. Syria itself seems to be at little risk of regime-threatening demonstrations or the kind of rebellion that ended with the suppression of Islamists there 30 years ago. Relations between Damascus and Washington remain frosty and essentially unproductive -- but not as a result of events in Cairo, which are unlikely to change things one way or another when it comes to U.S.-Syrian ties.
Jordan could conceivably contract the Egypt virus, and indeed, there were jitters about its stability in wake of Tahrir Square. The king, however, dusted off the old play book, dismissed his government and consulted the opposition. Partly as a result of these maneuvers, he remains well liked, at least compared with Mubarak, and enjoys a certain legitimacy. Mass uprising or calls for his departure seem highly unlikely.
A seismic transformation, owing to U.S. action, has already swept Iraq; it's hard to see how the sort of government likely to emerge in Egypt will enhance U.S. influence in Baghdad, or erode it further. Saudi Arabia weathered an intifada already, in 2003 and 2004, and high oil prices now enable the kingdom's leaders to fulfill the rentier bargain in a way that probably precludes renewed unrest. The same is true elsewhere on the Arab side of the Gulf, except perhaps in Bahrain. Still, ongoing Shiite demonstrations there predate the turmoil in Egypt.
In Yemen, two insurgencies were already in progress before the demonstrations in Cairo, and in any case, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has now said that he will step down in 2013. The chance of getting less consistent Yemeni help at that point on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is certainly conceivable -- but if that happens, it won't be because of political reform in Egypt.
That leaves Iran. Granted, Egypt has been a thorn in Iran's side. But as a practical matter, what could Egypt really do to help the United States stymie Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, or for that matter, its advances in Lebanon? The key on the nuclear front is in the hands of the U.N. Security Council and U.S. allies in Europe and Asia. There is one respect, however, in which changes in Egypt could complicate U.S. strategy toward Iran: If the United States needs to strength its military position in the Gulf, either to attack Iran or to deter an Iranian move in the wake of a U.S. or Israeli strike. At that point, Egypt's refusal to allow U.S. nuclear-powered warships through the Suez Canal would make rapid response on the part of the U.S. 6th Fleet a vexing problem.
On balance, a lot of reason for depression and maybe some anxiety -- but not panic.
Steven Simon is adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.