Meet the New Boss

The news may look grim, but the United States is poised to remain the dominant power in the Middle East.

The attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, this Sept. 11 echoed the worst moments of American impotence in the Middle East. They not only evoked memories of Iranian revolutionaries storming the U.S. Embassy in Tehran almost 33 years ago, but their occurrence on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington further reminded Americans of the deep roots of anti-American rage in the Arab world.

As a result of that terrible Tuesday morning 11 years ago, Americans have spent a decade deeply intertwined in the affairs of the Arab and Muslim worlds. After watching Egyptians tear the Star and Stripes to shreds and Libyans carry Ambassador Christopher Stevens's dead body, they can be forgiven for believing it is now time to come home. How much has the United States invested in Egypt over the last three decades? Was not Benghazi saved in large part because of the bravery and skills of U.S. Air Force pilots? These are the questions Americans are now asking themselves. The U.S. public can be naive about the world, but they are not fools. They understand when they may no longer be welcome.

Still, it was Vice President Joe Biden who thundered, "Don't bet against the American people" on the third night of the Democratic National Convention, a sentiment with which virtually all Republicans would reflexively agree. The concept of American exceptionalism is in danger of becoming a political cliché, but who would deny that the United States saved the world from fascism and communism and has been a beacon of freedom and prosperity for people the world over? The two major parties have it right: Despite the background chatter of the America's diminished global stature, the country is uniquely positioned to lead the world and remain the preeminent power in the Middle East.

In their early 21st-century malaise, citizens of the United States have been told that the American Dream is dead, but it is clear that the rest of the world does not believe it. There is something to this idea of American exceptionalism: People do not swim to Brazil for a better future; authoritarian Russia is a model for no one. India and China are still very poor countries, and millions of their citizens want to build their futures in the United States. But it's not American ideals alone that ensure its global role. The continuation of U.S. leadership has more to do with the structure of international politics and Washington's capacities than the values Americans hold dear.

Nowhere is this leadership role clearer than in the Middle East. For all the sentiment among Libyans, Tunisians, Syrians, Bahrainis, Yemenis, and especially Egyptians about national empowerment, the United States will continue to be the region's indispensable power. This may sound odd given everything that has happened in the region over the last 18 months, including the assaults on U.S. embassies this week. And yes, the Arab uprisings, the United States' difficult fiscal situation, and new contenders for regional leadership all pose a challenge to Washington's influence. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and a potentially rejuvenated Egypt all want to be influential players in the Middle East, but in the crosscutting conflicts of the region, only Washington can lead.

All the contenders for regional leadership in the Middle East have critical weaknesses that will prevent them from supplanting the United States. Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the Saudis have been playing a more prominent regional role, but it has been almost entirely based on Riyadh's efforts to ensure that unrest does not spread to the kingdom, which generally means spreading around financial resources. Money is important, of course, but outside of Bahrain, the Saudis have not been successful in convincing other countries to support their view of what the region should look like. Moreover, Riyadh is tethered to Washington: It seeks American protection from Iran and looks to the United States to drive events in the region. The Saudis consistently ask the Americans to intercede with Beijing on Iran, for instance, not recognizing their own leverage with the Chinese in the form of 1 million barrels of Saudi crude that China imports daily.

The Qataris have clearly distinguished themselves as a regional leader through, like the Saudis, their ability to spend liberally around the region, whether it is funding the flow of arms to the Free Syrian Army or pledging to invest $18 billion in the Egyptian economy in the next five years. There is also the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera, which endows Doha with influence well beyond its size. Yet even with all the leverage Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has amassed, he has made Washington need him because he needs Washington. The emir did not build al-Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. facility in the Persian Gulf, out of altruism -- but rather for external and internal protection. U.S. forces are Qatar's strategic depth, and they bind the emir to the United States in ways that make it hard for him to break free.

A great deal of ink has been spilled about Turkey's emergence as a new regional powerhouse. Yet despite praise for its financial wherewithal, cultural affinity, and political assets, Ankara's ambitions appear greater than its capacity. Nowhere is this clearer than in Syria, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been unable to translate considerable political and personal investment in President Bashar al-Assad's regime into influence. Now, 18 months into Syria's uprising, the Turks are confronted with 80,000 Syrian refugees and a full-blown crisis that threatens Turkish security in multiple ways, from the intensification of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkish territory to the emergence of Syrian Kurdish nationalism. Yet no one should mistake Erdogan's recent barb that the United States is "lacking of initiative" in Syria as a sign that Turkey will go it alone. Rather, Erdogan's angry words were an effort to shame Washington into action, because he knows Turkey lacks the capacity to manage the crisis on its own.

Egypt's newly elected leaders appear eager to present a new approach to the Arab world, but Cairo remains hobbled by a fragile political order and long decades of stagnation under Hosni Mubarak's rule. Egypt now has competitors for influence in the Arab world, including the Qataris, Saudis, and Turks. It's also important to note that despite the strain in U.S.-Egypt relations over the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, President Mohamed Morsy bowed to U.S. demands that he work to bring the situation under control.

The United States has made a military and financial investment in the Middle East that no one else will match. There's good reason for that: Other powers are only too happy to benefit from the security Washington provides without bearing the cost. With all the gauzy talk of the "New Silk Road" and China's global rise, Beijing's diplomatic, political, and military roles in the Middle East have remained relatively modest even as its geostrategic and economic interests have grown. The Russians, meanwhile, have proved themselves to be demonstrably on the wrong side of history as Arabs struggle to build more just societies. Moscow's support for the Assad regime has proved that it is more interested in maintaining a toehold in the region at the Syrian port of Tartus than saving thousands of Syrian lives. And despite Morsy's planned visit to Brazil in late September, Brasilia is not a player in the Middle East. India, which has strong intelligence and military ties with Israel, also has a very low profile in the Arab world.

It may be a new Middle East, but some of the old realities still hold true. Osama el-Baz, Mubarak's longtime foreign-policy troubleshooter, once remarked, "There is no alternative to the United States … yet." To date, the shift in the global distribution of power to which Baz was referring has not occurred. The United States may still struggle with the pathologies of decline -- burdensome military commitments, foreign assistance packages, and alliances -- but for better or worse, the Middle East remains well within Washington's sphere of influence.

After a decade of two wars, regime change in Libya, the prospect of conflict with Iran, and general upheaval, Americans may be tired of this volatile region. But don't expect the United States to depart anytime soon. That is the price of indispensability -- and exceptionalism too.



Why the Embassy Riots Won't Stop

The world has become one big crowded theater, and anyone with a laptop can now yell "fire" and set off a stampede.

The riots erupting across the Arab world over the hate-filled video Innocence of Muslims have taken many people, including those responsible for security at U.S. embassies, by surprise. After all, Barack Obama's administration has assiduously been working to improve America's ties and standing with Muslim societies, from the president's speeches in Ankara and Cairo in 2009 to the policies supporting emerging democratic movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and other Arab states. Furthermore, the current anger in the streets of Cairo and Tunis is over a film the U.S. government had no hand in creating or promoting, and it would therefore be logical to assume that once enough steam is let off and the protests run their course, everything will go back to the status quo that existed before this week.

Unfortunately, that's probably not true. It's far more likely that the events of this week mark the beginning of a period in which violent protests against the United States in Arab countries will become more commonplace. Three reasons stand out.

First, there is a fundamental disagreement between what the United States views as a basic right and what many Muslims living in Arab states view as a basic right. Where Americans prioritize freedom of speech as a value to be cherished and upheld no matter the circumstance, the Arab world sees sanctity of religion as a value that cannot be violated in any instance. While this is not new, the explosion in communications technology and the resulting dissemination of information, no matter how obscure or trivial, pushes this divergence of worldviews to the forefront.

Five years ago, nobody in the United States, let alone in Egypt or Libya, would have heard of "Sam Bacile," and not more than a handful of people would have seen any part of the infamous film. Now, however, anyone with a laptop can create an abhorrent masterpiece and ensure that it is viewed by millions of people the world over. The entire planet has become, in the words of Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, a "crowded theater" on the brink of stampede.

This means that episodes like the current one are guaranteed to happen over and over again as Muslims are exposed to the pathology of hatred that consumes a fringe of Americans and take offense. Florida preacher Terry Jones and "Sam Bacile," a.k.a. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, are the worst types of ethnic violence entrepreneurs, and Arab Muslims are going to be increasingly angry at what they see as infinite affronts to their sacred values and rights while the United States does nothing to curtail the rights of its citizens to express their views, no matter how odious they might be.

Second, while the Obama administration has desperately tried to be on the right side of history when it comes to the Arab Spring, years of American support for Arab dictators has left the United States with zero credibility. Decades of U.S. missteps in the region cannot be undone in the span of a couple of years, particularly when Arab countries like Egypt feel that the United States has nakedly used them to further American ambitions and interests. On top of the myriad of historical resentments, the United States is viewed with deep suspicion for supporting democratic movements in some places, such as Libya and Tunisia, but propping up the government in others, like in Bahrain. This places the United States in a completely lose-lose situation, where it jeopardizes long-term strategic assumptions and relationships in places like Egypt as it sides with protesters and parties calling for democracy yet gets no credit for it from publics that view the United States as hypocritical -- or worse, as an enemy.

Even more than other states given its global status, the United States often has to make difficult decisions when its interests and values clash, but Arab societies are either unwilling or unready to cut Washington any slack or grant any leeway -- making it all the more difficult to respond to incidents like the Innocence of Muslims conflagration. Against a backdrop of massively unpopular decisions, Arabs unfamiliar with the United States just assume that this is yet another instance in which America is choosing not to take action and prosecute the filmmakers, when in reality that option is simply not available in a country where free speech is absolute.

Finally, the emergence of nascent democratic politics in Arab Spring states has thrown a newly added complication into the mix. Newly elected governments need to remain popular to appeal for votes and remain in office, and the easiest way to do this is to step aside and let popular demonstrations against the Untied States proceed unabated. In some cases, governments will actually encourage the rioters. The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt did exactly that, as President Mohamed Morsy was faced with calls to stand up to the United States over the fate of the film's creators; it took an angry phone call from President Obama for him to change course. In addition, the presence of elected governments in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia means that protester are no longer focused on U.S. support for authoritarians, but on the perceived threat from American values that allow things like mockery of the Prophet. This makes incidents such as the current one even more likely to break out, as offensive material is both ubiquitous and a permanent feature of American culture.

While the anger triggered by Innocence of Muslims is sure to abate at some point in the near future, the riots taking place are not blips on the radar screen. American diplomats won't be breathing a sigh of relief anytime soon.