Take Cover

Gale force winds in the Middle East.

Regardless of who gets to enjoy the White House movie theater for the next four years, the first film Barack Obama or Mitt Romney ought to watch is Wolfgang Petersen's 2000 disaster classic, "The Perfect Storm."

Like the doomed, intrepid crew of the Andrea Gail in author Sebastian Junger's tale of the powerful 1991 Nor'easter, the United States is caught up in its own perfect storm in a Middle East it can neither fix nor flee.

The looming crisis with Iran, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Syria's implosion would be trouble enough. But an Obama or Romney administration will also face an Arab world at sea.

It would be wrong to predict the worst from the Arab revolutions. Newly empowered Islamists and nationalists will need the West for many things, causing them to moderate their more revolutionary goals --- for now. Hope and progress will mix uneasily with violence and political and economic dysfunction. Donald Rumsfeld was right: Democratization  -- if that's what's actually in train -- is indeed a messy process.

What distinguishes this particular storm, however, is its chronic and durable character. If the storm hit, broke hard, and passed that would be one thing. But unlike Junger's meteorological event, this political storm will ebb and flow for some time to come.

I can already hear the critics in the background: This is all too dismal, democratization takes time, there's been real progress -- in Egypt, for example, where the country's first civilian government shares power with the military. My fellow FP columnist, Marc Lynch, wrote a terrific piece analyzing why the recent outburst of Muslim rage isn't nearly as significant as annoyingly negative worriers believe.

I concede much of that. And it would be wrong to be guided too much by our fears - just as we were guided too much by our hopes in the initial bloom of the Arab Spring.  Nor can we rush to judgment or evaluate political change in this region by our own history and standards. After all, even in the case of the United States, it took a century and a half, including a bloody civil war, to reconcile the promise of equality contained in the Declaration of Independence with the legitimization of slavery contained in the Constitution. And of course, we're still far from perfect when it comes to attitudes about racial equality.

What's important is not the end state. We hardly know what that will be. The relevant question is: Are the trend lines running in the right direction? Unfortunately, they may not be.

When the Arab Spring initially broke in late 2010, few could have predicted its character, arc or direction. Whatever hopes there were for easy transitions, inclusive institutions, enlightened leaders, and stable democracies were quickly overtaken by harsher realities.

Secular forces quickly lost their pride of place to Islamists of various strains, particularly in Egypt. These groups were much more determined, cohesive and better organized. Military elites also jockeyed and competed to preserve their power. The repressive powers of the state in places like Syria, Bahrain, and tribal rivalries in Yemen and Libya asserted themselves even while historic elections, transitional leaderships, and new parliaments held out some hope for positive change. And throughout these historic events, the United States figured only marginally in the narratives, grievances and tropes of those Arabs in the streets seeking to own and control their own destiny.

No more.

In a dramatic turnaround, America seems to be front and center (again) in the Arab story. Three forces have come together -- like a perfect storm -- to threaten the promise of the Arab Spring. And these elements reinforce one another, creating a downward spiral that will be hard to break.

1. Anti-Americanism: We shouldn't kid ourselves -- there is an enormous reservoir of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, and it has been brewing for years. The vast majority of Arabs may like America and Americans, but the fact is they don't like our policies. What's more,  a disturbingly large minority of conservative, militant Muslims don't like anything about us either - particularly our culture's openness, tolerance, permissiveness and high bar on protected speech.

The sources of Arab anger toward America run deep. We are perceived among many as modern day colonialists throwing our weight around, not taking Arab and Muslim sensitivities seriously, supporting Israel, invading Iraq and Afghanistan, methodically whacking Muslims with Predator drones, bucking up Arab oil sheikhs, interceding in the Arab world when it suits our interests (see Libya) and allowing the Arabs to fend for themselves when it doesn't (see Syria).

This anger and sense of humiliation has been loosed, not constrained, by the so-called Arab Spring.  Public opinion is now freer to shape the political climate in the region, and new governments are less able or willing to control or repress it. Since American policies are not likely to change quickly or easily, we're in for a long, turbulent ride.

2. Islamists: Let's be clear: The "Arab Spring" is really an Islamist Spring. That doesn't mean that militant Muslims are taking over the world -- the Islamists are divided and constrained by their newfound responsibilities of governance, and in Egypt's case dependence on the West for economic support. But what it does mean is that when fair and free elections are held in the Middle East - take Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, and Lebanon as examples -- Islamist parties do very well. They out organize, out mobilize and outsmart their secular, liberal counterparts.

And even where they don't fare well, such as in Libya, minority groups representing radical Islamist elements can have an impact far out of proportion to their actual support among the general public. It's the nature of the human enterprise -- determined minorities act, majorities acquiesce. The thousands-strong demonstration of Libyans protesting out-of-control militias in the wake of the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens is a hopeful sign, but it has done almost nothing to change the balance of power between what passes for central authority and armed groups.

And let's not forget the fact that the Islamists are operating in deeply traditional and religious societies. As a result, they have an edge over liberals and other secular reformers who occupy only narrow cultural and political space. This was dramatically reflected in the entire Tahrir Square narrative of 2011, where the Western media wrongly believed that young revolutionaries committed to freedoms that would have made Thomas Jefferson blush were taking over the country. I think it's fair to say that they (and we?) jumped too soon on a bandwagon that has now broken down

With the rise of the Islamists comes a much lower bar for what constitutes an offense, particularly if generated by the West against Islam. In this sense the vile anti-Islamic video Innocence of Muslims wasn't simply a pretext for arousing grievances, but reflected the consequences of a clash between Western values and those of Islamists, whose sensibilities have proven impossible to accommodate with our notions of free speech.

Fouad Ajami is right: Modernity requires the willingness to be offended -- and with the digital revolution, to be offended on a global scale. In 1981, a Turkish Muslim tried to kill John Paul II -- in Vatican Square no less. How many Muslims were killed or embassies attacked by angry Christians looking for revenge? And yet we have a series of events on the opposite side of the ledger -- the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the publication of The Satanic Verses, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Geogh by an angry Moroccan Dutchman, and the murder, threats, and intimidation that followed the publication of Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

Admittedly, America has a unique and very high bar for protected speech. However, the standard for freedom of conscience and expression in many parts of the Muslim world is also very low, and not likely to change anytime soon. I can walk into Times Square and say just about anything I want without fear of arrest or death, as long as I don't disrupt the public order. It is a cruel irony that in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the place that embodied so much hope and promise of freedom, there's no freedom of conscience. Should anyone offend the prophet there, the consequences might be fatal.

3. Weak and Enabling Governments: Finally, the third element in this storm is the behavior of new governments, which are either unwilling or unable to manage this new angry Islamic populism. In Benghazi, the Arab world's new Dodge City -- a city with far too many guns, grudges and grievances -- the Libyan government simply seems incapable of establishing order.

In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi's government initially seemed to be taking a page from its authoritarian predecessor - control the riots when it suits you and don't control them when you want to make a point or are under pressure from others to do so. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allowed crowds to torch the Danish Embassy in Damascus following a Danish newspaper's publication of the caricatures of the prophet, Hosni Mubarak would never have permitted anyone to violate the U.S. Embassy, occupy its grounds for hours, and raise Islam's black flag over its gate.

This isn't a plea to have the authoritarians back. What it reveals, however, is that Morsi's response to the anti-Islam film reflected a different agenda than his predecessor. He's much more sensitive to Islamist sensibilities and also under pressure from hardline Salafist movements.

The power and fury of last month's attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East and beyond has abated. There's a reason for that: Governments that have some measure of control over their streets, particularly in Egypt, need things from America and can't afford to allow lawlessness and disorder to prevail without compelling cause.  

But the factors that produced the attacks are here to stay. U.S. policies that enrage, aggrieve and humiliate Arabs and Muslims who are only too ready to be enraged, aggrieved, and humiliated are unlikely to change; the capacity of groups and governments to exploit them may only grow stronger; and the uncertain transition to more inclusive democratic systems ensure that an angry Islamic populism won't be defused anytime soon.

So, should we give up on the Arab Spring and stop trying to encourage the possibilities for positive change? Absolutely not. But should we give up our illusions -- particularly the notion that we can significantly influence the Arabs' political future or that we're in for anything other than a wild ride in a stormy, turbulent, and churning Arab world? Yes.

And most of all, we should hope that the Roman historian Tacitus was wrong when he wrote, "The fairest day after a bad emperor is the first."

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Reality Check

The Spymaster

Eleven questions for Israel's legendary Efraim Halevy.

In December 1998, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sent me to Israel and the West Bank to monitor the first phase of the recently concluded Wye River Memorandum, a soon-to-be-forgotten agreement President Bill Clinton had brokered between then Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While in Jerusalem, I gave a public talk on the state of the negotiations. Having worked on this near-hopeless accord for over a year, I was on some sort of negotiator's high. And in one of the most naïve statements of the century, I told the audience that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had achieved a measure of irreversible progress, and that there was no going back.

Within a month, the Wye River accord was dead.

Four months later, I received a letter from a man I'd never met -- Efraim Halevy, then deputy director of Israel's Mossad. In it, Halevy gently reminded me of the broader forces and currents at work in his turbulent region and wondered about the positive forces of change I'd identified. What if these rivers of change left most of the proverbial fish -- in this case the Israelis and Palestinians  -- behind?

Halevy foresaw confrontation. And he was right. I've been learning from him ever since.

Halevy, now 78 years old, reminds me of a cross between an Oxford don and a character out of a John le Carré novel. He speaks carefully and precisely -- rarely forcefully -- and has little problem attracting an eager audience. Born in London, his British inflection -- not greatly tempered since immigrating to Israel in 1948 -- only adds to the sense that you're speaking to a highly intelligent and acutely erudite man.

Halevy is a man of the Mossad serving there for 40 years -- 33 of them in the Directorate, the initial designation for Mossad's intelligence collection unit. He headed Mossad under three prime ministers -- Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon  -- and served as deputy director under two more, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin. He ran a variety of secret missions for Rabin, most notably as key negotiator and confidante of King Hussein during the period leading up to the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.

The Israeli spymaster has recently made headlines by calling for dialogue with Iran -- thereby joining the burgeoning ranks of former Israeli intelligence officials, notably former Mossad director Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, critical of the Netanyahu government's approach toward the Islamic Republic. He was in Washington last week speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I put 11 questions to him on the vital political issues of the day before he returned to Jerusalem. What follows are his answers:

Aaron Miller: Is a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat to Israel?

Efraim Halevy: I object to the use of term [existential] for several reasons. First of all I'm convinced that Israel is here to stay. We're going to stay here for the next couple of thousand years at least, and after that we can meet and talk. It's not just a question of semi-religious or mythological belief -- I believe that Israel is a strong country. I think we have sufficient capabilities to deal with any threat of any kind.

Now, I also object to the use of the term because I believe it is a fatal mistake to say publicly that there is existential threat. It means that if the Iranians by one way or another obtain such a capability, you begin to countdown to the end of the state of Israel, and I think that is unconscionable.

And the third point is I think it is a terrible mistake to tell your enemy that it is in his power to destroy you. It is wrong tactically, it's wrong strategically, and it's wrong professionally. To come publicly to the Iranians and say, "Look, you are existential threat to me" only pushes them into trying to prove that what you say about yourself is true. So from every point, I think it's a terrible mistake to use this.

AM: If good-faith negotiations and sanctions do not deter the Iranians from continuing their quest for a nuclear bomb, are there any circumstances under which you would be willing to consider military action?

EH: Yes, if we had followed all the other avenues to try to persuade the Iranians from doing what obviously they're still trying to do, then I believe it is not only acceptable -- it's also logical that one should use military means in order to get this capability removed. I say removed because I don't believe that it will be destroyed. I mean it will be delayed. And I think that delay is important, because time is of the essence -- time sometimes gives you the breathing space to develop other possibilities, which would negate the capability now in front of you.

Now, I believe that if we are looking for the best way of doing it, I think that the United States' capabilities are far beyond Israel's in terms of causing such damage to Iran as to prolong this period. That's why I believe the major priority should be to get the United States to agree to take this this task upon itself.

AM: Is Iran, in your judgment, a rational actor?

EH: I think that yes, the Iranians are rational. I think at this particular point in time they are focused on trying to inflict major damage on Israel. Maybe they believe that they do have it in their power to remove Israel from the face of the Earth. And I think that if they really believe that they could do it and they have the means to do it, one has to assume that they might actually use these means. I don't believe that once they have the means, they will not use it.

AM: I know you're an analyst and not a fortune-teller. But will 2013 in your judgment be a determinative point in this process? Will the issue of the Iranian nuclear weapons program either be joined in war and/or diplomacy, or might we find ourselves at the end of 2013 where we are now?

EH: I think 2013 is a decisive point in history, a point in time. I think that there is time now to energetically engage in efforts to find a solution other than a military one. I think that there's much that can be done and should be done. And I think, of course, that if all other options are exhausted and have been unsuccessful, then yes, 2013 may be the time when Israel and/or the United States takes action.

AM: Why don't we have a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians?

EH: I can give a long dissertation as to why we don't have one, but I'd like to focus on the immediate reasons. And I'd say that at this particular point in time, there is not a viable possibility [for an agreement]. It's not viable because the Palestinians don't have their act together. They're divided both geographically and politically. I think anybody who signed such an agreement would not have a real mandate to sign it. And even if he believes he has, he will not have the capability to implement it, certainly not in the Gaza Strip.

And therefore, an agreement of such a nature will be misleading. It will create the notion that an agreement has been reached and a serious historical event is at hand when in actual fact it's going to be something much worse than just a non-event. It will be an act of hypocrisy of the worst particular kind.

I also think that the present makeup of the Israeli political scene is such that there is no majority in place -- either in government or in the nation -- for reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. People enjoy life the way it is and they say "why take the risks, why move to something which is going to be very painful and which is going to have lot of repercussions internally?" There are very, very bitter memories of what happened during the Gaza disengagement, and that was only 10,000 people [who had to be relocated].

AM: And what are the consequences of no agreement?  Do you agree with those who argue that demography and the absence of a solution will undermine the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel?

EH: Yes I do. And I'm very concerned about that, because I think that the no solution means that there's going to be a one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley in which you'll have two distinct populations. One will be a majority that is gradually decreasing, and the other will be a minority which increasing. And therefore we will have a situation where, between Jordan and the sea, there will be a democratic system for the minority and a non-democratic system for the majority. This is unsustainable and untenable.

AM: Are you concerned about the viability of Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian -Israeli relationships in the face of the political changes sweeping the Arab world?

EH: I think so far the reaction from Egypt has been encouraging. This is not say that I'm happy with many of these statements coming from Cairo, but the most important are repeated statements by the Egyptian president and his representatives and advisors to the public that Egypt will abide by its international obligations.

I think the Egyptians are trying to get their act together. I think they're behaving responsibly. I don't think that they are enamored with Israel -- they don't have to be. And I think that there's room for improvement here.

AM: Does it matter to you whether there are Islamists, democrats, or dictators in power in the Arab world?

EH: I would put it this way: I don't think we have it in our capacity to influence what is going to happen in states other than our own, and if that is the will of the people around us, there is nothing that we can do about it. We have to find ways of living with it.

I think we have to accept realities the way they are. That's why it was very encouraging several hours after [Egyptian] President [Mohamed] Morsy won the elections, my prime minister Netanyahu sent a messaging saying, "I congratulate you on your success and I want to work together with you." I think that was a right thing to do.

I would much prefer that there would not be extreme Islamist regimes in these countries. But again, there's nothing we can do about it. So for us, it's a test to find ways to live with them. And we have to work on it, rather than simply throwing up our hands in despair, closing up the shelters, and praying for supreme godly protection.

AM: Where is Syria is headed?

EH: I think there's a good chance that Syria will implode and disintegrate into small statelets. I don't think the Alawites are going to just give up and go home. But there is also a possibility that once Assad is out of the way, other Alawites will come and find a modus operandi with whatever powers prevail.

What I am very much concerned about is whether the Iranians will be there once Assad is gone. And I believe it's a basic Israeli interest to do everything we can -- and to prevail upon everybody we can -- to ensure that at the end of the day the Iranians are out of Syria.

I don't believe that there will be a religious regime in Syria, similar to the kind that exists in Egypt. I think that because the population is composed of Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Christians and others that it's not possible to have an Islamic state in Syria, and it might very well be some kind of secular [government].

AM: Any thoughts on the U.S.-Israel relationship and our upcoming elections?

EH: Israeli-American relations have gone through several bumps. I think that basically they have been very good. On the practical side, the United States has been very supportive of Israel during President Barack Obama's administration -- both financially and strategically, we have received a lot of support.

I think there should be a little less complaining on the part of Israel that the administration has not embraced us warmly. International relations is not a love fest -- it has to be a practical business. And Israel should not always expect to be embraced and hugged. We're grown up and we should act as grownups.

Regarding the election, I think many of the statements made by the Republican candidate are very undesirable as far as Israel is concerned. I remember an article of Governor Romney's in the Washington Post in March where he advocated dispatching American warships to the Eastern Mediterranean. Shooting from the hip on these matters is a very dangerous sport to be engaged in. And I think that drawing Israel into this campaign is detrimental to Israeli interests, and I regret that one of the candidates is doing this.

AM: As a former intelligence officer, what do you think is the most important factor that a policymaker must keep in mind in formulating policy?

EH: I think that before strategic decisions are made, one has to take into account your capability to actually carry out what it is you've decided. And this is something that, at a political level, only a master can do. And as an intelligence officer, you must give the policymaker accurate information or assessments of the situation. But you cannot determine for him what his capabilities are, because capabilities are not just counting the number of troops you have or the number of guns you have. It's also the resilience of the country's people and many other factors. That's number one.

Number two, I think it's very important not to be attached to a single policy option. I think it is imperative to present more than one option to the political decision makers. That doesn't mean to say you don't express your preference for one or the other, but presenting one "take it or leave it" option -- I think that's a mistake.

And the third thing is -- and I learned this from Yitzhak Rabin -- is that whatever you are pursuing, always prepare an alternative. Never be caught without an alternative. Don't be left in a position where, if the initiative you have undertaken fails, you are left empty-handed.

Efraim Halevy