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The Middle East Power Vacuum

When Iran starts to look competent and responsible, you know you've got a problem.

Despite the surface froth, the Middle East has been frozen in place for the last few months. Nothing of consequence has happened in Egypt since General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's military coup and the blood clearing of the Rabaa sit-in.  Syria's civil war remains the grinding, destructive stalemate which was inevitable the moment the revolution morphed into an insurgency. Iran and the United States have made some tantalizing diplomatic moves, but nothing tangible has changed. When Foreign Policy is dominated by gawking at a Twitter troll's downfall and parsing an impotent tantrum by Saudi Arabia's Bandar bin Cheney, it's probably a good time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

The key structural feature shaping today's Middle East, it seems to me, is the dissolution of power.  During the early days of the Arab uprising, this could be seen in the fall of long-ruling leaders and the surge of popular protests against the old order. But those uprisings have failed to create any enduring new regimes, and the power of popular movements has dissipated into sectarianism, political polarization, and -- in the worst cases, such as Egypt -- capture by the state.

This power fade can be seen at every level, though: the international system, where American struggles have not been matched by the rise of any competing power; the regional system, which lacks even a single serious great power; domestic politics, where almost all states suffer from institutional incompetence;  political movements, where old organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are on their heels but no new alternatives have emerge. The diffusion of power to do anything constructive lies behind the political paralysis which seems to beset every Arab country today and the strategic floundering of almost every regional player.   

The diffusion of power isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course. Arab states for decades had far too much power, which they used to ruthlessly repress and control their citizens and to maintain a highly unpopular regional order. Nobody should seriously mourn the problems these states now face in controlling the flow of information or ideas. More people in the region will celebrate declining American power than will mourn it. But, as Libya and Yemen so painfully demonstrate today, a basic functional state which provides security, predictability, and legitimate governance is a necessary condition for politics. The absence of power also means that endemic problems will not be solved -- from unemployment to sectarian violence to the Syrian civil war.

Start at the global level. For all the brave talk about continuing American potential, it's pretty obvious that Washington has vastly reduced capability -- and not only willingness -- to engage deeply in the problems of the Middle East.  The refusal to intervene in Syria is not simply a matter of President Obama's gum-chewing indifference.  It is rooted in a deeply and widely held, bipartisan public opposition to any new military adventures in the region, grim opposition from an exhausted and wary Pentagon, the growing internalization of Iraq's painful lessons, and disillusionment with the failures of the Arab uprisings and the Libya intervention. Invocations of the need for bolder leadership by the administration's critics ring hollow in the absence of any serious alternative policies to back up the louder words. A United States that can't even keep its own government open is going to retrench in the Middle East because it has little choice to do otherwise.

This does not mean, however, that American unipolarity has given way to some other familiar balance of power.  There is no rising power poised to grab the throne. Russia's more active diplomacy in the region is a mirage, backed by no economic, military, political, or cultural appeal. China has shown no interest or ability in playing a more active role beyond securing energy supplies from anyone and everyone.. Europe remains largely irrelevant, whether on its own or as its constituent countries, and is hardly rising.  America's necessary retrenchment is not matched by any real loss in relative power, then, which is why it has not been produced anything like the declinist panics which used to erupt during the Cold War.  The American-constructed and American-backed regional architecture is rusty and creaking, but nobody is stepping up to try to build a new one.

Moving to the regional level, the power vacuum is even more obvious.  There is arguably not a single great power remaining in the region.  The states traditionally at the core of Arab power politics -- Egypt, Syria, and Iraq -- are all flat on their backs, torn by political failure and societal division and unable to play any kind of meaningful role. Qatar learned the limits of buying loyalty through unlimited cash, influencing mass publics through al-Jazeera and working with Islamist networks. It  suffered a fierce regional backlash from competitors in the Gulf and resentful forces in the targeted countries which probably contributed to the deposing of the emir and his foreign policy mastermind. Saudi Arabia wants to lead a reinvigorated alliance of Gulf Cooperation Council states and weak, dependent allies such as Jordan and Egypt. But its failures in Syria have already shown the limits of its money and sectarian incitement, and its bid for regional leadership is likely to follow the same trajectory as Qatar's.

Nor are the non-Arab states in the region looking much more like real great powers. Turkey's bid for regional leadership, which seemed so promising (at least in Ankara) a few years ago, crashed and burned over Syria and domestic discontent.  Iran's economic crisis and diplomatic isolation have taken their toll; the "resistance" identity it deployed so effectively in the mid-2000s has evaporated and few Arabs today look to Tehran for leadership. Israel exercises little influence or appeal, huddled behind its real and virtual security walls as it eyes Iran and the United States suspiciously and passively watches the prospect of a two-state solution with the Palestinians fade away.  

The power failure is even more graphically clear at the level of domestic politics.  Almost every state in the region is suffering from some degree of debilitating state incapacity, political gridlock, and governance failure.  The most obvious examples are the countries which struggle to stand up any state at all.  In Libya, militias gleefully kidnap the prime minister to prove the state has no monopoly on the legitimate means of violence. Yemen's state, always weak, has largely ceased functioning for much of the country, and rising southern separatism puts its territorial integrity at risk.   No Syrian government, whether Assad or a post-Assad transitional government, is likely to be able to reassert any serious state control over a shattered country dominated by increasingly entrenched local armed groups.

These pathologies impose real limits the ability of leaders who want to reinstate semi-authoritarian regimes.  Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has demonstrated profoundly autocratic instincts and a desire to centralize control during his seven years in power.  But the Iraqi state has never recovered from Saddam's predation or the destructive shock of American occupation and civil war. Maliki now confronts not only the de facto separation of the Kurdish areas, but the rapid deterioration of state control -- or even presence -- in large parts of the Sunni-dominated western provinces and the steady efforts of the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to erase its border with Syria.

In Egypt, Gen. el-Sisi sought to re-impose state control through a military coup, which he now hopes to legitimate abroad with a carefully stage-managed show of democratic transition.  But nobody should be fooled. Sisi's genius was to turn the restless rage of the frustrated Egyptian public against an internal enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, instead of against the state (any scapegoat -- Communists, Shiites, Jews -- would have done for such a role had the Brothers not made themselves such a tempting target).  But this isn't likely to work over the longer term, not for a state utterly incapable of providing for economic growth, political consensus, or personal security.  Sisi's Egypt will suffer from the same grinding economic, governance and institutional failings which undid Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsy.

The region's non-transitional states may look better off, but this is only a matter of degree.  Jordan's and Morocco's monarchs are just hanging on.  Even the most secure Gulf leaders are so shaken that they have to jail poets and Twitter jokers. The most insecure, such as Bahrain's, are ordering more canisters of tear gas than they have citizens. And Saudi Arabia is projecting regional power from an increasingly shaky internal position and an impending leadership transition.  Even the most robust of the remaining Arab states are unable to stop their citizens from protesting.  The return to repression is a sign of their deep weakness and lack of legitimacy, not a sign of new power.

But once again, the power lost by states has not flowed in any meaningful way towards societal or alternative political forces.  The Muslim Brotherhood, traditionally the strongest and best organized opposition force in most Arab countries, has been battered by the Egyptian disaster and faces its most serious existential crisis in half a century.  There is no obvious single alternative force to capture Islamist-leaning citizens.  Salafi movements seem to be growing in vigor and public presence, but tend to be disorganized and internally divided, and to struggle to expand beyond their base or to reassure non-Islamists.  Meanwhile, the variety of al Qaeda-inspired movements have staged something of a comeback thanks to the Syrian jihad, state weakness, and struggling Islamist competitors.  But this, too, should not be exaggerated: such movements remain marginal and only loosely connected.  

Meanwhile, new popular movements have proven themselves far better at protest than at politics.  There are vanishingly few examples of these protest movements making an effective transition to political parties, robust civil society or sustainable models of positive political engagement. Egypt's Tamarod represents the worst possible trajectory, depoliticizing and neutering popular movements by harnessing them to the interests of the state. 

This power diffusion permeates almost every available diplomatic initiative.  The Geneva 2 conference for Syria, if it even happens, is handicapped by the long-standing difficulty of pulling together any representation for the Syrian opposition which could actually negotiate in their name and enforce any subsequent deal.  The struggling, weak Palestinian Authority would be hard-pressed to deliver on its end even if a deal could against the odds be reached in the current talks with Israel.  Yemen's National Dialogue seems disconnected from developments across the country.  This may explain the relative enthusiasm for the diplomacy with Iran, where there is at least the possibility of a competent government which might be able to make and deliver a deal.

What, if anything, can be done about the pathologies associated with this diffusion of power at all levels? For one, the response should most assuredly not be the passive acceptance of renewed authoritarianism in the name of stability.  Whatever the conditions which might have in the past made dictators stable, they no longer exist -- and Washington backing them will be a losing bet, whether in Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh. At the same time, the United States is going to have to work with local partners to pool scarce resources if it hopes to get anything done on security, diplomacy, or political reforms.  The problem of alliance management which this tension creates is likely to only get worse as we move towards difficult periods in almost every key regional crisis zone.  

MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

Iraq's Moment to Rise or Burn

Baghdad could be the key to unlocking the region's worst conflicts -- if only it could get its own house in order.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is scheduled to visit the White House on Nov. 1. It's a good time for his country to crack the crowded regional agenda. Iraq is facing a rising death toll, with more than 5,000 recorded deaths from a horrific wave of car bombs, and attacks by a reinvigorated insurgency driven by Syria's war and by Maliki's obstinately sectarian and autocratic politics. Washington needs to do more on this visit than mouth pleasantries about security, pluralism, responsibility, and enduring partnership. It needs to persuade Iraq's leaders to finally play the role in mediating the region's brutal political divides -- a role only Baghdad can play.

Iraq's fate matters not only because of the thousands of Americans and reportedly half-million Iraqis who died in the course of a decade of war. Iraq stands at the heart of the Gulf's tenuous balance of power, sharing long borders with Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Its viciously renewed insurgency already represents one of the most devastating spillover effects of Syria's war. And as a Shiite-ruled semi-democratic Arab state, it crosses three of the starkest lines dividing today's Middle East: Sunnis against Shiites, monarchies against would-be democracies, and the Gulf Cooperation Council against Iran.

Without a new sense of urgency, the White House meeting will likely cover little more than platitudes about the reinvigoration of the long-neglected Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) promising cultural, economic, and political relations, which was negotiated between the two countries in 2008 alongside the deal that facilitated America's military withdrawal. That was the topic of August's meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. The SFA certainly is important as a vehicle for building some kind of normal and positive relations out of the wreckage of a decade of war and occupation. And it is clear that Maliki has some things in mind that he'd like from Washington, such as renewed intelligence sharing and the delivery of arms systems.

But high-minded, empty discussions of the SFA can't be the only thing Washington gets out of Maliki's November visit. It should be a vehicle for Maliki and President Barack Obama to have a frank talk about Iraq's domestic political crisis and its potential role in a changing regional order. Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, recently told a Washington audience that his primary message to America is that Baghdad could be a reliable ally in a turbulent region. Such an ally is sorely needed -- particularly one that stands to be deeply affected by the outcome of U.S.-Iranian negotiations and by the trajectory of Syria's civil war. But for Iraq to play such a role, it will have to reverse Maliki's long-standing exclusion of Iraq's Sunni minority and the centralization of his own power.

Maliki might be forgiven for rolling his eyes at another lecture on the need for national reconciliation -- a shared goal written into the SFA, for what it's worth (and something that some might hope to see out of the U.S. Congress, too). American officials have been urging that upon the prime minister, as well as every other Iraqi politician who would sit still for more than 15 minutes, for more than half a decade. The political failure in Iraq is nothing new and has very little to do with the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Maliki ignored such advice when there were 140,000 American troops in Iraq; he ignored it when those troops began to withdraw; and he ignored it after they left altogether. He was never going to make such concessions unless he felt them absolutely necessary for his own survival. In part due to the temporary security gains of the U.S. "surge" and co-optation of the Sunni insurgency, he never really felt that he did.

Things might be different now, though. The harvest of his exclusionary politics has been long months of sustained Sunni protest, renewed insurgency, and an increasing perception that the country is coming apart at the seams. A dramatic increase in violent deaths has driven a widely held fear that Iraq is unraveling and that the fire is again burning. The perverse consequence of this year's growing violence and political crisis could finally be that the carnage is finally enough to push him to such belated, reluctant concessions. His own political survival instincts, not American leverage, might finally bring him around. With fateful elections looming next year and troubling signs emerging about the contours of the new electoral law, the White House should do whatever it can during his visit to nudge him in that direction -- and condition all of the incentives that might be activated under the SFA (like the military and intelligence assistance Maliki wants) upon his doing so.

There is little question that Maliki's persistent exclusion of Sunnis and consolidation of power has kept Baghdad's perpetual political crisis boiling. The initially peaceful protest movement that broke out among Iraqi Sunnis earlier this year was driven by widespread grievances over his sectarian politics, his government's corruption, and his consolidation of autocratic power. Frustrations grew over his refusal to compromise, and exploded over the government's brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, such as April's bloody attack on protesters in Hawija. Realistically, Maliki could still probably have gotten away with his power grab and selective co-option of Sunni elites were it not for the spillover from Syria. But his obstinate political approach created a perfectly toxic environment for Iraqi insurgents to build upon their successes in Syria.

The ever-intensifying interaction between the insurgencies on both sides of the porous border goes beyond the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The appeal of jihad in Syria combined with the growing political crisis in Iraq seems to have reactivated a wide range of disaffected Iraqi Sunni groups, including armed factions that had turned against al Qaeda as part of the "Awakening." A recent International Crisis Group report, for instance, quotes a member of the Islamic Army in Iraq (a key resistance group during the Awakening) as saying, "We are counting on the success of the Syrian revolution, which will provide us with a surplus of men and weapons.… We see in these protests a chance to liberate Iraq from Iran." Maliki would not disagree; he has similarly argued that "the internal situation in Syria is playing a major role with what's happening in Iraq."

Iraq's internal polarization has been inflamed by the regional environment, of course. The Gulf regimes and individuals funding and supporting the armed insurgency in Syria have taken a similarly dim view of Maliki and have reacted with fury to his perceived support for the Assad regime. For years, they had viewed Iraq's government through a hard sectarian lens and disparaged Maliki as an Iranian puppet. Iraq's tolerance of Iranian resupply overflights to Damascus and ambivalent attitude toward the Assad regime made things worse. Gulf support for Iraq's Sunni protest movement (if not the armed insurgents) has been widely rumored. While Maliki's denunciation of the protests as a foreign-backed plot should be understood as politically expedient scapegoating, there is little doubt that Iraqi politics remain thoroughly penetrated by the same regional sectarian proxy wars now afflicting Syria.

For all the grim circumstances, then, Maliki and Obama should actually have more basis for productive discussions than in their previous meetings. Even Maliki understands the growing scope and nature of Iraq's security challenges. He will likely be looking for more American security assistance and support for what he will surely describe as counterterrorism. Washington might finally be able to get him to make the necessary political reforms as part of such a security assistance package. This would cut against the grain of every move he has ever made as prime minister, of course, and nobody should be optimistic. But the combination of the greatest security crisis his government has yet faced and his growing recognition of the value of American assistance just might now make him more receptive.

The American decision to not bomb Syria last month should also help. It was not only Iraqi Shiites who were opposed to such a military strike, after all. Most prominently, the leading Sunni politician Usama al-Nujayfi also publicly warned against it: "The military strike will not be beneficial towards Syria and will ignite a fire that will possibly extend to Iraq and nearby countries." Having wisely backed away from bombing Damascus, the White House should now push Baghdad even harder on allowing Iranian supply flights to transit Iraq. It also should look for ways to work with Baghdad on their common interest in combating the jihadi groups wreaking havoc on both sides of the border. A shared interest in fighting ISIS must not be taken as license to further repress Iraqi Sunnis, however -- Obama should make clear that he views political reforms and Sunni inclusion as an essential part of any new security cooperation towards that shared goal.

The tantalizing prospect of a U.S.-Iranian political bargain, however remote such a deal may seem, should also be a key part of the new dialogue with Iraq. There are few countries that would benefit more from a cordial working relationship between Iran and the United States. While it hasn't often felt like it, Iraq still represents a natural potential bridge between Iran and the United States, and the greatest potential challenge to the alarming regional sectarian division along Sunni-Shiite lines. The United States has a profound interest in seeing Iraq break its vicious cycle of sectarian polarization, autocratic entrenchment, and insurgency. Maliki has never behaved as if he shared those interests. But Obama's coming meeting with his Iraqi counterpart would be the ideal time to test the possibility of pushing him to change his course.

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images