The New Arab Cold War

As the United States steps away from the Middle East, its allies have tried to fill the void -- with disastrous results.

A bitter proxy war is being waged in the Middle East. It stretches from Iraq to Lebanon and reaches into North Africa, taking lives in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt's Western Desert, and now Libya. Although the nihilism of the Islamic State and the threat of other extremist groups have garnered virtually all the attention of the media and governments, this violence is the result of a nasty fight between regional powers over who will lead the Middle East. It is a blood-soaked mess that will be left to the United States to clean up.

The popular conception of the Middle East is one of a region divided along sectarian lines pitting Sunni against Shiite, but another simultaneous struggle is underway among predominantly Sunni powers. The recent Egyptian and Emirati airstrikes on Libyan Islamist militias is just one manifestation of this fight for leadership among Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All these countries have waded into conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and now Libya in order to establish themselves as regional leaders.

Yet these regional contenders for power have rarely achieved their goals. Instead, they have fueled violence, political conflict, and polarization, deepening the endemic problems in the countries they have sought to influence. And if the United States doesn't step in, the chaos will only get worse.

President Barack Obama's attempt to disentangle the United States from the Middle East's many conflicts has only intensified these rivalries. From a particular perspective, Iraq's chaos, Syria's civil war, Libya's accelerating disintegration, and Hosni Mubarak's fall all represent failures of American leadership. As a result, Washington's regional allies have come to the conclusion that they are essentially on their own and have sought to shape the Middle East to their own specific geopolitical needs and benefits. This has stoked the embers of conflict in various arenas -- notably Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and now Libya -- where this competition is playing out.

Take Turkey, for example. Ankara's activist foreign policy raised Turkey's profile in the region in the 2000s, but the country's prestige has waned as a result of a series of missteps in regional hot spots. After significant financial, diplomatic, and political investment in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime since the ruling Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, the Turkish government has become a leading advocate of regime change in Syria. Unwilling to intervene in the Syrian civil war and unable to coax the United States to do so, Ankara turned a blind eye to extremist groups that used Turkish territory to take up the fight against Assad.

In Egypt, it made perfect sense that the Turks opposed now-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's July 2013 coup d'etat. Turkey has a long, unhappy history with military interventions, and then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's own worldview places a premium on Muslim solidarity in the conduct of Turkey's foreign policy. Yet the war of words between Ankara and Cairo since then and the support that the Turkish government has extended to the Muslim Brotherhood -- including the broadcast of Rabaa TV, a Brotherhood television station that has sought to delegitimize Egypt's post-coup political process from Istanbul -- has only contributed to the political polarization and instability in Egypt. Despite the Turkish public's solidarity with the Palestinian people, Ankara's support for Hamas during the recent conflict in Gaza has extended the conflict and contributed to Palestinian suffering, in addition to further souring Turkey's relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel.

Like Turkey, Qatar has taken a populist approach to regional issues, which has veered into support for extremist groups. The Qatari leadership wants to resist Saudi pressure on Doha to fall into line with Riyadh's regional preferences regarding Iran, Egypt, Gaza, and Syria. Saudi Arabia is now trying to offer carrots to entice Qatar into accepting its primacy, recently sending a high-level delegation to Doha, after earlier sticks -- in the form of the withdrawal of Gulf Cooperation Council ambassadors from the country -- failed. Qatar has been less circumspect than others in its support for groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, both offering official funding to Islamist groups in Syria and allowing private contributions to groups including al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate. This has helped create an environment in which groups -- both violent and peaceful -- seeking to overturn the regional political order can thrive.

The failure of the other contenders for power leaves the Saudis and Emiratis enjoying a moment of ascendancy. This is not to suggest that their approach to the myriad problems confronting the region is wise or that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will be successful everywhere they seek to shape the region. Yet faced with what they perceive to be threatening versions of political Islam surrounding them, unchecked Iranian power, and an American determination to leave the region, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have responded with a coherent policy to confront these challenges. By taking matters into their own hands -- sometimes even in opposition to U.S. preferences -- and coupling their financial resources with like-minded agents willing to use force and coercion, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been able to shape regional events.

Yet despite the massive amount of money the Saudis and Emiratis have spread around the region, their efforts have so far only resulted in further violence across the Middle East. In Egypt, money and political support from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have given the generals in Cairo cover to engage in a wide-ranging crackdown on political dissent. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2,500 people were killed, 17,000 were injured, and 16,000 were jailed in Egypt between the July 2013 coup and last March. In Syria, disputes among Sunni Gulf nations over which groups to back have fueled incoherent leadership among the opposition and undermined attempts to depose Assad. The implicit support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE for Israel's invasion of Gaza has contributed to even more bloodletting.

These conflicts have less to do with Iran and the Sunni-Shiite divide than widely believed. Rather, they represent a fracturing of Washington's Sunni allies in the Middle East. Left to their own devices, the proxy wars the Saudis, Emiratis, Qataris, and Turks are waging among themselves will continue to cause mayhem. After a month of U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State and the potential for new military operations in Syria, this is clearly the lesson that the White House is learning.

It seems that by their own miscalculations and craven approach to regional problems, Washington's allies have succeeded in doing what the Obama administration was determined not to allow -- getting the United States sucked back into the Middle East. In the end, the United States is the indispensable nation after all.

Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images


A Dirty Hyphenated Word

Nation-building is the only thing that can fix Libya and Syria. So why has President Obama basically ruled it out?

This month, in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, President Barack Obama expressed regret over not doing more to rebuild Libya after the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011. Friedman didn't make much of this comment, but it was significant nonetheless: Just weeks earlier, the United States was forced to evacuate its embassy in Tripoli amid spiraling violence among rival militias. The United Nations also shuttered its small, unarmed operation there, leaving Libya at the mercy of the warring factions that have closed down the country's airports and have disrupted the fledging democratic efforts that had led Secretary of State John Kerry to refer to a time of "great possibility" in Libya earlier this year.

Now the crisis is in full bloom, with battling militias embarking on a civil war that has already drawn in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on one side and may soon lure to battle Qatar and Turkey on the other.

As Libya burns, it is understandable for Obama to rue that one of his most decisive and forceful acts in office -- helping lead international efforts to curb Qaddafi's deadly assault on freedom-seeking rebels and their supporters -- has devolved into chaos. His feelings of regret may well date back to the assault nearly two years ago that left U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other U.S. personnel dead and sparked an unending political firestorm over what, if anything, the State Department could have done to avert the attack.

Yet Obama's second thoughts on nation-building cast doubt on what had until now seemed like one of the few solid pillars of his elusive foreign-policy doctrine -- faith in pinprick strikes, light footprints, and the avoidance of lengthy, costly, and risky on-the-ground military operations. In early August, former senior advisor to the president David Axelrod rebutted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's critique of the Obama doctrine, premised on avoiding "stupid stuff," by citing the U.S. occupation of Iraq -- a nation-building exercise on steroids -- as the prime example of the kind of "tragically bad decision" that Obama's foreign-policy strategy has wisely avoided. Until now Obama has been an advocate of "nation-building at home" as an explicit antidote to America's overinvolvement in the stabilization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Libya, the decision to avoid nation-building was nothing if not deliberate. Obama was focused on extricating the United States from Afghanistan and Iraq at the time, and he agreed to the Libya mission only reluctantly -- doing everything possible to characterize Washington's role in the effort as finite and maximizing the contributions of other countries. (His manifest ambivalence led one of his aides to infamously describe his modus operandi as "leading from behind.") Had a lengthy and intensive post-war reconstruction phase been part of the bargain upfront, Obama certainly would have abstained from the whole effort.

Once Qaddafi fell, the State Department continued to insist on a narrow U.S. role. It focused mostly on assisting Libya's security forces and facilitating elections. Libya's oil wealth and putative ability to finance its own rebuilding, coupled with the rebels' desire not to be seen as pawns of Washington, strengthened the argument for modest involvement. Despite well-founded concerns about a hasty exit -- warfare among militias, bureaucratic and institutional vacuums created after Qaddafi's one-man rule, and the cronyism besetting Libya's oil industry -- the administration seemed confident that Libya would muddle through on its own.

Obama had good reason to be wary of nation-building, having spent a good part of his presidency trying to unwind commitments George W. Bush made to Afghanistan and Iraq. But he now finds himself caught in a dilemma. On one hand, rebuilding failed states and conflict-torn societies is expensive, dangerous, unpredictable, open-ended, and painstakingly slow. Rather than thanks, an assertive approach can elicit debilitating and deadly political backlash. Because of its intense and sustained involvement, the nation-builder is held morally and politically accountable for the consequences of its efforts -- even more so than the government that strafes a country from 30,000 feet. At least so far, as bad as the crisis in Libya is, international blame isn't being pinned on Washington. On the other hand, failure to stabilize a nation after a debilitating war can undermine even the most decisive military action. Bad actors may be removed from authority, but the power vacuums, rivalries, corruption, incompetence, and dysfunction they leave behind can be as dangerous, if not more so. Terrorists and spoilers can encroach on weakly governed and poorly secured territory. Neighbors can jump into the fray, sparking regional conflagrations.

The nation-builder's dilemma is not new. Failure to restore a beleaguered Germany after World War I arguably sowed the seeds of World War II. The massive investments of the Marshall Plan were designed to avoid a repeat, and they benefited from underlying political, economic, and institutional strengths in Japan and Germany. International military engagements in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, and South Sudan were all followed by contested nation-building engagements, most of which continue in some form to this day.

The paradox of distaste for nation-building and the imperative to nation-build should prompt long-term strategic thinking about how to get done what no single government wants to do. Three principles can help: burden sharing; creative alignments of capabilities and political credibility; and greater attention to how international post-conflict missions can build national pride and smooth the path to full sovereignty for nations in transition.

Sharing the burdens of rebuilding a war-torn nation is often best achieved through the United Nations, which currently has more than 118,000 personnel deployed in peacekeeping operations in 16 countries, alongside another 10 political missions that don't involve military forces. U.N. peacekeeping and related missions have played an indispensable role in midwifing relative political stability in Guatemala, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mozambique, Namibia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. But in Libya, there was no U.N. peacekeeping mission after Qaddafi's ouster -- only a small, unsecured stabilization effort. Cost concerns raised by Britain and France, coupled with the Libyans' own reticence, scuttled early talk of a more ambitious U.N. presence. This understaffed operation was woefully unable to tackle Libya's most serious security challenges, struggling instead to keep its own personnel out of danger. As discussions about an expanded U.N. presence in Libya now get underway, it's worth recognizing that wherever the next stabilization operation occurs -- eastern Ukraine, Syria -- the United Nations' role is unique and essential and should be adequately funded, equipped, and thought out ahead of time. It is hard to fathom any solution to the White House's nation-building dilemma that doesn't begin at U.N. headquarters in New York.

That blue helmets have a linchpin role to play does not mean they should do everything. In nation-building, those entities with the capability to assist, such as the United States, often lack the credibility to do so. Few countries would welcome a big, long-term, U.S.-led post-conflict nation-building operation today. But another model does exist. In Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan, troops have operated under the aegis of international and regional organizations and coalitions. Kosovo may offer the best example of a range of actors -- individual governments, the U.N., and NATO -- joining together under unified command. One idea for the Arab world would be to create a Muslim-majority peacekeeping force. Qaddafi had proposed such a force toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1987, and the Arab League has been contemplating establishing a peacekeeping arm of its own to work in cooperation with the United Nations. Such a force could help avoid the friction and danger of stationing Western peacekeeping troops in places where they can become both targets for terrorists and fuel for anti-Western sentiments. It could also offer the side benefit of discouraging regional neighbors from inserting themselves into spoiler roles.

A third obstacle that hindered the deliverance of post-conflict assistance to Libya is national pride. Countries on the receiving end of large, long-term stabilization programs often are seen as international basket cases, incapable of standing on their own two feet. Tensions over roles and responsibilities, government corruption, and the distribution of money and power can render relations between fledgling governments and international officials fraught. More than any other factor, resistance from the Libyan rebels prevented the United Nations from deploying a more potent mission in Libya starting in 2011.

In Libya, local authorities are sensitive to being seen as under any kind of U.N. protectorate, even objecting to the presence of small, mobile security details for senior officials, let alone blue helmets patrolling the roundabouts of Tripoli. But this is a solvable problem that the U.N. can study, just as it examined other thorny issues, from how to speed deployments to preventing sexual assaults by peacekeepers. As part of a comprehensive review of peacekeeping that is now getting underway at the U.N., the world body should examine how to minimize and manage the tensions that arise when its heavy presence is required to stabilize a country.

None of these steps will render nation-building any less expensive; none of them will make it any faster or less risky than it has been for the last century. But as Obama seems now to recognize, as unappealing as nation-building may be, the alternative is usually even worse.

Menahem Kahana/AFP/ Getty Images