Voice

On the changing of the old guard in the Middle East…and the need for a new script

One of the most significant story lines associated with the death of Osama bin Laden is that yet another of the Middle East's most important and enduring political leaders is gone. It would have been hard to believe had you told anyone that within the first four months or so of 2011, you would see the end of the very long and prominent careers of Hosni Mubarak (president of Egypt for 30 years), Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (president of Tunisia for 23 years), and bin Laden, who had led al Qaeda for almost a quarter century and who had been atop the list of the world's most wanted terrorists since the early 1990.

But we have also effectively seen the end of the career of Yemen's Al Abdullah Saleh despite his continuing efforts to wriggle out of a deal setting a fixed date for his departure. He is the only ruler the Republic of Yemen has known and has led the country in one position or another for 33 years. And while it is premature to count on the exit of Muammar al-Qaddafi or to predict how it will happen, the hand-writing seems to be on the wall. Either he will leave of his own volition or another of those inexplicable stray NATO bombings is going to "accidentally" get him. Qaddafi is the region's longest serving ruler, having been in office for 42 years thus far.

While Bashar al-Assad has only been in office since 2000 and while he does not seem to be in quite as dire shape as Saleh or Qaddafi, the current unrest in that country suggests that after 40 years of al-Assad rule in Syria something significant has changed. Another of the region's ancient regimes is showing signs of real vulnerability.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah is soon to turn 87. The first in line to his throne is 83. The next in line is a youthful 74. While the Saudi royal family does not seem to be at any immediate risk of losing their hold on their country, it is clear that there will soon be a fairly significant shift among their principal leaders.

Other regimes in the region are also teetering or threatened or deeply flawed or on permanently thin political ice including but not limited to those in Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Israel.

The old lions of the Middle East are exiting the stage. We would be hard pressed to call them a pride since none is departing in glory. But, while it seems unlikely any of them will be missed, that remains to be seen. We don't know who will replace them, how long they will hold on to power or whether they will pursue policies that will distinguish them favorably or negatively from their predecessors.

What we do know is that watersheds like this create both opportunities and risks. New leaders offer the promise of new ideas. However, they are often weak and as a result, politically cautious. Multiple forces will be clamoring to influence them. A bidding war is about to begin for loyalties and internecine struggles are bound to take place behind the scenes by those trying to undermine this as yet faceless new guard.

For the United States and the other great powers of the world, this period of transition consequently offers hope and peril. Barack Obama is almost certainly going to be judged in the long run far more for how he handles this changing of the guard than for his great success in Abbottabad or his moves in Afghanistan or Libya or Iraq. The Middle East is so complex that the solution to no individual problem -- not the Arab-Israeli problem, not the removal of bin Laden, not the Iranian nuclear threat -- offers a magic wand-like panacea or even a sure game-changer impacting the myriad others that constantly bubble and fester. Rather mastery of this region will require multi-tiered, multi-faceted, multi-speed, diplomatic, economic, political and security initiatives.

Obama has a couple of things going for him. The promise of his Cairo speech, while as yet unrealized still hangs in the air. He has demonstrated a commitment to the region. And this week after fitful progress from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan to Iran to the Maghreb, he has had his first great success.

He -- despite the continuity between his agenda and much of that of the Bush administration -- is also still seen as someone who is open to new approaches. This will be the key. The principle players in this region are changing. But if we revert to the same script with the new cast, we will get the same old play with the same old, typically unhappy endings. After emphatically showing the strength that comes of continuity in U.S. policy, the next challenge and the more important long-term successes for Obama must come from showing that he has the even greater strength that will be required to offer something entirely new.

My own view is that requires as a pre-requisite an energy policy that will reduce our dependence on the region, a reversion to conducting the war on terror via ultra-targeted, intelligence led special missions like that we saw this weekend, an embrace of a new Palestinian state, and a much greater focus on working with the new leadership to produce an economic resurgence in the region with a special focus on creating jobs for those under 30. It will also require much greater vigilance on the proliferation front and the ability to use new major power partnerships in new combinations to achieve these goals and pressure those who refuse to go along. Central to those partnerships will be much greater roles for big emerging powers like India (which looks more important to the U.S. every day), China, Turkey, and even non-regional actors like Brazil or South Africa.

There will certainly be other elements. But the key is that now is the moment to begin the changes. And fortunately for Barack Obama, he has never been in a better position to act from a position of confidence and strength.

David Rothkopf

The death of Osama changes little…but what it may change is ominous

Once the heartfelt emotion unleashed by the death of Osama bin Laden and the deserved appreciation for the accomplishment of the U.S. military, intelligence community, and Obama and Bush Administration officials who made this possible passes, what will we be left with?

First, we will be left with the uncomfortable realization that what has happened is the most important event of 2001.  It changes almost nothing about today's world. That which was a threat, remains a threat.  The risks we faced in the Middle East and elsewhere remain roughly as they were.  We are still leaving Iraq, still edging to the exit in Afghanistan (albeit with a clearer "mission accomplished" sense about us...even if the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other new extremist threats remain in the region).  Countries rocked by unrest such as Libya and Yemen, still contain threats from al Qaeda cells within and near to their borders.  And the biggest most important national security concerns we have are totally unrelated to al Qaeda in whatever form it exists today.

Second, I said it changes almost nothing.  One thing that has clearly changed, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, is our relationship with Pakistan.   Given the location in which bin Laden was found, literally right under the noses of the Pakistani military and the government, in a large, suspicious facility not an hour away from the capital, our already dwindling trust for the Pakistanis, and in particular for their intelligence service must now be acknowledged to have evaporated altogether.  While no doubt a number of heroic and dependable true friends in Pakistan helped with this operation, clearly others in very high places were behind protecting bin Laden for years and years.

Further, the fact that we struck independently deep into the heart of Pakistan will not sit well with many in that country, further worsening the relationship.

Given that during the past few years Pakistan has reportedly very dramatically increased their nuclear weapons arsenal, and that at best, they are a schizophrenic ally -- and it is very hard to use that word without gagging on it, we must today acknowledge that the greatest threat to U.S.  security was not killed yesterday but instead remains as it was, the country in which he died.  That's not to say that it is the government of Pakistan per se or even the majority of the Pakistani people, but rather the threat lies with the tens of millions who are deeply hostile to us, the extremists they cultivate, shelter, fund, and facilitate, and the elements within the government who are perilously close to weapons that, should they ever fall into the wrong hands, would pose a threat that will make us forget today's celebrations very quickly.

AFP/Getty Images