What is the most powerful force in the modern Middle East? (Hint: It's not change)

It is not the narrative we had hoped for. It is certainly not the story line that would have been most uplifting. It is not even the scenario that seems most consistent with the course of centuries of human progress. But it is one we have to consider because with every passing day, it does seem the direction events are now headed.

Judging from developments throughout the Middle East, it seems quite possible that the primary outcome of the "Arab Spring" may be the reinforcing of the power of the old guard.

In Egypt, recent reports such as David Kirkpatrick's in the New York Times this weekend suggest that the military is working tirelessly to retain its traditionally dominant behind-the-scenes role in that country's political life even after any further reforms are implemented. In addition, political candidates -- like former foreign minister Amr Moussa -- with close ties to Hosni Mubarak's regime may fare well in upcoming elections.

In Jordan, Yemen, and Tunisia, promises of reform have thus far outnumbered any substantial steps in that direction. (See, for a thoughtful analysis, my Carnegie colleague Marina Ottaway's "Tunisia: The Revolution Is Over, Can Reform Continue?")

In Syria, while Bashar al-Assad regime has been weakened by protests, even weaker has been the international response to its brutality. The regime could well survive. Perhaps more importantly vis-à-vis the region at large, take how it has thus far faired compared with toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and the message to autocrats threatened in the future may be: strike hard, strike without mercy, the worst you will have to contend with from the rest of the planet is a flurry of diplomatic wrist-slaps. The fact that similar crackdowns in Iran and Bahrain were also effective only underscores the point.

In Bahrain, the formula is a little more pernicious. It suggests for regimes lucky enough to be located in the Gulf -- because of the oil, because of America's desire to contain Iran, because of old friendships -- you can get away with virtually anything. See today's article in the Independent titled "Poet jailed in protests claims she was beaten by Bahraini royal." It is a credible account of just one more ugly dimension of a protracted repressive episode that the United States and the rest of the world effectively chose to ignore … which in such cases is much the same thing as complicity.

Indeed, with the exception of the protracted, expensive, muddled Libya episode, as important to the current conditions in the region as the entrenched nature of elites has been the comparative passivity of the rest of the world. While some of this may be a byproduct of the natural tendency to be wary of the devils we don't know -- borne out perhaps in the drift of Egypt toward being a state run by the same old elites but this time with a considerably less constructive attitude toward Israel, for example -- it still feeds the notion that the most powerful force in the Middle East is not new technologies, or religion, or demographics, but inertia.

This is not only bad for the aspirant millions of the region, but it does not bode well for future stability because while elites may retain their hold on power, the challenges they face are not likely to go away. Indeed, for all the reasons that brought uprisings to the fore this year, they are likely to continue to fester and be more difficult to handle.

Worse still, however, is that perhaps the only thing less dependable than a Middle East roiled by political upheaval is one that is not. History has repeatedly shown that among the few things the West can depend on from its allies in the region is duplicity -- whether the issue is maintaining stable, affordable supplies of oil or combating terrorism. A particularly unsettling glimpse into this phenomenon pertaining to America's most important and therefore possibly most dangerous Arab ally comes in the current issue of Vanity Fair. The article is titled "The Kingdom and the Towers," and despite the spottiness of the story it sketches out, it only further underscores the degree to which our thirst for Saudi oil has forced us to tolerate the intolerable from some among the al-Sauds and those close to them.

Since that thirst has not abated and won't anytime soon and since the leading powers of the world are showing less rather than more cohesion among their views thanks to the entrance of emerging powers into the mix and the self-absorption caused by economic turmoil and weak multilateral institutions, the result is likely to be even less resolve in the near future to actively support needed reforms in the region. And given the power of the status quo within the region, that suggests that the unintended consequence of recently celebrated upheavals may ultimately send precisely the opposite message that many of us envisioned -- that for the foreseeable future at least, the story of the region is likely to be one of hopes dashed or deferred.


David Rothkopf

Losers of the week: How the right went wrong

It is too early to tell whether Rupert Murdoch, David Cameron, Mitch McConnell or Eric Cantor had a worse week. But one thing seems certain, this was not a good week for the right.

While Murdoch tried to defend his empire like a balloonist desperately throwing ballast overboard -- first the News of the World, then his British Sky TV deal, then Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton -- it seems he is still in denial about the enormity of what happened to him thanks to the utter disregard for journalistic ethics and the law displayed by his newspapers. He has embarked on an apology campaign that seems utterly craven, inadequate, and insincere. Within 24 hours he went from characterizing his company's abuses as just "minor mistakes" to acknowledging they amounted to "serious wrongdoing." He met with the family of a murder victim to apologize for violating their privacy. And he promised "further concrete steps to resolve these issues and make amends for the damage they have caused."

He may be full of regret. But the contradictory nature of his own statements about this, the editorials in his papers trying to frame the attacks on News Corp. as threats to freedom of the press, his initial resistance to appearing before government investigators and his reluctance to hold members of his team accountable, all suggest what he regrets the most is the impact the crisis is having on his bottom line.

That said, the greatest damage that has been done has been to his role as a champion of the right in the Britain and the United States. David Cameron has been personally embarrassed by the involvement of a key aide in the scandal and by his closeness to Brooks and other Murdoch princelings. Murdoch, one of the biggest promoters of the Conservative Party, is now its number one liability and it is going to be a long time, if ever, before the aging Murdoch is welcomed back into the salons of leaders on either side of the Atlantic as he once was. (Count on U.S. investigations that were announced late this week to churn up more bad news for Murdoch if only via keeping the story alive.)

Meanwhile, as demonstrated in his Friday press conference, President Barack Obama has emerged -- despite the missteps of his administration in allowing the debt ceiling issue to devolve to its current state -- as the last statesman standing in Washington. He captured the constructive and balanced tone that has eluded his opponents with statements responding to the confrontational, stalled politics of the week by saying, "The American people expect more than that. They expect that we try to solve our problem. We have a chance to stabilize America's finances for a decade, for 15 or 20 years, if we are willing to seize the moment." He downplayed the confrontational nature of the conversations, refused to get bogged down in name calling as had some of his opponents, and appeared engaged and ready to compromise to get something done.

Meanwhile, the efforts earlier in the week that suggested John Boehner, by far the most constructive of the Republican Party's leaders in the public debate about the debt ceiling, was going to engineer a compromise seemed dashed by midweek thanks to the tantrums, intransigence and intellectual dishonesty of Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell and the other mouthpieces for the GOP. But while Cantor seemed disrespectful of the president, at least he was standing up for the views of a faction of his party in a principled way. Admittedly, the faction's rejection of any revenue increases as part of the solution to the deficit problem both guarantees failure to close the budget gap and at the same time ignores the fact that Americans are paying less taxes right now as a percentage of GDP than at most times in the past several decades. But the strident Cantor was at least consistent. McConnell was politically extreme, unconstructive, and flopping all over the place in terms of his stance on how to handle the problem. It was clear he was only interested in whatever would damage Obama the most.

And my bet is that it was not just clear to DC commentators and inside-the-beltway types. One clue is that others who are closely watching voters are steering clear of embracing the extreme view of the GOP leadership -- like Mitt Romney. Romney may not be the most dynamic candidate in history, but he is the most experienced, canniest, and most likely to win the Republican presidential nomination and he has been tip-toeing his way around this battle to avoid being to closely associated with strategies that at best will be seen as obstructionist and at worst may unleash economic disaster. In the same vein, the message sent this week by the business community to the Republicans suggests that their primary sponsors are worried that the teabaggers may leave them all in hot water with voters.

Certainly this past week's shenanigans in Washington cover no one with glory. It is one of the ugliest displays of failed leadership and crude partisanship combined with utter disregard for the national interest that has been seen in this city in a long time -- and that's saying something! But, as the week draws to a close anyway, it looks like the far right seems to be damaging the Republican brand in ways that may have lasting consequences.

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