Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Conversation: The Impact of the 2011 Uprisings on World Politics, Part III

There are two points I am glad you mentioned, Yohanes, and I would like to discuss them in more detail. First, as you suggested, the next few months really will be important. As you may know, making such a claim can make for a dicey predicament. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is the king of overemphasizing events of the moment or near-moment, and he has been pilloried in the blogosphere for repeatedly claiming that "the next six months" were essential to the fate of Iraq. But in the case of the uprisings, what happens next will shape a host of different events and processes for quite some time.

Almost immediately, the various political actors intimately involved in the aftermath of the uprisings will have to decide whether they want to pursue minor system changes or a full-scale internal overhaul. If they opt to make only minor changes, how will the people respond? In Saudi Arabia and Oman, minor political tinkering, such as allowing for increased political participation and clearly outlining the lines of succession, might satisfy the current rumblings of frustration. But in Egypt and Tunisia and Bahrain? Limited political changes likely will not be enough. The people in these countries want deep, sweeping system transformations. And if they do not reach their desired political goals, after recently achieved some success and having their expectations massively heightened, might they display their disappointment and anger with violence? It is possible. And if they do, this could lead to a host of bad outcomes (mass violence, foreign interventions, civil wars).

But even if the people in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain get their way and these three countries proceed toward major political reforms, there are still other major hurdles to clear. One of these hurdles is the creation and consolidation of new domestic political institutions. Rewriting constitutions, altering electoral laws, allowing for the formation of political parties, selecting a type of legislative system, creating the rules that specify legislative-executive branch relations, developing procedures to re-integrate the old guard back into the fold, and so on, are procedures that take time and need to be done well on the first try. For instance, if any of these countries decides to create a legislative branch that is shaped by majoritarian electoral rules (a winner-take-all system), perhaps in a brazen attempt to limit the number of dissenting, anti-government voices, then many people will be almost instantaneously alienated from the new political system. Or if new governments are especially vengeful toward the old guard, blacklisting them en masse from politics and stripping their political rights and liberties, then they risk sowing the seeds of future class or ethnic conflict. Just look at Iraq during the period of 2003 to 2007.

Second, you rightly questioned the future role of the U.S. in the region. America probably will lose some influence in whichever allies (like Egypt) significantly open up their political processes. If new governments in the Middle East and North Africa reflect the political preferences of their citizens, as they do in free and fair democratic regimes, then they will undoubtedly take foreign policy positions that are increasingly independent of Washington’s demands. Just take a look at any survey of foreign policy attitudes of people in the region. These dynamics could shift somewhat, depending on what policies Iran–the clear leading revisionist state in the region–decides to enact going forward. In particular, If Iran overplays its hand, resulting in instability and chaos in the region, opinions could turn against Tehran and the U.S. might find more support for its interventionist policies (e.g., containing Iran, combating terrorism, etc.).

The above paragraph is all about how other countries might respond to and deal with the U.S. in the future. But to me, there is another, just as important, issue involving the U.S. How will America respond to the current and impending changes to the status quo North Africa and the Middle East? In answering this very question, Kenneth Pollack (of the Brookings Institution) recently put forward some interesting ideas. He writes, "The biggest piece that has been missing so far, however, has been for Washington to articulate a new strategic vision for its policy toward the transformed Middle East." Pollack argues that a vital part of any new strategy should call for the U.S. to throw its support behind countries that have started or are in the process of starting to take concrete steps toward improving the lives of their citizens. Here, he is referring to political, economic, and social reform. I think this is a good start, for several reasons.

To support the aspirations of people in the Middle East and North Africa, standing up forcefully for human rights, is the morally right thing to do. It also means that U.S. foreign policy will connect more closely and meaningfully to its political and economic ideals. Further, it undercuts the rhetoric of extremists (radical leaders and terrorist groups) who constantly berate the U.S. for supporting authoritarian governments that oppress and violate their citizens. And lastly, such a strategy puts America on the road to embracing future-forward foreign policies. More governments will turn democratic–either now or in the future–it is only a matter of time now that an air of democracy has been breathed into in the region. As a result, now is the time for the U.S. to get acclimated to associating with democracies of various stripes in the Middle East and North Africa.

What are your thoughts, Yohanes? And what other issues should we keep an eye on?

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