How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
To the Editor:
In "Back to the Bazaar" (January/February 2002), Martin Indyk argues that the decade-old bargain between the United States and Middle Eastern states must be recast. The Bush administration would do well to disregard his suggestion.
According to Indyk, President Bill Clinton's bargain was that in return for "moderate Arab states [providing] the U.S. military with access to bases and facilities to help contain the 'rogues' and [supporting] Washington's efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict," Washington "would not exert significant pressure for domestic change." This bargain was even worse for the United States than Indyk lets on.
The absurdity that providing bases was an Arab concession to Washington is reflected in Indyk's statement that "both the Egyptian and the Saudi regimes were comfortable with the containment of Saddam Hussein and willing to assist the United States quietly." Similarly, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have routinely argued that the Arab-Israeli peace process is their foremost regional issue. Indyk acknowledges that under Clinton the United States pursued the interests of its Middle Eastern partners and in return left them alone on their domestic affairs. This wasn't a bargain, it was a fire sale.
Indyk's new bargain is not much better, because it is unworkable. He argues that in return for fulfilling the Arab demand for no public Israeli participation in the war on terrorism (largely achieved), no attack on Iraq (a demand that may be slowly changing), and a new initiative to solve the Arab-Israeli problem (currently occurring), the United States should ask for no harboring or funding of terrorists, active support for a moderate interpretation of Islam, help on the peace process, and political and economic liberalization. Because the Arab demands are immediate and achievable, whereas the American ones are long-term and ambitious, when the issues are cast in this way Washington is unlikely to get much of what it wants.
The entire notion of finding a new bargain is misguided. Instead, the Bush team should seriously engage its partners and redefine where interests overlap and where they differ. Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others are not served by Saddam Hussein, nor is the United States. All would be better off if the Arab-Israeli conflict was solved, or at a minimum brought under control. And all are challenged by radical Islam.
Even areas of difference may be less troublesome if they can be reconceptualized. Indyk says Saudi Arabia and Egypt will resist political and economic reform, and he therefore defines reform as an American demand. But American policymakers should repackage this goal as helping partners find economic opportunities for overeducated, underskilled populations facing, in some cases, 30 percent unemployment. Acceptance from the region would be easier than Indyk suggests, since even senior Saudi officials define unemployment as a threat to national security.
Tactical bargaining between parties will of course occur; it is the essence of politics. But the strategic goal should be not to arrange bargains but to define the big problems in ways that are of mutual interest.
Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations