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After a long absence, a strategic player has returned to the Middle Eastern stage: the people. In Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Iran, and Libya, protesters are demanding either comprehensive reform or total revolution. Only once before in modern history has a populist wave of this magnitude swept the region.
Half a century ago, a series of Arab nationalist movements shook the ground beneath the feet of Arab rulers. The immediate catalyst for that revolutionary shock was the Suez crisis. Throughout 1955, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's charismatic leader, championed pan-Arabism, challenged Israel militarily, and mounted a regionwide campaign against the lingering influence of British and French imperialism. By the end of the year, he had aligned Egypt with the Soviet Union, which provided him with arms. After Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956, the European powers, in collusion with Israel, invaded Egypt to topple him. They failed, and Nasser emerged triumphant.
Much like the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from Tunisia in January, the Suez crisis generated a revolutionary spark. Nasser's victory demonstrated that imperialism was a spent force and, by extension, that the Arab regimes created by the imperialists were living on borrowed time. Egyptian propaganda, including Cairo's Voice of the Arabs radio station, drove this point home relentlessly, depicting Nasser's rivals as puppets of the West whose days were numbered. Nasser was the first revolutionary leader in the region to appeal effectively to the man in the street, right under the noses of kings and presidents. Before Nasser's rivals even felt the ground shifting, they found themselves sitting atop volcanoes.
In the 18 months that followed Nasser's victory, the region underwent what can only be described as an eruption. Egypt's defeat of the French was a boon to the National Liberation Front in Algeria, which had launched a war of independence from France—with Nasser's support—even before the Suez crisis had erupted. In Jordan, popular protests, along with a Nasser-inspired movement in the military, threatened King Hussein. He managed to save his crown only by carrying out a "royal coup"—dismissing parliament, outlawing political parties, and ruling by martial law. Meanwhile, the Syrian elite splintered into numerous factions, each with its own external patron. In the summer of 1957, Turkey attempted to pull Syria away from Egypt by, among other things, massing troops on its border with Syria. Fearing a loss of influence, Nasser took drastic action: in early 1958, he unified Egypt and Syria, establishing the United Arab Republic. The sudden union roiled Syria's neighbors. In Lebanon, violence erupted between groups that favored joining the UAR, such as the Sunnis, and those that favored an independent Lebanon, such as the Maronites. Then, in July 1958, the most consequential event of all took place: the Iraqi revolution. A Nasser-style military putsch toppled the Hashemite regime and removed Iraq from the Western camp in the Cold War.
Regimes fell and rose, countries united and fragmented, and armed conflicts erupted. Today's turmoil, then, is not unique; rather, it represents the second Arab revolution.
Although the pan-Arab fervor of Nasser's time and the political unrest of today are similar, there are at least two obvious differences. first, the dominant ideology of Nasser's revolution, pan-Arabism, focused on external threats: gaining independence from imperialism and confronting Israel. In contrast, today's revolutionary wave is driven by domestic demands: for jobs and political representation. Second, the political upheaval of the 1950s had a leader, Nasser, who guided—or appeared to guide—events, whereas today's unrest has so far been an exercise in synchronized anarchy.
Yet the underlying ethos in both revolutions is very similar. Then, as now, the people in the street believed that the existing order was dominated by corrupt cliques that exploited the power of the state to serve their own interests. In the 1950s, popular imagination understood the unrepresentative nature of the system as an outgrowth of imperialism. Today, however, people see the problem as homegrown.
Nasser's authority was not as great as his myth might lead one to believe. In retrospect, his greatest achievement was creating an informal coalition against imperialism, which he did by aiding and abetting anti-status-quo forces that operated independently of him. Nasser quickly learned that tearing down regimes was one thing, but building a new order was another altogether. His pan-Arab movement dissolved once it had achieved its immediate aim of ousting the imperialists. Even Syria, the one country that Nasser had managed to control directly, chafed under his domination. Before the UAR had reached its fourth anniversary, Syria withdrew and denounced Nasser's authoritarianism. For the next decade, Arab politics were more chaotic than at any point in modern history. Nasser's revolution promised unity—but it delivered fragmentation and discord.
The underlying anarchic nature of Arab politics remains a constant, as does the difficulty of finding a distinction between "domestic" and "foreign" in Arab states, particularly in revolutionary moments. Such constants suggest that today's revolution will also usher in a period of prolonged turmoil.
The balance of power between state and society is shifting. As popular participation in politics expands—and as the power of the police state recedes—two interconnected dynamics will accelerate: one, the number of politically significant actors within each state will increase; two, some of these actors will establish relationships across international boundaries. Malign and disruptive forces will benefit from this change. Transnational movements hostile to the interests of the United States—such as al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood—will find fertile new fields to plow. Even more worrisome, the porousness of Arab politics will give states greater opportunities to meddle in the affairs of their neighbors. This will take many forms: indirect cultivation of constituencies located across frontiers, the formation of loose networks of direct association, overt construction of proxies (on the model of Iran and Hezbollah), and covert sponsorship of terrorism. Considerable friction will result. Years will pass before a stable order emerges.
In navigating the Arab world's ongoing turmoil, the United States must determine the central principles that will guide the building of a stable, new order. One perspective sees the enlargement of political participation as the key step, arguing, therefore, that democracy promotion should become the touchstone of the United States' regional strategy. Another eschews overarching principles entirely, instead pointing to the complexity of the region and advocating a pragmatic, country-by-country approach. Yet a third view sees Arab-Israeli peace as the essential first step to revitalizing the U.S.-led order in the region.
As it considers these competing paradigms, the Obama administration should remember that it is not the only actor attempting to shape the turmoil. Although there is no one personality like Nasser towering above the revolutionary events, there is one state seeking to reprise Egypt's historic role: Iran. Under Nasser, Egypt opposed British and French imperialism, which it associated with Israel. Iran is taking a similar stand today against the United Kingdom's "imperial successor": the United States. And like Nasser, Iran has created an anti-status-quo coalition—made up of itself, Syria, and their proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. The DNA of Nasserism is certainly recognizable in the "resistance bloc" of Iran and its allies; Nasserist genes may have commingled with pan-Islamism, but the resemblance is nevertheless unmistakable. Iran, of course, is neither Arab nor Sunni. One might expect its Persian and Shiite identity to prevent it from emulating Nasser, especially in a region where Sunni Arabs predominate and where identity politics remains significant. Tehran, however, has managed to surmount this disability, thanks in part to the fact that each member of the resistance bloc represents a different ethnoreligious identity, which allows it to present a distinctive and familiar face to radically different constituencies.
The insurgency in Iraq, which reached its height in 2006, provides an instructive example of how Tehran and Damascus divide their labor along ethnoreligious lines. In Iraq, they manipulated Sunni and Shiite Islamist networks—groups that, if left to their own devices, would never have cooperated with each other. Yet the resistance bloc turned them into synchronized fists attached to a single body. Damascus constructed a covert pipeline of foreign fighters, pushing al Qaeda suicide bombers into the Sunni regions of Iraq, where they provided the human ammunition in a sectarian war. Al Qaeda's attacks pushed the Shiite Iraqis toward the patronage of Shiite Iran. Meanwhile, Tehran used the Iranian Quds Force (and, perhaps, Hezbollah) to provide Shiite militias with lethal assistance, including the training and material necessary to deploy the explosively formed penetrator, an armor-piercing, remote-activated roadside bomb that killed more U.S. soldiers than any other weapon in Iraq.
With this one-two, Sunni-Shiite punch, the resistance bloc pummeled the United States and the new Iraq. Of course, Tehran and Damascus never proclaimed this strategy publicly. On the contrary, they denied the accusations of their cooperating with al Qaeda and manipulating Iraqi politics. Even as they visited carnage on their Iraqi neighbor, their propaganda was blaming the bloodshed on the United States, which, they claimed, was using democracy promotion as a cover for slaughtering Muslims.
Beneath the surface, the seemingly random violence in Iraq was a shadow war between two alliances: the status quo system, led by the United States, which seeks to stabilize the region under its hegemony by building more consensual political systems, and the anti-status-quo alliance, led by Iran, which seeks to wear down this U.S.-led effort. The struggle between the two is asymmetric. Iran, regardless of its propaganda, does not think it can compete with the United States—but it does believe that it can exhaust it.
Iran's exhaustion strategy relies on the inherent anarchy of the Middle East. The shadow war in Iraq was thus a prelude to an impending regional contest. As the revolutionary wave expands political participation, the resistance bloc will insinuate itself into the politics of many different Arab states. In countries divided along ethnic, tribal, or sectarian lines, such as Iraq, it will use terrorism and will search for partners on the ground that are willing to make direct alliances. In more homogeneous and stable countries, such as Egypt, it will resort to more subtle and insidious means—for example, inciting violence against Israel.
Over the years, Iran has injected itself into the Arab-Israeli conflict as a way of projecting its power and influence into Arab societies and, importantly, as a way of undermining American prestige. As such, hostility to Israel has become the bread and butter of Iran and its allies in the resistance bloc.
To understand the role of the Israeli question in Iran's asymmetric regional contest with the United States, it is useful to borrow a word from Arabic: tawreet, which translates as "embroiling." You embroil someone by goading him to take actions against a third party that will result in political effects beneficial to you.
Nasser was a master of tawreet. For example, in the mid-1950s, Egypt, without the knowledge of King Hussein and his government, launched terrorist attacks from Jordanian territory against Israel. The goal of these strikes was not to tip the balance against Israel; instead, Nasser sought to drive a wedge between Jordan and the United Kingdom, Egypt's primary strategic rival. At the time, the United Kingdom subsidized the Jordanian army, whose officer corps, led by Sir John Bagot Glubb, was staffed primarily by British soldiers. Israel responded with massive retaliation, countering the terrorism with brutal reprisal raids. With each Israeli operation, Jordanian public opinion grew increasingly agitated -- precisely the result Nasser had hoped to achieve. Meanwhile, his Voice of the Arabs radio station stirred the pot, accusing King Hussein of being a puppet of the United Kingdom, the supposed ally of Israel. What good, the Egyptian broadcasts asked, was a British-led military if it protected the Israelis and divided the Arabs? Before long, Jordanian public opinion became so inflamed that King Hussein had no choice but to dismiss the British officers and terminate the special relationship. The blow to the United Kingdom's prestige was enormous: if Jordan, a client state, could expel the British, bag and baggage, then they were truly finished in the region. Egypt had won a major strategic victory.
In those days, it was the United Kingdom that guaranteed the security of Arab countries. Today, it is the United States—and the conditions are once again ripe for tawreet, especially in Egypt. The resistance bloc is clearly thinking along similar lines. Consider, for example, the Hezbollah plot foiled by Egypt's security services in 2009. Hezbollah had constructed a clandestine network in the Sinai and planned to attack Israeli targets on Egyptian soil. Given the organic connection between Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force, the plot should be read as part of an Iranian regional strategy.
The resistance bloc's behavior during Israel's war with Hezbollah in 2006 and its invasion of Gaza in December 2008 demonstrates how the bloc will exploit the next round of violence. In these past conflicts, it ridiculed the Arab leaders aligned with the United States. For example, in a famous speech in August 2006, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the rulers of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia "half men" for failing to support Hezbollah out of their supposedly servile attitude toward the United States and Israel. Meanwhile, during both conflicts, Arab media outlets under the control or influence of the resistance bloc inflamed public opinion by broadcasting gruesome scenes of suffering women and children. During Israel's incursion into Gaza, the bloc heaped special vitriol on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who tacitly supported Israel's actions, not least of all by refusing to open the border crossing to Egypt. Although the bloc depicted him as a puppet of the Jews, he stood firm.
Faced with the accountability of the democratic process, Egypt's new rulers will not feel nearly as free as Mubarak did to side with Washington and Jerusalem when the next round of conflicts involving Israel erupts. In the post-Mubarak era, the resistance bloc has a new weapon: the Egyptian crowd, which is now freer than before to organize on its own. Renewed violence will undoubtedly spark massive street demonstrations, not only in Egypt but also in Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. But it is in Egypt where the bloc will concentrate its energies, providing the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups with a pretext for organizing the mob and casting themselves as the conscience of the Egyptian people. They will demand that the military sever all ties with Israel and the United States—and it is far from certain whether Egypt's insecure army officers will have the mettle to withstand the campaign.
Tehran and Damascus view post-Mubarak Egypt as a chunk of the United States' security architecture that has broken loose from key moorings. With a little effort, they believe, it can now be severed entirely. Arab-Israeli violence would help—either by undermining the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, by complicating U.S.-Egyptian cooperation, or simply by increasing the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded groups in Egypt.
In navigating the crosscurrents of Middle Eastern politics, policymakers in Washington must remember the fundamental interests of the United States: ensuring the uninterrupted flow of oil at stable and reasonable prices; blocking the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; protecting key allies, especially Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia; countering terrorism and political violence; and promoting democratic reform in a way that bolsters the U.S.-led order in the region.
The resistance bloc opposes Washington on almost every item. It has built an alliance that advocates expelling the United States from the Middle East and undermining U.S. allies across the region. Iran and Syria are two of the most egregious state sponsors of terrorism: Tehran provides weaponry to the Taliban, and Damascus has covertly given al Qaeda use of its territory, from which it conducted a terror campaign in Iraq. Both regimes openly support Hamas. In defiance of the international community, they have built up Hezbollah's military capability to such an extent that it now possesses a missile arsenal and a covert operations capability that rival those of most states in the region. Beyond all this, Iran is universally assumed to be developing a nuclear weapons program in defiance of numerous un Security Council resolutions. Collectively, then, the bloc represents the single greatest threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Therefore, one might expect Washington to adopt a containment strategy, as it did with respect to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Such an approach would entail, among other things, renouncing engagement of Iran and Syria and seeking to build an international coalition against them. In addition, it would call for subordinating all other major regional initiatives to the overarching goal of containment.
Yet the Obama administration has rejected this strategy. Why? For one, the immediate danger does not appear to justify such an elevated effort. Both Iran and Syria at times have the appearance of sclerotic regimes, deeply vulnerable to the democratic revolution sweeping the region. Unlike the Soviet Union, the resistance bloc hardly constitutes a serious conventional threat. It does not endanger the supply of oil, and it certainly does not threaten the West with global war. In addition, the bloc is less cohesive than the Soviet Union and its allies were. Tehran's influence over Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas does not resemble the iron grip with which Moscow controlled its satellites. To treat them as components of a cohesive unit assumes that the divisions between the members of the bloc are less important than the ties that bind them. Containing Iran, the White House argues, would actually force allies of Tehran deeper into its embrace. With a more nuanced policy, Washington could entice them away.
To this end, the Obama administration has made the Arab-Israeli peace process the organizing principle of its Middle East policy. In June 2009 in Cairo, when President Barack Obama delivered his most important statement on U.S. Middle East policy to date, he envisioned the United States as an honest broker, mediating between the Arabs and Muslims and the Israelis. "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," he said. A major cause of tension between the two, he explained, was "the situation between Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab world." Obama, clearly, was seeking to demonstrate American goodwill. As a result, the peace process grew into something much bigger than just a practical tool for normalizing relations between Israel and its neighbors. It became a litmus test of the United States' intentions toward Arabs and Muslims around the world. Of course, it would certainly be desirable if the peace process delivered tangible results. But the White House has created an environment in which the peace process cannot be abandoned. Even if it fails, it must continue to exist in order to demonstrate the United States' goodwill.
From the outset, the Obama administration has believed in the importance of pursuing a "comprehensive" settlement—meaning a peace treaty that includes not just the Palestinians but, in addition, all the Arab states, especially Syria. As the administration has failed to make any headway in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Syrian track has grown in importance. Consequently, Washington has chosen to treat Syria not as an adversary deserving containment but rather as a partner in the negotiations deserving of engagement. In fact, the Obama administration sees the peace process as an instrument for wooing Syria away from Iran. At the very least, Washington believes that by bringing Damascus to the negotiating table, it can give the Syrians an incentive to tamp down Arab-Israeli violence. But such a strategy fails to acknowledge that the Syrians understand the thinking in Washington all too well—they recognize the United States' fervent desire for negotiations and see in it an opportunity to bargain. Damascus seeks to trade participation in diplomatic processes, which costs it nothing, for tangible benefits from Washington, including a relaxation of U.S. hostility. In short, the Syrians believe that they can have it both ways, reaping the rewards of tawreet without being held to account. And why would they think otherwise? After all, nobody held them responsible for similar double-dealing in Iraq, where they were accomplices to the murder of Americans.
As the United States seeks to build a new order in the Middle East, it is worth remembering what happened in the course of the last Arab revolution. Like Obama, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower came to power intent on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to line up the Arab world with the United States. Together with the United Kingdom, Eisenhower focused on brokering an Egyptian-Israeli agreement. Nasser, like Damascus today, played along, while simultaneously turning up the heat on the Israelis, working to oust the British, and sparking a regionwide revolution. By 1958, the United States' position had grown so tenuous that Eisenhower felt compelled to send U.S. troops to Lebanon, lest one of the last overtly pro-U.S. regimes in the region fall to Nasser-inspired forces.
This is not to say that the resistance bloc is poised to mimic Nasser's achievements in every respect. The comparison is not entirely symmetrical. In some countries, the United States faces a perfect Nasserist storm. In Bahrain, for instance, a Shiite majority—which the Bahraini authorities claim is influenced by Tehran—threatens an unrepresentative, pro-U.S. regime that provides Washington with a valuable strategic asset, basing rights for the fifth fleet. In Bahrain, Iran wins no matter what: If the state violently represses the Shiite majority, as it has, Tehran can plausibly claim that it did so at the behest of the United States. And if the protesters topple the regime, Iran can work to shape the new order. But in other countries, such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, Iran has little or no influence over events, which are clearly spinning on their own independent axis.
Although the resistance bloc may not be as influential as Nasser was, it is nevertheless poised to pounce, jackal-like, on the wounded states of the region. Moreover, it has already proved itself capable of mounting an effective asymmetric challenge that should not be underestimated. Over the last five years, it has defied the United States on a number of critical fronts. Despite eight years of effort by Washington and its allies, Tehran continues to move toward a nuclear weapons capability. In addition, it has developed a credible deterrent to any conventional attack against its nuclear infrastructure, thanks to a diverse set of covert and overt capabilities in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan. In Lebanon, Hezbollah recently took effective control of the government, and the resistance bloc depicted this development, correctly, as a defeat for U.S. policy. In Iraq, the combined covert efforts of Iran and Syria prolonged the war and cost both Washington and Baghdad considerable blood and treasure. finally, in the last half decade, both Hamas and Hezbollah have ignited major conflicts with Israel that have complicated relations between the United States and its Arab allies. The resistance bloc will certainly continue this effort, working to shape the emerging regional order to its benefit and to the detriment of the United States. And it will do so with a deceptiveness, a ruthlessness, and an intensity of focus that the United States—a distracted Gulliver—cannot match.
The most important arena in the months and years ahead, therefore, is the struggle for regional hegemony. Many U.S. interests will be threatened by conflicts that, at first glance, will appear unrelated to the future of the United States' position in the region. If Washington is to minimize the pain of the transition to a new order, it must remain focused, amid all the turmoil, on the sophisticated asymmetric threat that the resistance bloc presents. Yet the United States must remember that this hegemonic struggle is not the central force behind the unrest coursing its way through the region. The second Arab revolution may not have a charismatic leader, like Nasser, but it does have a representative figure who expresses the core aspirations of the revolutionaries: Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire out of despair and frustration with the state's corruption and caprice. The widespread influence of Bouazizi's desperate cry for justice and dignity should stand as a sharp reminder for Washington: for all that the struggle with the resistance bloc is about power politics, the emphasis must be on politics as much as on power. However vital the struggle for regional hegemony is to Washington, it is certainly not the central concern to the people who are protesting in the streets.
A call for justice and dignity also drove the first Arab revolution. The fact that a military man—Nasser—symbolized those aspirations in the 1950s speaks volumes about the pan-Arab movement, which, in the end, was hijacked by men with guns. In Bouazizi, the second revolution has chosen as its representative an entirely different kind of personality. His selection, too, speaks volumes, but the precise meaning of the message is ambiguous. As a humble fruit vendor who wanted nothing more than a fair shake in life, Bouazizi could symbolize the triumph of the human spirit. On the other hand, Bouazizi died a broken man. The men with guns are only hiding in the shadows, and they may yet play a decisive role in fashioning the new Middle East.
For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out the Foreign Affairs/CFR ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next. It is available for purchase in multiple formats including PDF, Kindle, and Nook.