The uprisings in the Arab world have highlighted the limits of US policy and capabilities. First, the US, like many other governments and non-state actors such as al-Qaeda, was blindsided by these events. The youth bulge and its attendant pathologies–such as daily humiliation and brutalization of individuals by government officials, despondency and high unemployment among other forms of immiseration–were well-known features of the region. No one, however, could see that one spark in Tunisia would light the raging fire that these multiple uprisings now represent.
Second, the US response to these events can be characterized as erratic. In Tunisia and Egypt, Washington initially hedged by refusing to take sides until it became obvious that the incumbent leader was no longer tenable, whereupon it called for a transition to a new regime. In Yemen, the US does not appear to have a strategy at all because the alternative to President Saleh’s rule is likely to be a Somalia-like situation, full of chaos and opportunities for al-Qaeda to better entrench itself. In Libya, US policy has been more decisive in that it has finally called for the removal of Gaddafi from power, no doubt because even an unstable post-revolutionary Libya is better than the one being ruled by him. And in Bahrain, the US has adopted the opposite tack, namely that the ruling family should be kept in power, despite the obscene corruption of its prime minister and the government’s blatant discrimination against the country’s Shiite majority. Realizing the geostrategic impo! rtance of Bahrain, Obama has decided to stick with the status quo while trying to convince its more enlightened crown prince to reach a settlement with the Shiite-led rebels. As to whether such a compromise will be cosmetic rather than a real power-sharing deal remains to be seen, but the ruling family of Bahrain, the al-Khalifa, looks like it is here to stay.
Clearly, the US’ stated commitment to freedom and democracy has had to be weighed against its national interests, which include stability in the region and the projection of its influence. President Barack Obama seems to be torn between these two imperatives in part, no doubt, because he recognizes in the rebelling Arab youth echoes of the American civil rights struggle and sees in their social media tactics strategies that he himself used to great effect during the presidential campaign. He identifies with them, while also realizing that the Middle East is a complicated place, and that the US is very dependent on its hydrocarbon resources.
In fact, the recent events have highlighted more than at any time in the past how vulnerable the US, and indeed the entire world, is to the political fate of the Arab world. Everyone will pay a heavy price as long as the Arab world remains in turmoil. This is largely due to its massive hydrocarbon wealth, some 60 percent of proven global reserves. We all depend on the reliable supply of these resources and any disruption will severely curtail our way of life. It has been troubling for Libya’s 1.5 million barrels of oil to be disrupted, but it would be cataclysmic if the same happens to Saudi Arabia’s nine million plus barrels of daily production. As of this writing, Saudi Arabia appears to be relatively protected from the wave that is sweeping the region. This is due to the popularity and support enjoyed by King Abdullah, the enormous wealth at his disposal and the lack of realistic alternatives to the rule of his family. It is, however, important that Riyadh take careful no! te of the events convulsing the region and put into effect policies that will help alleviate the problems it too faces with its own youth bulge. The clarion call for greater accountability and transparency in governance, individual freedom and economic opportunity needs to be heeded by all the regimes in the Arab world and beyond. How the US can help bring this about while preserving its interests is the policy challenge of the moment and the decade ahead.