How can US aid to Middle East nations catalyze constructive institutional change, rather than propping up regimes perpetually in crisis? How should we envision, articulate, and enforce this kind of conditional assistance? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Dafna Rand and Andrew Miller. This present conversation focuses on Rand and Miller’s edited collection Re-Engaging the Middle East: A New Vision for U.S. Policy. Rand most recently served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. She has served on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff, and on the staff of the National Security Council. She is the author of Roots of the Arab Spring: Contested Authority and Political Change in the Middle East. Miller is the Deputy Director for Policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, and a nonresident scholar in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program. He served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2014 to 2017, and previously worked in the State Department.
ANDY FITCH: Your collection makes clear the great diversity of developments playing out across the contemporary Middle East: with, for example, certain nations subject to divided or rival power centers, certain regimes ramping up centralized authoritarian political structures, and certain states in tentative transition toward something like stable pluralistic democracy. So with all of those different dynamics in mind, could you first make your broadest case for the US facing a crucial foreign-policy question not of whether we should continue to actively engage in this region, but of what our presence should look like in various places?
DAFNA RAND: First, that’s the right framing question, because the political debate about ending these “forever wars” can cast a very black-or-white binary. Supposedly, you either must overinvest militarily in the Middle East, or pull out and disengage. But we want this book to make the point that the US doesn’t need to approach this region in such narrow ways, and that we often can address challenges in the Middle East through diplomatic and civilian levers, without overcommitting and overextending our military, and without spending billions of dollars each year.
ANDREW MILLER: Too often, you see this policy debate framed in those binary terms on both the far-left and the far-right. Both sides speak of “getting out” of the Middle East, of the US packing up and going home — which really isn’t a viable option, even if it sounds desirable at a certain level. We also frequently conflate military and non-military forms of investment. In reality, the types of Middle East investments most unpopular domestically within the US have been military. But our national discussions don’t offer much room to recognize that diplomatic and economic forms of investment in this region remain much more cost-effective than most equivalent military investments.
So let’s say that the Obama administration started off sensing the need for a practical (not a transformational) Middle East agenda, premised on modest, disciplined, outcomes-oriented approaches tacking between chaos-inducing retreat and unsustainable overinvestment. But let’s also say that principal decision-makers soon found themselves recommitting to certain dysfunctional engagements they had explicitly pledged to stop. What lessons might your book’s authors have learned by watching (from slightly less senior positions) that basic pattern play out? And which most notable differences in perceptions, tactics, and preferred program options characterize this “emerging generation” of Middle East experts?
DR: The Obama administration came in with an instinct to reduce US investment in the region. They asked the basic question of: “Should the broader Middle East remain the focal point and the center of gravity for our national-security interests?” They came to the conclusion that it should not, but they had a hard time implementing this analytical conclusion.
Through that lived experience, our own generation of Middle East analysts (and the authors of this book) have come to realize a couple basic things. First, we cannot help but assume that in this region, there will continue to be unexpected crises and political instability — and that therefore our advanced strategic planning has its limits. That certainly happened to this group of authors as we worked on Arab Spring developments in 2011 through 2013. Even with President Obama wanting a pragmatic, disciplined and poised rebalance away from the Middle East, the instability, the revolutions, and the hope offered by the Arab Spring drew us back in. These unexpected events re-elevated the Middle East to the top of the foreign-policy agenda. Second, this current generation has come to see the fundamental importance of US global leadership operating from an ethical and normative perspective, and of promoting this perspective not just rhetorically. Policy makers have grown committed to a foundational point that the people of the Middle East deserve human rights — that the authoritarian status quo undermines both US national-security interests and broader regional stability.
AM: I absolutely agree with Dafna. The defining experience for the current generation represented by our book comes out of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Prior to that, you had a generation largely forged and informed by the first Gulf War and US success there. Then you had a mini-generation or intermediary generation defined both by the 9/11 attacks and the 2003 Iraq invasion. But for the people contributing to this book, the Arab uprisings instilled in many of us both a recognition that the Middle East is much more dynamic than certain folks might suggest (with its authoritarian structures not eternal, and with possibilities for change), and an acute appreciation of the constraints on American influence — particularly when it comes to military engagement.
We also share, as Dafna said, this ethical-moral dimension, this recognition that people across the Middle East want (just like us) foundational human rights and opportunities to flourish. And we share a sense that, even when operating from the best of intentions, the US tends to undertake certain counterproductive actions. Successful policy requires a degree of sophistication and reflection and ongoing refinement of our policy approaches, to chart the best way forward.
I asked about the Obama administration coming in with a sober-minded skepticism regarding Middle East foreign policy. Your book also offers an interesting balance of framing a bipartisan, consensus-based approach — while still acknowledging the more self-induced chaos of this Trump administration.
DR: We tried hard to begin the book project by saying to the authors: “Let’s give the Trump administration as much credit as possible, and attempt to articulate their most principled strategy of disengagement.” But of course it rarely has played out that way on the ground. Comparisons between the Obama and Trump administrations’ Middle East approaches soon start breaking down, because Trump’s approach (both in this region and around the world) ends up devolving into an impulsive, capricious, foreign-policy-by-tweet. You see this vacillating and seesawing approach in many cases, such as Syria. You never know when Trump might say either: “we’re pulling out our troops,” or instead use cruise missiles to respond to sarin-gas attacks. And that unpredictability seems less like a strategic ploy of Trump’s, and more like a habit he can’t help.
AM: Another major difference comes out of the role that each President accorded to diplomacy. Both Presidents might have had the initial instinct to disengage militarily from the region. Both ended up struggling to accomplish that. But Obama still tried to restore and to cultivate some diplomatic stature for the US in the Middle East. He sought to lean in on political processes, and domestic and regional concerns. Trump, by contrast, appears to think of the Middle East as more or less a giant ATM machine. Trump seems to prefer just seizing economic opportunities, sometimes for himself and sometimes for US interests. Trump probably would welcome pulling out all US military forces and diplomats from the region, so long as American businessmen still had the chance to go in and make profits.
So then to take one step back, if I had to extract one single argumentative thread running through this book, it would focus on the need for the US to provide conditional assistance — including a clear explication of the mutually beneficial outcomes we expect this assistance to bring forward, and a vigilant commitment to impose real consequences when such objectives don’t get met. Could you give a quick overview of how those concerns might manifest in a few chapters?
DR: Sure. We’ve both worked a lot on security assistance, especially arm sales to the Gulf, which offer a good example. Many of this book’s authors repeat the basic point that for our military assistance (whether selling arms, or providing financing), we should start by thinking through carefully what we hope to achieve from a security perspective — not which weapons our partners want. Again you can see a generational switch here. Our authors have watched these partners and allies request fancy airplanes, tanks, and other toys they don’t really need. So one big shift comes through a starting proposition that advances and privileges US interests. We should start by saying: “Wait. Hold on. We should build up this partner’s security services in a way that addresses a mutual threat, whether al Qaeda, ISIS or Iran. We shouldn’t just sell military equipment in an ad-hoc manner, based on whatever requests that come in.”
AM: The Gulf really is a great example of this whole failure to introduce conditionality into our arms sales and security assistance. The Saudis, in particular, have spent billions upon billions to acquire the latest and greatest weapons, but their actual military capacity is still quite limited. One of the motivations for arming them (so that, in theory, the US military doesn’t always get the first call whenever the Saudis sense a new security threat) has never really produced any concrete benefits for us. Instead, particularly in Yemen, the capabilities and tactics and behavior of Saudi forces have often been disastrous. And one main problem here comes, as Dafna said, from US arms sales getting shaped by what the Saudis think they need, but then not really even serving the Saudis’ best interests. As a major oil exporter, for example, they have a significant national interest in strengthening their ability to ship large quantities of oil. But the Saudi navy has not gotten nearly the same attention as the Saudi air force or army.
If US strategists sat down with the Saudi military to identify the most essential capabilities needed to defend core Saudi interests, they would probably focus on missile defense (given the threat from Iran), and on naval capabilities. But when deciding by themselves, the Saudis have a strong preference for continuing to get F-16s. And the Emiratis want F-35s, so now the Saudis will likely want them as well — even though F-16s and F-35s just don’t have much relevance to the Saudi security environment. Those types of purchases don’t address any pressing need, beyond giving these countries’ leaders what they think helps their military look strong. And we also end up contending with other, less savory motivations. The most expensive packages, for example, create the most opportunity for corruption and graft. A much more economical and effective investment in missile defense or the navy wouldn’t create the same possibilities for the Saudi royal family (and other elite members of society) to benefit financially.
Then just to follow up quickly on a point you both have made, which most foundational changes would you foresee if senior US policy makers could absorb your sense that any distinction between either pursuing our geopolitical self-interest or fulfilling our moral commitments actually offers a false dichotomy?
DR: Each of this book’s authors in their own way (and certainly the two of us) have learned that always assuming a tradeoff between interests versus values can lead to short-term thinking. The so-called stability during the Sisi and of course the Mubarak eras hasn’t contributed much to long-term US interests. Popular discontent and the erosion of effective governance instead have created their own forms of instability. Especially when you overvalue a relationship with a certain leader or set of leaders, you might end up seeding instability down the road.
That is a big part of what makes our values and interests so interconnected — and why good policy is dependent on seeing how they come together. In Iraq, the Maliki government and its increasingly problematic and exclusionary treatment of Iraq’s Sunnis (over 30 percent of the population) helped lead to the dramatic rise of ISIS. Or in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman has cracked down on political dissidents in ways that really threaten the international order. The Jamal Khashoggi killing, for example, didn’t just represent cruel repression of a Saudi opposition figure. The brazenness of assassinating a political opponent in that gruesome way, beyond borders in a Consulate in Turkey, was chilling. This disregard for international norms of conduct really endangers all of us.
AM: Many foreign-policy analysts would argue in a wide range of situations that you must work with the regime in power, even when you sense this regime won’t persist indefinitely — and that you’ll worry about the regime’s collapse when it comes. We all probably can understand the appeal of that kind of thinking. Certainly senior US officials who grasp that a President’s term lasts only four years might expect or hope not to face these longer-term processes playing out during their time in office. They therefore can worry less about being deemed personally responsible for some big foreign-policy failure. But the mere fact that such a failure might occur down the road shouldn’t excuse or absolve you of responsibility. And of course, life comes at you pretty fast in these positions, sometimes with destabilizing changes manifesting much more quickly than you could have imagined.
We certainly experienced this with the Arab uprisings, even though any number of officials had recognized for a long time that we’d overcommitted to unsustainable partnerships. We knew the population boom, the lack of employment, the repression, the frustrations would almost inevitably lead to changes in these regimes. Yet a lot of our strategists and decision-makers still assumed that these trends would play out over decades, and were unlikely to catch fire on their own watch. And of course none of this means that you ever have the luxury of completely refraining from short-term fixes and arrangements of convenience. But you do need to work with a variety of actors, and you can’t just kick the can down the road indefinitely — even with issues that seem unlikely to reach your doorstep during your time in office.
So alongside questioning whether we face any actual tradeoff in choosing between our interests and our values, we need to factor in the temporal dimensions of how these complex processes play out. And as Dafna suggested, from a longer-term view, the two of us find it very important to emphasize protecting human rights. You don’t have to be a passionate human-rights activist or defender to adopt this perspective. Even the most realist, cold, skeptical view of human nature can accommodate this point that human-rights violations and related abuses create conditions in which political violence (whether or not we call it terrorism) becomes more likely.
US relations with Egypt provide perhaps your book’s clearest case of overinvestment in a partner who gradually has proven incapable or unwilling to exert itself on behalf of what we would consider mutually beneficial outcomes. So what kinds of broader questions should policy makers ponder here about how to constructively recalibrate a relationship that has outlived its projected usefulness?
AM: A few key elements stand out. First, a recalibration requires serious deliberation about our ultimate objectives. Often, over time, the initial objectives our government put forward for a strategic partnership become implicit assumptions that no one really discusses or questions or revises. In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster, for example, I can remember sitting down with Dafna, and just trying to clarify: “Okay, what interests does the US have vis-à-vis Egypt?” US officials had a list of those interests that they might recite in speeches and private engagements, but without putting much effort into confirming whether these interests still existed, or whether we needed to revise how we went about pursuing them. So Dafna and I really tried to go back to first principles, and state what actually mattered most to the US, and what should inform the new approach we take.
Second, these kinds of policy adjustments require significant discipline. While the US shouldn’t hesitate in pursuing its own interests, the other side does get a vote. We have to assume that they may see things differently. We have to recognize that they won’t blindly or unequivocally accept whatever the US government demands. So in order to protect our own interests, we need discipline to hear out the other side and address their needs — without letting them reshape everything according to their own preferences.
Third, you need a substantial degree of patience. In international politics, as well as bureaucratic politics, things move much more slowly than most of us would like. But you can easily lose sight of that. You can conclude prematurely that something’s impossible, simply because it doesn’t happen on your preferred timeline. To some extent, I read the effects of the US suspending weapons sales to Egypt this way. We took these actions hoping to modify Egypt’s behavior. Then three months in, six months in, somebody would look back and ask: “Well has this worked?” Somebody else would respond: “No.” And the assumption would solidify that this approach could never work. We didn’t have a sufficiently nuanced discussion to consider whether this approach might work under certain conditions, or over a certain duration.
Very few policy levers operate like light switches. You can’t just immediately accomplish your objective. And in governance, we have an even greater need to overcome that kind of short-term thinking, partly because of senior political officials’ limited time horizon. They almost can’t help looking for early wins, or for investments that will bring an immediate return — whereas many of our most important foreign-policy initiatives could only happen over a much longer span.
DR: We also can see, by looking back at Middle East foreign policy from the past few decades, a bureaucratic bias to treat a relationship as an end unto itself, rather than as a means to achieving US ends. The Egypt experience taught a lot of foreign-policy makers the very generalizable lesson that you need to fight this bias, and constantly ask: “Well, what have we or can we accomplish through this relationship?”
At the same time, for a second lesson coming out of our recent engagements with Egypt, we’ve seen that basically any new presidential administration (whether Bush or Obama or Trump, or if Biden comes in) wants to restart relationships with various foreign leaders. That might bring fresh energy and promise, and perhaps improve for a short term the quality of the relationship, the degree of warmth and good feeling. But it also might lead to ephemeral assessments overly focused on tone and interpersonal leader-to-leader dynamics — again at the expense of advancing complex long-term calculations.
AM: People sometimes speak reductively about your position “towards” a country. If you criticize a policy of the Egyptian government, or withhold certain types of aid to that government’s leaders, somebody will label you as “anti-Egypt.” I’m sure Dafna and I have been characterized that way at one time or another.
But in reality, the behavior of Egypt’s regime had changed in problematic ways, and new domestic and regional dynamics had emerged. If Egyptian leaders promoted values the US shared, then we would have said: “Great. Let’s find the best ways to support them on this. Let’s strengthen their ability to promote our mutual interests.” Of course that flexibility and that discipline to keep responding conditionally to events, and to keep the focus on achieving changes of behavior, gets harder to sustain when engaging with a government system built largely to maintain the status quo.
Sure, our dysfunctional Egyptian partnership offers any number of potential case studies: with the US squandering its chance to condition aid on substantive domestic reform, with extravagant security assistance undermining efforts for civilian assistance to promote a more stable and inclusive and responsive political system, and with the US getting played by a nation willing to triangulate between us and other regional actors. So picking up a point Dafna made earlier, why does Egypt also exemplify the need for the US to engage such a nation beyond just its top-down government leadership? Or why else might support of pro-democracy forces within Egypt be the best investment we can make right now?
AM: From the most cynical perspective, you can’t assume that the people currently leading the government will remain in that role indefinitely. Should others currently on the outside come in, we’ll need to be able to work with them. We faced a huge problem in the post-2011 period, for example — not just in Egypt, but in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. For a long time we had deliberately restricted our outreach with a variety of civil-society members, out of deference to the existing regimes. Once these uprisings began, we realized we didn’t have the established relationships with the emerging leaders and groups to operate effectively. At that pivotal moment, we faced an immediate liability, with little chance to make up for it.
But we’ve also obviously left behind a 19th-century world where international relations come down to official government dialogues, often with two individuals sitting in a room and hashing things out together. Today if you look at the full array of US relations with various countries, you don’t just find security or diplomatic negotiations. You find a variety of economic engagements, and social or cultural engagements, and discussions around climate requiring much more than two officials or two respective governments. No single person or department or administration can handle every issue. You need not only a whole-of-government but a whole-of-society approach to managing these dynamics.
In the specific case of Egypt, one particular challenge during the Obama administration was that even though many government officials raised human-rights concerns with their Egyptian counterparts, they also went out of their way to reassert Egypt’s critical strategic importance, and our undying commitments to continue providing security assistance. Now, from the perspective of Egyptian officials, that might seem to leave you a full menu of options. The US might say it wants certain things, but you still can respond: “Well, we prefer you do this, not this. And thanks, but we don’t want your advice on human rights. We don’t want your suggestions on economic reforms. But yes, we do like those weapons. Please leave them at the border, and we’ll continue this cooperation with you.”
So while we do need to recognize the difficulties of establishing or strengthening democratic institutions, and while we do need to expect that the promotion of our own values and preferences will fall short in certain instances, we still need to grasp much better how the types of aid we provide affect the domestic governance of these societies. We tend to assume we can pursue security relationships separately from pushing for democratic and effective-governance reforms. But when we provide security assistance to Egypt’s military, we strengthen that institution relative to other Egyptian institutions. We unlevel the playing field. We make it even more difficult for other Egyptian actors to throw their weight around, to advocate for their interests — and often to pursue values more similar to our own. So US foreign-policy makers can’t just say: “Well, until they develop a democracy, there’s nothing we can do about that.” Sometimes, at the very least, we can stop unnecessarily strengthening authoritarian actors, in Egypt and many other places.
DR: For one quick anecdotal example, we learned over those tumultuous years that what our Cairo Embassy’s Twitter feed said publicly in 140 characters mattered almost as much as what a Secretary or Deputy Secretary of State said behind closed doors. Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country (with over 100 million people), has a significant majority population under 30 years old. And we actually discovered this new kind of social-media leverage when we could connect directly with the Egyptian people. Even outside of full-fledged democracy, ordinary people value hearing what the American government has to say to your country. During a time of uprisings and domestic change, people especially want to hear what the US Embassy has to say. We still carry a degree of weight and global leadership in these societies. Millions of people look to US officials and to the signals they send. And this all applies, for example, to Russia and China, where huge numbers of civilians care what we think and value (and where we should care what they think and value).
AM: We also should keep in mind that international audiences look for differences in what various US government officials say. They’ll seize on those differences, and exploit them for their own advantage. So again, if a State Department official reads some government the riot act about domestic repression, but then a Department of Defense official mentions the ongoing importance of security cooperation and the strategic nature of this relationship, foreign leaders will sense they can play our State and Defense departments against each other.
On the opposite side of the dysfunctional/functional spectrum for potential partnerships, we can consider Tunisia, which had certain constructive forces (a robust middle class, a professional military, a suppressed yet strong civil society) in place prior to its Arab Spring transformations, and in which a pragmatic spirit has since prevailed among key participants. Within that more promising context, how can a clear and coherent “tough prioritization” approach help to foster the accountability, prosperity, and popular inclusion to make Tunisia a stable, self-sustaining state improving its own citizens’ lives?
DR: I won’t try to make the case that if we build up Tunisia as a democratic alternative, it could quickly supplant an Egypt or a Saudi Arabia as a key US ally. It just doesn’t have that weight among the Arab League states. Tunisia has a tiny population placed on the North African coast, in the Maghreb part of the Islamic world with a lot of French influence. Its people speak a different dialect of Arabic. But still many of us who have worked on developments in Tunisia sense significant demonstration-effect potential in getting the democratic transition right in this small but important country: showing how this transition can benefit people’s everyday lives, showing that democratic allies stand behind both this government and Tunisian citizens, and rewarding the self-moderating impulses of Tunisia’s political class.
One really positive development during the Obama administration combined providing economic assistance to Tunisia and then some security assistance in a more moderate way. We didn’t have the vestigial co-dependencies and dysfunctions we had with some other countries in the region, in terms of a history of assistance programs. So in 2012 and 2013, when Tunisia needed both economic and security assistance, we could develop a different approach than in Egypt or Iraq. In this post-Arab Spring period, the Tunisian government’s biggest threats came first from the rise of al Qaeda elements and then ISIS and then Libya’s collapse on its borders. We designed a security-assistance package more or less from scratch. We actually could tailor this package to meet the government’s most pressing security needs. And here I’d advocate for increasing that security assistance to Tunisia in the future. Although we’ve discussed today the perils of certain types of security assistance, in this case US aid truly addressed a shared security threat.
Then on the economic side, a “tough prioritization” approach comes down to asking: “Which highest-leverage types of assistance could we offer the Tunisians?” Here I’d add, specifically for Tunisia, that while they need billions, we’ve provided hundreds of millions, or less now. But at the same time, no particular amount of US taxpayer dollars will magically resuscitate the Tunisian economy. So then the questions become: “Where do we have the highest leverage? Should we focus on changes to the customs laws, or the import/export laws, to promote increased trade and foreign direct investment?” To my mind, assistance conditioned on those kinds of big-bang-for-the-buck reforms will work best to grow the Tunisian economy. Significant barriers to trade exist because, under Ben Ali, an autarkic state and closed economy prevailed. So even just a small US conditional investment here can yield a high ROI.
Similarly, we’ve invested a lot in English-language programs, given the fact that Tunisia already has a very well-educated middle-class workforce. We want to help college graduates find jobs in international corporations, or work at call centers, or opportunities with small franchises. Here again a comparatively modest amount of US taxpayers’ assistance, carefully targeted in this way, can be really useful for helping to meet the economic needs of a country facing a huge youth bulge, and really remaining on the verge of economic crisis throughout its political transition.
AM: Another thing differentiating Tunisia from many neighbors has to do with its government’s willingness to work with us on assistance. We have excellent partners in the Tunisians. If you speak to US diplomats or even US military officers who have experience working with multiple Arab governments, they’ll likely point to Tunisia as among the most cooperative. The Tunisian government genuinely wants constructive US assistance, and they use it well. So in that very narrow transactional sense, we get a good return on investment — because the Tunisians do what we’ve agreed to them doing with this funding, whereas other countries often fight tooth and nail to use our assistance in the exact ways they want (often inconsistent with US objectives).
A second important contrast in Tunisia, unlike many societies across the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, is that the Tunisians see somebody other than the United States as the number-one bogeyman responsible for everything bad that befalls the country. Often in North Africa, the French play this role because of their colonial past. While you find tremendous affinity for French culture in many ways, that colonial legacy still breeds a great mistrust of the French government. Here the US, by historical contrast, looks more neutral and more favorable. This same pattern plays out in Algeria and Morocco, and at least used to in Libya.
Dafna also pointed to a basic challenge in US economic-assistance programming. It often gets dispersed too widely to have an appreciable effect. Even though these programs can do great good, this sometimes happens at such a micro level that it doesn’t affect the broader economy. We should value helping this individual street vendor or that individual business owner. But the success of those two individuals won’t lift all surrounding boats. In many instances, it would make more sense to concentrate economic assistance where we can increase the likelihood of producing a bigger macroeconomic or systemic effect — which can help many, many more people. I’d contrast that to democracy assistance, which by its very nature we should spread widely. You want to bring in as much of the population as possible. But with economic assistance, and given Tunisia’s particular economic travails, the US government needs to ensure that our investments make the biggest possible impact.
So if Tunisia can teach us when to prioritize those “countries beyond the headlines” that perhaps have the best real chance of achieving sustained (and mutually beneficial) results, if Tunisia can provide a model of US aid not simply propping up a regime perpetually in crisis (instead helping to catalyze institutional change), how should we in fact assess our return on investment over the medium and long term here? How should we be both measuring and differentiating between project-level success and outcome-level success?
DR: I’d start from what Andrew just said about depth versus breadth. I’d also point to enhanced ROI when we work with partners in providing assistance. Many other donor countries also operate throughout the region. In Tunisia, for example, the Europeans really have a vested interest in this immediate neighbor’s success. So I’ve seen it work well when we can say: “We’ll go deep trying to address a lot of complex socio-economic challenges facing this shantytown that’s producing a lot of ISIS recruits.” Tunisia has had a huge radicalization problem in some of its poorer towns. But when we can say: “We’ll really focus on jobs and after-school programs and English-language training and police training in this particular town,” the French will often take another town and provide similar forms of support.
That kind of coordinated approach differs from saying: “Okay, this project had a good measurement. We got a hundred kids into an after-school program.” If the Tunisian government or Tunisian civil society doesn’t follow up on this after-school program, its effects can just dissipate. But if we combine this educational assistance with support for a local government and support for community policing and support for families in the area, all interacting over time, we can really make a difference.
I’d also note that working in certain big slum-like areas outside medium-sized cities has become really, really important and strategic. Rapid urbanization throughout much of the region has generated a distinct set of human-rights and security concerns.
AM: Those areas fit especially well for illustrating this structural problem in both security and civilian assistance. And as Dafna suggested, we often end up evaluating these programs with very narrow metrics. Asking “How many people did you enroll in school?” might tell us a lot at a certain level. But at another level, we don’t really have the objective of just putting more people in school. We have the objective of making them more capable, and helping them to develop new skill sets, and connecting them to opportunities that make them more productive members of society. As trained social scientists, Dafna and I recognize the difficulty of measuring these kinds of outcomes. But we also saw, say with Department of Defense security assistance in Iraq, that when you evaluate a training program’s success by asking “Well, how many soldiers came through?” you don’t necessarily get answers to the crucial question of: “Have these soldiers become more capable of fulfilling their most important security responsibilities?”
Now to take those qualitative concerns in a slightly different direction, and for just one example of an unanticipated factor reshaping this whole diverse region in unpredictable ways, could you sketch a range of possibilities for how we might see COVID-19 ramifications fortifying government authority, giving impetus to nonstate actors, generating waves of protest, and/or further exacerbating economic inequality/instability? And how else does COVID make all of this book’s delicately couched conjectures all the more tentative?
AM: Like many external developments, this will have conflicting consequences. In many countries, COVID has so far strengthened authoritarians. The types of measures needed to respond to a public-health crisis often favor central control, and a lot of regimes have seized on this opportunity. For one example, under a pandemic, governments might consider imposing some kind of curfew, because you don’t want people out at all times. This can be a perfectly reasonable, time-limited restriction. But Egypt has considered making its curfews permanent, even once the crisis subsides.
In the short term, that kind of opportunism makes me fairly confident COVID will have a negative effect on political freedom in this region. But some societies’ struggle to respond to COVID has revealed, once again, just how inept and corrupt certain governments have become. In a place like Lebanon, grievances and discontent and protests started even before COVID, with COVID then exacerbating those concerns. The inability of Lebanon’s extremely dysfunctional government to deal with this public-health crisis has confirmed, for many Lebanese, not only the incompetence of current leaders, but the entire political system’s need for revisions.
In many countries COVID’s economic consequences might actually outstrip the significance of the purely medical crisis. COVID already has had such a depressive effect on economic growth, especially through its impact on oil prices. That will soon squeeze many governments’ belts even tighter. Even the Saudis, with their massive reserves, have had to cut back on spending — while moving forward with value-added taxes and other efforts to extract more revenue from the population. In places where economic growth already had lagged or stalled, this COVID disruption will only add to the discontent. So again, we’ll have to watch these events play out over time. We don’t necessarily see the full or even the net effect of certain developments until much time has passed. The short-term strengthening of authoritarianism may or may not last, and actually might give way to rekindled calls for protests and change.
DR: I’d agree with all that, while offering two pessimistic COVID possibilities and one potential silver lining. First, as Andrew suggested, autocrats can increase control through the top-down nature of their public-health response. Second, in areas of acute state failure or breakdown (particularly in Syria, Yemen, and Libya), we should expect a very difficult set of circumstances from a public-health and humanitarian perspective. With those places largely out of reach of international health assistance right now, we don’t know yet the extent to which COVID might be spreading and harming local populations. That’s going to pose a huge problem as we try to contain this virus.
Then for the third, more aspirational point, I’d return to what has always drawn Andrew and I to this region. There’s inevitably so much you can’t predict. Every shock has the potential to shake up every player on the chessboard. We’ve seen in fact some interesting quiet diplomacy around COVID, which this region could maybe build on. Some Arab Gulf states have quietly tried to help Iran address its severe COVID outbreak. That kind of humanitarian relief and medical assistance has the potential to damper down certain Sunni/Shia or Gulf/Iran regional tensions. Similar cooperative dynamics have emerged between the Israelis and Palestinians, which could at least improve relations on the margins, especially if a new administration changes our Iran policy.
So for one last individual country to consider, here not a local actor, but a resurgent Russia, how might a “bounded competition” (in Alexander Bick’s terms: with the US vigorously challenging Russia when core strategic issues come into play, exercising restraint when the stakes don’t reach that high, and pursuing tentative cooperation when overlapping self-interest allows) help us to calibrate the proper scale of our commitments — and always while weighing these efforts alongside other strategic global objectives?
AM: One important reality underlying this book (and also US policy towards the Middle East) is that, for the better part of 20 or 25 years, one single global power has dominated in the region. From the Cold War’s end, until maybe the start of the Obama administration, the Middle East remained arguably the region most important to US global interests. Now, increasingly, the US recognizes other priorities (whether dealing with China, or Russia, or emerging developments in Latin America and Africa) as outstripping or superseding Middle East concerns. Not that the Middle East has lost all importance. But these other concerns have grown even faster in importance. Given that reality, a US foreign policy premised on the primacy of the Middle East, and requiring extensive resource commitments (in terms of civilian and military personnel, finances, national attention), needs to be reined in to some degree.
This type of thinking can get framed in at least two ways: either as “With China and Russia increasingly important, we need to free up more resources to deal with them, by doing less in the Middle East,” or as “With Russia and China increasingly important, the place to make our stand and confront them is the Middle East.” The basic argument is less over whether we should view China and Russia as our main foreign-policy priorities, and more over whether we should see the Middle East as our theater of competition with them. Alex Bick argues here that what happens in the Middle East will not determine what happens in those broader competitions with China and Russia — or that if what happens in the Middle East does determine these global competitions, this would probably mean the US overcommitting, and going after rivals in unproductive ways.
To some extent, Bick’s argument extends an important lesson from the Cold War, when we tried to compete with the Soviets everywhere — and, in so doing, depleted resources to address our own domestic or other international needs. While we ultimately won the Cold War, you certainly can argue that we paid a higher price than necessary, and with numerous unintended side effects plaguing us to this day. Adopting a more nuanced, more conditional approach to Russia and China in the Middle East now might allow us to intervene when core interests demand, but without falling into this same resource trap.
DR: In terms of Re-Engaging the Middle East, we let each of our authors offer their argument in their own voice. As editors, we didn’t want anybody totally out there [Laughter], but we also didn’t feel the need to agree one-hundred percent with each articulated argument. So I agree largely with what Alex said, but I’d add two addendums.
First, I’d just want to clarify that when people in our national-security bureaucracy say “Oh, we need to sell weapons to this Middle Eastern country, because otherwise the Russians will get there first, and might displace us from the region,” I (and Alex and Andrew) see that more as a mythical threat. We shouldn’t let Russia (which does try really hard at this) throw us off our game in Israel or Jordan or Saudi Arabia. In my opinion, we’re still the sole superpower in this region.
Second (and Alex himself doesn’t make this point, but I personally believe it), we should push back on Russia’s actions in places like Syria. We shouldn’t be so anxious about confronting them. Russia has really eaten our lunch on Syria, but doesn’t deserve to. Along the way, Russia has eroded the entire UN Security Council’s power (and the basic process of pursuing conflict resolution through the UN) by supporting Assad, and defending essentially Assad’s war crimes and rapaciousness against his own people. We need to show more backbone here. We can’t just say: “A strong US response could spiral into a new Cold War.” At the end of the day, I sense we still have much more of the world on our side supporting the notion that Syria needs a political transition — even if we agree that Assad already has won the various battles and has regained most of the Syrian territory, and even if we agree that certain aspirational notions of Assad departing now require revision.
Portrait of Dafna Rand by Mary Gardella. Portrait of Andrew Miller by April Brady.