Pressman: The Cyclical vs. the Fundamental in U.S. Policy

Jeremy Pressman writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

The Cyclical vs. the Fundamental in U.S. Policy: Suddenly both are in flux

If you run Washington, how best to maintain the flow of Persian Gulf energy supplies at a reasonable price, protect Israel, and – choose your era – block the Soviets or undermine al-Qaeda? While U.S. policy on the Gulf side of the Mideast has long been fluid and ever-changing, the Egyptian protests have suddenly challenged a different and seemingly fixed guideline: Washington can rely on pro-U.S. dictators and not push hard for democratic regimes.

U.S. Gulf policy has been in constant flux, moving between self-reliance and reliance on some combination of Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia: The two pillars in the 1970s (Iran and Saudi), the Rapid Deployment Force and U.S. CENTCOM, the tilt to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, dual containment, alliances with the Gulf Cooperation Council states, and regime change in Iraq culminating in the 2003 invasion. Of course such shifts were not random but rather often came about as a response to events like the Iranian revolution or the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

What is the right analogy for this aspect of U.S. Gulf policy? Maybe it is like a mountain climber on Mt. Everest. After each tough section, the climber reaches the next camp and rests. Sometimes there are moments of stability. But come morning, the climbing party will have to set out again. Nothing stays calm for long and it could all fall apart whether due to one’s own shortcomings or larger factors beyond one’s control (see Into Thin Air.

Yet in contrast, the U.S. approach across the entire Mideast has been straightforward and stable: being pro-American trumps being democratic. Insert Mubarak’s Egypt, the al-Saud dynasty, the Hashemites in Jordan or the like. Even George W. Bush, despite protestations to the contrary now by his acolytes], never pressed Saudi hard and let things slide with Egypt by the second half of term two. Bet on the stability of autocrats rather than the complexity of democracy. As time went on and the U.S. face (and aid) was so intimately tied to these regimes, the odds that democracy might unleash anti-American or, at a minimum, neutral politics increased.

Thus, what we have witnessed in the last decade has largely been unsettling and familiar until Tunisia and Egypt. The United States invaded Iraq with an insurgency supplanting rose petals. Iran sought to fill the power vacuum as it meddled in Iraq, pushed nuclear research, rhetorically attacked Israel, and continued siding with Hamas, Hizbollah, and other U.S. rivals. In short, U.S. Gulf policy was again in shambles with the U.S. ally (post-Saddam Iraq) in turmoil and the U.S. adversary (Ahmadienjad’s Iran) seemingly ascendant. Back to the drawing board – AGAIN! – on the Gulf.

But what Tunisia and Egypt have challenged is the enduring guideline of U.S. foreign policy, that while theoretically risky, endless short-term commitments to autocrats would never come unraveled. (A bet, by the way, that the United States has made many times in many countries around the world.) Suddenly, there is a hint of democracy, the possibility that Arab leaders and parties who express popular preferences will not only emerge but also create space between their foreign policies and U.S. foreign policy.

This hint of democracy is a double threat for Washington. It means dictators will not last forever, and it means democrats, should they follow, may not be reflexively pro-American (what should be an obvious point when they replace a pro-American, anti-democrat). I would agree that the general concern about the changing balance of power in the Gulf since 2003 and what that means for the region is important to consider. But I would also suggest it is part of the cyclical U.S. challenge of advancing its interests in the Persian Gulf. It has been decades of ups and downs. In contrast, Tunis and Cairo shake up the static part of U.S. policy in a fundamental fashion and challenge – or possibly force – Washington to engage in a fundamental rethink.

Jeremy Pressman
Alan R. Bennett Honors Professor
Associate Professor
Department of Political Science
University of Connecticut

2 Responses

  1. A better analogy would be that this mountain climber’s name is Sam brother of Sisyphus, because Sam’s stone is a sacred stone and he never even take his eyes off of it, he cannot see more than a few inches in front of him and has never planned a route and has never even cleared base camp and probably never will and the only thing that is changing is the depth of the trench he has dug halfway to china

  2. Thank-you. “endless short-term commitments to autocrats” sums it up and I hope this phrase enters the general discourse. This is the clarity and concision required to get the truth across to those who have little attention span for such an inconvenient matter.

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