Arabs Love the Pax Americana
Fearing a U.S. retreat, the Saudis move into Bahrain.
The Arab League’s call this weekend for a no-fly zone over Libya is startling news and has sent diplomats scattering. We’ll now see if the “international community” (to use the Obama Administration’s favorite phrase) decides anything before Moammar Gadhafi’s forces overrun the rebel stronghold in Benghazi. The odds favor Gadhafi.
But the 22-member league’s decision also tells us a lot about Arab views of U.S. power. Throughout the Libyan crisis, we’ve heard from pundits and politicians that the Iraq war tarnished brand America beyond repair, and made U.S. leadership non grata in the Mideast. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have insisted that the U.N., NATO, the Europeans, Arabs, anyone but Washington take the initiative on Libya.
The Arab League is begging them to reconsider this abdication. With the unsurprising exceptions of Iranian client Syria and Libya’s neighbor Algeria, the group took the extraordinary step of calling publicly for American intervention in the affairs of an Arab state. Though the League formally asked the U.N. Security Council to approve a no-fly zone, there’s little doubt that the U.S. would carry the military and political burden in imposing one. The Arabs know this well, and their message couldn’t be clearer. Maybe they even thought Mr. Obama meant what he said in calling for Gadhafi to leave power.
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Bahraini anti-government protesters wave the national flag as they march past the Embassy of Saudi Arabia last month. On Monday, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states sent military forces into Bahrain.
The weekend decision confirmed what we’ve heard privately from Arab leaders for years about America’s continued engagement in the Middle East. The only people who suffer from an “Iraq syndrome” are American liberals and the Western European chattering classes. The pro-Western Gulf or North African allied states have nothing to gain in seeing American influence or military power devalued in their region—either by others, or as is the current fad in Washington, through American self-abnegation.
Their immediate interest may be to reverse Gadhafi’s recent gains against the lightly armed rebels in eastern Libya. Arab hostility to him goes back many years. As neighbors they have much to fear from a post-revolt Libya turned back into a terrorist haven and pariah state.
For the proverbial “Arab street,” the defeat of the Libyan uprising would be a dispiriting coda to this springtime of democratic revolutions. If he survives, Gadhafi will have taught other dictators that the next time young people demand accountable leadership, turn your guns on them and exploit American diffidence.
Beyond those pressing worries lie bigger Arab concerns over the changing power dynamic in the Middle East. New and unpredictable regional players are a neo-Ottoman Turkey and especially an Iran determined to get nuclear weapons. However much the Arabs like to complain about America, they know the U.S. is a largely benign force and honest broker.
Propelled by a strong domestic economy, the Turks have built their recent regional standing through trade and a political shift from its longstanding alliance with the West. Tellingly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposes a no-fly zone. “We see NATO military intervention in another country as extremely unbeneficial,” he said. Turkey had no such qualms when NATO came to the rescue of Europe’s besieged Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, but in the 1990s Ankara saw America as an ally, not a potential competitor.
The Sunni Arab states fear the nuclear ambitions of Shiite Iran as much as Israel does. It’s not lost on them that while democratic uprisings toppled two Arab regimes friendly to the U.S. and threaten several others, Tehran has squelched the opposition Green Movement without inhibitions. The nuclear program, meanwhile, is Iran’s secret weapon to become the dominant regional power.
The Administration chose to hear the Arab appeal for American leadership this weekend as if it were no big deal. White House spokesman Jay Carney used the word “international” three times in three sentences and didn’t back a no-fly zone or any other military step. The G-8 foreign ministers yesterday failed to support it as well. A draft Libya resolution (sponsored by Lebanon!) is bouncing around at the Security Council, and likely headed nowhere.
Not by coincidence, Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf states on Monday sent military forces into Bahrain to help put down an uprising by the majority Shiites against the Sunni monarchy, which yesterday declared a state of emergency. The Saudis fear that the Bahrain contagion, perhaps fueled by Iran, will spread to them.
But their intervention also reflects a lack of confidence that America will assert itself in the region. Remarkably, the Saudis ignored U.S. advice not to intervene in Bahrain. They don’t believe they can count on the U.S. to stop an imperial Iran. When the U.S. fails to lead, every nation recalibrates its interests and begins to look out for itself first.
While the “international community” fiddles, Gadhafi’s troops continue their march eastward, yesterday taking the strategic town of Ajdabiya, the last significant population center before Benghazi. His victory would be a tragedy for Libya’s people. But it would diminish America’s global standing as well, which is an outcome that makes Arabs as nervous as it ought to make Americans.