Who are the winners and losers in the dramatic and evolving turmoil in the Middle East? For the citizens of the Arab world, the way ahead may yet be rough and unpredictable, but events represent a major net gain in breaking away from the frozen, sterile, and crushing old orders.
But with the breakup of the old Middle East system on the international level, who wins and who loses?
The biggest single loser, hands down, is Israel. Many of the old dictators propped up by US money and political support to keep the lid on the region are now falling, with more to go over time – most likely in Bahrain, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia. Israel can no longer count on a free ride in pursuing its policies to preserve occupation indefinitely.
No doubt, if Bashar al-Assad in Syria bites the dust, as seems likely, a leading figure hostile to Israel will vanish. But the history of Syria offers not a shred of reason to believe that a new Sunni nationalist regime in Damascus, bolstered by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, will view Israel with any greater indulgence than Mr. Assad. In fact, the emergence of popular forces in almost any Arab state guarantees tougher policies toward Israel in opposing its preservation of the Palestinian status quo – the preeminent symbol of injustice in the eyes of all Muslims.
This is not to say that the slow spread of democracies might not in some distant future be good for Israel. But it can be good only for an Israel that moves sharply away from its extreme right-wing and apartheid policies and toward a more generous and open political and social order that liberates the Palestinians. Such an event does not remotely appear on the Israeli political horizon right now.
The second-biggest loser is the United States. The reasons are simple: It is becoming ever more difficult for Washington to call the shots as Arab populations grow empowered to elect their own leaders. And for now, popular views reflect the anger and frustration of decades – even centuries – against Western imperial control, now topped off by a decade of American wars on Muslim soil in a quixotic search for a military solution to anti-Western terrorism.
Arab publics in the near term will not elect pro-American leaders; indeed, Islamists are the most likely beneficiaries of change, along with nationalists. America is furthermore seen as a power in decline with shrinking ability to control events. As with Israel, any good news for the US in the changing Arab world can come only when Washington abandons its endless attempts to intervene to shape regional events and local politics to its own liking, and against the wishes of most of the citizens of the region.
The third-biggest loser is Iran. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 was perceived by Middle East populations (although assuredly not by the pro-American Arab dictators) as a stunning event marking a declaration of regional independence against the US dominance quintessentially exemplified by the Shah of Iran. The Islamic Republic championed the Palestinian cause when pro-American dictators dared not do so. Iran called for popular revolution and the rise of movements of national liberation like Hamas, and resistance to Israeli power like Hezbollah, that thrilled Arab populations mired in impotence.
Never mind that the Iranian regime in the last few years itself has betrayed so many of the values it champions abroad, such as freedom of the people. With the Arab Spring, Iran can no longer claim any monopoly, much less leadership, of an anti-despotic trend in the region. Indeed, if there is any model for the region, it is now Turkey, supremely successful in the economic and political spheres, and willing to speak with greater honesty, responsibility, and credibility about the failures of Israel – and Washington.
But Iran in the end is not an absolute loser because it still stands for national sovereignty and pride; its political system, for all its crudeness and shortcomings, is still more democratic than most other states in the Middle East today. It conducts important elections that matter.
Winners? For sure, the Arab people, although the benefits of new political orders will not be evenly distributed and the path may be very rocky – as they exercise the first chance to learn how to exercise some form of sovereign self-rule. But they must do it for themselves; the last thing they need are yet more new regimes imposed upon them by Western powers pursuing narrow outside interests.
A second group of winners are the newly emerging medium powers – states like China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, Canada and others in the G-20 – that now find themselves in a newly emerging multipolar world, with new room to play in a much more complex international game of balance of power. While the US is the net loser here in terms of loss of absolute hegemonic power, surely checks and balances on the international level are no less desirable than internally.
Europe, too, can find meaningful and responsible roles for itself within this new global order, but not if it still wistfully looks to NATO as a new and more artful way of imposing Western projects upon the Middle East.
Graham E. Fuller is former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. His most recent book is “A World Without Islam.”