Despite the military drama unfolding in Libya, the Middle East is only beginning to unravel. American policy-makers have been spoiled by events in Tunisia and Egypt, both of which boast relatively sturdy institutions, civil society associations and middle classes, as well as being age-old clusters of civilization where states of one form or another have existed since antiquity. Darker terrain awaits us elsewhere in the region, where states will substantially weaken once the carapace of tyranny crumbles. The crucial tests lie ahead, beyond the distraction of Libya.
The United States may be a democracy, but it is also a status quo power, whose position in the world depends on the world staying as it is. In the Middle East, the status quo is unsustainable because populations are no longer afraid of their rulers. Every country is now in play. Even in Syria, with its grisly security services, widespread demonstrations have been reported and protesters killed. There will be no way to appease the region's rival sects, ethnicities and other interest groups except through some form of democratic representation, but anarchic quasi-democracy will satisfy no one. Other groups will emerge, and they may be distinctly illiberal.
Whatever happens in Libya, it is not necessarily a bellwether for the Middle East. The Iranian green movement knows that Western air forces and navies are not about to bomb Iran in the event of a popular uprising, so it is unclear what lesson we are providing to the region. Because outside of Iran, and with the arguable exceptions of Syria and Libya itself, there is no short-term benefit for the US in democratic revolts in the region. In fact, they could be quite destructive to our interests, even as they prove to be unstoppable.
Yemen, strategically located on the Gulf of Aden, as well as the demographic core of the Arabian Peninsula and a haunt of al Qaeda, is more important to American interests than Libya. In Yemen, too, a longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has shot protesters in the street to keep order. Yemen constitutes the most armed populace in the world, with almost four times as many firearms as people. It is fast running out of ground water, and the median age of the population is 17. This is to say nothing of the geographical, political and sectarian divisions in the sprawling, mountainous country. However badly Mr. Saleh has ruled Yemen, more chaos may follow him. Coverage by Al Jazeera can help to overthrow a government like his, but it can't help to organize new governments.
In Jordan, at the other end of the Arabian Peninsula, democratic pressure will force King Abdullah to give more power to the Islamists and to urban Palestinians. The era of a dependable, pro-Western Jordan living in peace with Israel may not go on indefinitely. Bahrain, meanwhile, may descend into a low-level civil war. The country's Shia have legitimate complaints against the ruling Sunni royal family, but their goals will play into Iranian hands.
Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Bahrain and the other Gulf states are all individually more important than Libya because they constitute Saudi Arabia's critical near-abroad. In this era of weakening central authority throughout the Middle East, the core question for the US will be which regime lasts longer: Saudi Arabia's or Iran's. If the Saudi monarchy turns out to have more staying power, we will wrest a great strategic victory from this process of unrest; if Iran's theocracy prevails, it will signal a fundamental eclipse of American influence in the Middle East.
Criticize the Saudi royals all you want—their country requires dramatic economic reform, and fast—but who and what would replace them? There is no credible successor on the horizon. Even as Saudi Arabia's youthful population, 40% of which is unemployed, becomes more restive, harmony within the royal family is beginning to fray as the present generation of leaders gives way to a new one. And nothing spells more trouble for a closed political system than a divided elite. Yes, Iran experienced massive antiregime demonstrations in 2009 and smaller ones more recently. But the opposition there is divided, and the regime encompasses various well-institutionalized power centers, thus making a decapitation strategy particularly hard to achieve. The al Sauds may yet fall before the mullahs do, and our simplistic calls for Arab democracy only increase that possibility.
Democracy is part of America's very identity, and thus we benefit in a world of more democracies. But this is no reason to delude ourselves about grand historical schemes or to forget our wider interests. Precisely because so much of the Middle East is in upheaval, we must avoid entanglements and stay out of the domestic affairs of the region. We must keep our powder dry for crises ahead that might matter much more than those of today.
Our most important national security resource is the time that our top policy makers can devote to a problem, so it is crucial to avoid distractions. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fragility of Pakistan, Iran's rush to nuclear power, a possible Israeli military response—these are all major challenges that have not gone away. This is to say nothing of rising Chinese naval power and Beijing's ongoing attempt to Finlandize much of East Asia.
We should not kid ourselves. In foreign policy, all moral questions are really questions of power. We intervened twice in the Balkans in the 1990s only because Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic had no nuclear weapons and could not retaliate against us, unlike the Russians, whose destruction of Chechnya prompted no thought of intervention on our part (nor did ethnic cleansing elsewhere in the Caucasus, because it was in Russia's sphere of influence). At present, helping the embattled Libyan rebels does not affect our interests, so we stand up for human rights there. But helping Bahrain's embattled Shia, or Yemen's antiregime protesters, would undermine key allies, so we do nothing as demonstrators are killed in the streets.
Of course, just because we can't help everywhere does not mean we can't help somewhere. President Barack Obama has steered a reasonable middle course. He was right to delay action in Libya until the Arab League, the United Nations Security Council, France and Great Britain were fully on board, and even then to restrict our military actions and objectives. He doesn't want the US to own the Libyan problem, which could drag on chaotically for years. President Obama is not feeble, as some have said; he is cunning.
Like former President George H.W. Bush during the collapse of the Soviet Union, he intuits that when history is set in motion by forces greater than our own, we should interfere as little as possible so as not to provoke unintended consequences. The dog that didn't bark when the Berlin Wall fell was the intervention of Soviet troops to restore parts of the empire. The dog that won't bark now, we should hope, is the weakening of the Saudi monarchy, to which America's vital interests are tied. So long as the current regime in Iran remains in place, the U.S. should not do anything to encourage protests in Riyadh.
In the background of the ongoing Middle Eastern drama looms the shadow of a rising China. China is not a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system, as we proclaim it should be; it is a free rider. We are at war in Afghanistan to make it a safe place for China to extract minerals and metals. We have liberated Iraq so that Chinese firms can extract its oil. Now we are at war with Libya, which further diverts us from concentrating on the western Pacific—the center of the world's economic and naval activity—which the Chinese military seeks eventually to dominate.
Every time we intervene somewhere, it quickens the pace at which China, whose leaders relish obscurity in international affairs, closes the gap with us. China will have economic and political problems of its own ahead, no doubt, and these will interrupt its rise. But China is spending much less to acquire an overseas maritime empire than we are spending, with all our interventions, merely to maintain ours.
The arch-realist approach would be to forswear a moral narrative altogether and to concentrate instead on our narrow interests in the Middle East. The problem is that if we don't provide a narrative, others will, notably al Qaeda, whose fortunes will rise as the region's dictators, with their useful security services, struggle to survive. But we should craft our narrative with care. It should focus on the need for political and social reform, not on regime change.
Order is preferable to disorder. Just consider what happened to Iraq after we toppled Saddam Hussein. The US should not want Iraq's immediate past to be a foretaste of the region's future.