Blessed are the experts II

Tewfick Aclimandos
Thursday 8 Feb 2018

Foreign policy experts working on the Middle East need to keep a close eye on the sometimes contradictory policies of the great powers

In an earlier article I tried to describe the difficulties facing foreign policy experts, starting by enumerating the local players involved in this great game. However, I did not dwell on the complexities of many issues, among them the Kurdish question in the Middle East.

There are also the major players, and understanding what the US is trying to do can be challenging. Even seasoned European experts who have access to sources unavailable to Egyptian ones try to solve this problem by saying that there are “several US foreign policies, not only one”.

This, of course, contains a grain of truth. US political institutions have their own interests and policies, including the White House, the Congress, the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, the Justice Department, and so on. The multinational corporations and big oil firms are also relevant players. Moreover, each of these institutions may pursue policies that are on a collision course with those of another. Each has different aims and different partners, and what these say to one another may not always fit.

The most spectacular case of such contradictory policies can be seen in the fact Turkey and the Kurds are among the most important US allies. Each US president has also had his own conceptions and agendas. With the growing polarisation of US political life, abrupt changes have been much more frequent. Consider, for instance, the policies of former US president Barack Obama and those of current President Donald Trump towards Iran or the Gulf States.

Usually the US has four or five major interests in the Middle East region, including the security of Israel, oil, terrorism and Iran (and the nuclear issue). The respective importance of these varies according to the general situation and to the individual president’s views. Obama was less concerned by Israel’s security than either former president George W Bush or Trump. He did not pay a great deal of attention to Iran’s expansionism. Oil issues are also complex and entail a military presence or at least a collective security system.

The rise of terrorism in the region has had a huge impact on Washington’s relations with its allies. These was always ambivalent, as the US needs stability in the region, but does not necessarily like it. To put this differently, the US both needs its regional partners and does not always like them, as it believes that authoritarian Arab regimes do not adhere to US values and are the main cause of the spread of extremism and terrorist organisations in the region.

In other words, the US believes its own partners are the main causes of the ills of the region and need to be changed. This notion, coupled with the belief that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “moderate”, “peaceful”, and “democratic” player that could be a pleasant bedfellow, poisons the relations of the US with almost all its Middle East partners.

One European diplomat once told me that “when you work in this region, you have to meet, to work, and to negotiate with guys who are unbearable thugs, or even psychopathic criminals. But it is not our job to complain. It is not a nice job, but we do it to serve our countries.” The US can be as realistic in its attitudes as the European countries, but it is clearly unhappy about this, though many Arab players would also say that the US has its own “imperialist” bad manners.

I once read a comparison in a book in French on France’s relations with the Gulf between two letters to a widely respected Arab leader, one by former French president François Hollande and the other by an American official. The difference between Hollande’s “please, if you could achieve this” and the US official’s “I urge you to do this” was striking. It can also be difficult for Middle East experts to determine when and whether the New York Times and the Washington Post are inspired by US officials and the administration’s internal debates and policies.

I cannot claim to know all the Egyptian foreign policy experts, but it seems to me that those who work on regional issues are much more familiar with US foreign policy than they are with that of Russia. Most of them keep an eye on the Russian media (in Arabic or English), but they are aware that this is not sufficient.

Post-Soviet Russia is a newcomer in the region, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is the kind of leader many Egyptians admire: strong-willed, dedicated, anti-Western and implacable. True, the brutality of the Russian bombing in Syria shocked many in the Middle East, including cold-blooded realists, but the overall assessment did not change. These positive feelings can be illuminating, but they can also be blinding.

I am also not familiar with all the internal Egyptian debates, but it seems to me two questions are particularly important. First, it is not known whether Putin’s policies will last. Russia’s foreign policy owes a lot to his personality, and it is not known whether Russia’s future leaders will stick to the same guidelines. A serious case could be made for the improvement of Russia’s relations with the West, for example, to neutralise China’s rise. Second, there is a general assessment that Russia is a powerful country that is sharply declining. It has also not forgotten the 1970s, and put together these things complicate the problem of long-term commitments with Moscow.

Up to now, many foreign policy experts working on regional issues have not paid much attention to the foreign policies of the European countries. However, this may be changing as the European Union is deeply concerned by the situation in Libya and is increasingly nervous about the aggressive policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan. They have also noticed an increased German presence in South Sudan.

Lastly, we should prepare ourselves for China, a newcomer in the region, which is the real “other”. We may like or dislike China, and it is true that we have more common ground with Europe or the US. We all are the sons of the three monotheistic religions. Of course, the differences and antagonisms are important, but we more or less all belong to the same family, though I am aware that the worst enemies are those that have the most in common.

China has an impressive and dynamic middle class. Nothing is certain, but the chances that this will win its race against time and demography are fair. China also has a consistent strategy. A French colleague once described it by saying that China’s strategy is about “containing” Japan and the US, “strangling” India, neutralising Europe, and penetrating the Third World, the latter including the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and of course Asia.

This strategy is to be achieved by economic means, but a military presence will probably also be necessary. China also has a moderate stake in the stability of the Arab Gulf and a huge one in the Red Sea, and this will be crucial for the success of its grand design.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly   

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