A New Middle East

The U.S. is going to have to change the way it builds ties in the region. That won't be easy

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A grab from a video shows Syrian anti-government protesters tearing down portraits of late President Hafez al-Assad (R) and his son, President Bashar al-Assad, in Hama on April 29, 2010.

Ever since the end of the cold War, the U.S. has been the dominant and unrivaled power in the Middle East. That situation is changing, not because another great power is entering the region but because the Arabs are becoming more independent, unlikely to ally themselves submissively to any outside patron. Egypt's decision to establish relations with Iran and Hamas is one part of this trend. Washington cannot change it, nor should it try. This is the new, democratic Arab world.

If you look at the region today, there have been two (mostly) peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, an insurgency against Muammar Gaddafi's reign in Libya, a continuing revolt in Yemen and now a series of protests in Syria. Beyond those major demonstrations, there have been protests of a kind in almost every other Arab country. And there is every reason to believe that the forces unleashed in the region will continue to roil it for months or even years.

For centuries, the Arabs have been dominated by outside powers. By the 16th century, Mongols and Persians had been replaced by the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Arabia for 400 years. As Ottoman power began to wane, first the French and then the British entered the Middle East, and in 1919, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they carved up the region, creating countries with the stroke of a pen and establishing local chieftains as the monarchs of these new states.

As Europe's empires themselves collapsed after World War II, the two superpowers took their place, choosing client states to support and secure. When the Cold War ended, Arab states that had supported the U.S. prospered. Those that had not, found themselves out in the cold; they either got new sponsors (Syria moved on to Iran) or tried to make their peace with the U.S. (which explains Libya's renunciation of its nuclear weapons). In any event, the U.S. became the dominant power, and most countries accommodated themselves to its priorities.

But over the past 10 years, the U.S. has lost the willingness and the capacity to maintain this quasi-imperial stance. It lost its will because it realized — under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — that its unqualified support of Arab dictators had spawned an extremist terrorist movement that was at its core anti-American. U.S. support for Arab regimes became more tentative and qualified. But Washington, exhausted by two wars, the financial crisis and a deep recession, also lost its capacity to act. As a result, indigenous forces in the Arab world — fueled by demographics, technology and a youth movement — began stirring. These forces, now unleashed, will not suddenly disappear.

There are some places in the Arab world that are so small and so rich that they might remain largely unchanged. But beyond the handful of oil sheikdoms, every society in the region is feeling the forces of change. Even in places where repression seems to have worked up to now, it is unlikely to work forever. Take Bahrain, whose government shut down protests in the country but at a huge cost. It has exacerbated a Shi'ite-Sunni divide, and it has effectively become a quasi-protectorate of the Saudi monarchy. That does not presage long-term stability for the country.

Whatever the outcome in Syria, Libya and Yemen, it's safe to say that five years from now, these places will look very different. The one experiment with genuine pre-emptive reform appears to be in Morocco, where the King has proposed effectively ceding a great many of his powers to an elected Prime Minister. If that succeeds, it will be a powerful model, and there will be pressure for the Gulf monarchies and Jordan to follow suit.

What does this mean for the U.S.? Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out to me that if you go back to 1975, the U.S. was closely allied with all four major states in the region — Iran, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Today every one of those relationships is troubled. But that is a sign of the strange nature of the U.S.'s regional dominance. We were allied with regimes — like those of the Shah of Iran, Egypt's dictators and the Turkish military — that could not last as the winds of modernity swept by.

Now Washington will have to make alliances with a more modern, democratic, populist Middle East but one where its ties will be more real and more stable. Just as it moved its support from South Korean and Taiwanese dictators to democrats, from Pinochet and Marcos to the democratic forces in Chile and the Philippines, it will now have to find a way to shift support from the princes of the Arab world to the people. It is a difficult journey but a vital one.