What’s Going to Happen in the Middle East?

It’s been more than three months since my last blog on my home page.

Much has transpired in Washington, DC where I live and in US relations with the Middle East, from where I am writing. Contradictory statements and actions of the Trump Administration, on Syria for example, have observers puzzles as to the strategic thinking that support of statements and policies. From the White House to the NSC, the State Department and the US UN Ambassador, the Defense Department and the various official spokespersons, it is hard to find a thread on which to build an unencumbered understanding of this administration’s priorities. As it is becoming obvious to many, “American First” is not a policy; it is a point of reference for a tribal zero sum view of the world, not to mention the administration’s attitude towards its domestic critics. Throw in Congressional reluctance to be drawn into a lock step march on President Trump’s initiatives, and the brew certainly becomes toxic.

So here I am in Lebanon after a week of meetings with the country’s political/sectarian leadership, a weekend in Jordan catching up with friends, and back for more meetings and participation in the Lebanese Diaspora Energy conference of Lebanese from around the world. Of course it would be great to say that the country is on track to getting its act together and mobilizing its tremendous human capital…can’t say that, not even close. The bickering over the electoral law, in which each sect seeks to protect its own prerogatives, is just another indicator that this “democracy” has yet to evolve into institutions that support the state regardless of the political environment. Lebanon, as the eminent professor Michael Hudson wrote in 1968, is still the “Precarious Republic” splinted into multiple competing identifies of which “Lebanese” is not always even in the top three!

True, some compromises were made in accommodating competing demands in electing President Aoun and allocating ministries, yet the core question remains…who are the Lebanese who share a national identity? Unfortunately, while there are signs of less partisan attitudes among Lebanese youth and urbanites, this varies by class, background, and education. What remains is a country in a form of paralysis that is just enough to numb without destroying basic functions but not elastic or strong enough to take steps that reduce the inability to act consistently for the national good.

So what have I learned so far on this trip and what are the implications for US policy? Much of the analysis has not changed from earlier commentaries. Regrettably, countries from Mauritania to Iraq and the Gulf have structural and cultural barriers that inhibit much needed change. Witness the challenges that Saudi Arabia is facing in implementing Vision 2030. Issues decades in the making will not be resolved in months or even a few years. Among the most intractable are:

  • Uneven governance, wealth inequality, un- and underemployment, environmental degradation, and for countries with limited economic resources, inadequate public and social services in health, education, sanitation, water, and power, among others. In those states, particularly the Gulf oil monarchies that can buy solutions for infrastructure needs, the challenges of national employment and adequate market-based education still loom large.
  • Tied to this is the concept of leadership at the national and local levels. How is leadership determined and political priorities set? Is power-sharing between national and local governments on the agenda? Morocco and Jordan are among the few working on decentralization strategies to empower local communities. Maybe you have to have limited resources to be innovative and spread decision-making!
  • In their political systems, from political parties and real separation of powers, to Rule of Law and electoral politics, most of the Arab world gets poor grades for implementation.
  • The all-pervasive specter of corruption, from low level purchasing of goods and services to opaque government procurement processes, has not diminished. While some progress has been made, it is still an obstacle for international firms and investors and well as citizens.
  • Gender and youth inequality that robs the countries of productive roles from the majorities of their populations.
  • The negative consequences of multiple identities: religion, ethnic, tribal, and social differentiators,
  • The lack of coherent and integrated economic growth strategies with achievable results that benefit the economy broadly, supporting emerging and existing middle class citizens, and that deal with the presence of large communities of foreign workers who take jobs that locals disdain.
  • The interference of external factors such as regional politics, crises, and competition among the US, Russia, China, and others for influence.

Remedial Actions and Possible Initiatives

These do not represent all of the challenges in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region to becoming more engaged in citizen-centric and rule of law policies. But, as a checklist of potential areas for where the US can be useful, it’s a sufficient start. Of course, what will happen with US foreign assistance was a major question in both countries. The US supplies much of the weapons and supplies, and well as training for the Lebanese and Jordanian military. That will likely continue as Syria and ISIS are targeted by this administration.

In a companion blog, I will look at the administration’s political calculus on foreign assistance, which as of now seems muddled aside from supporting those who fight against “terrorism.” Hopefully, this will lead to some doable initiatives that both build on best practices and serve US interests in the always challenging MENA region.

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