How the West needs to engage the Middle East has been rapidly changing since the failures of poorly devised Western engagement and unresponsive governance throughout the region erupted into the Arab Spring Revolutions. Recognizing the number of deeply entrenched issues the populations of the Middle East face, along with the constant influx of new crises emerging throughout the region, the traditional diplomatic “architecture” used to guide how we engaged the region could no longer be effective.
During the Arab Spring Revolutions, this writer advocated for greater diplomatic engagement and assistance in helping the Peoples of the Middle East redevelop their political institutions. Instead of reacting to crises, military intervention needed to be a last resort while intervening to favor existing governments could no longer be the motivation. The West needed to wait and strategically engage emerging crises in order to stretch limited resources that could not meet all of the needs.
Since the rise of the Islamic State as a major regional threat, the governments of the Middle East have become increasingly responsive to their own security needs while recognizing of the need to preserve their nation-states instead of using their power to simply serve their own whims. What this means is that elements of traditional diplomatic architecture, which assumes a government will pursue its interests as a nation and as a reflection of its People’s collective interests, can be properly used to engage the Middle East. Accordingly, support of government policies can fulfill the interests of Middle Eastern leaders and their Peoples in such a way that it also serves Western interests.
On the other hand, it is important to recognize the motivations behind the Arab Spring Revolution have not been satisfied. The Peoples of the Middle East still want freedom from oppression and they still want better lives, but their need for stability and security is a higher priority, at the moment, while their need happens to align with the national security interests of their leaders. Consequently, Western leaders must engage and support the governments of the Middle East in ways that also support the interests of their Peoples.
The tentative Iranian nuclear agreement, for example, is only valuable to the nations of the world so long as it allows them to verify Iran is not building a nuclear bomb, which will enable them to take preemptive action to prevent such a development. For the Peoples of the Middle East, the diplomatic achievements surrounding the Iranian nuclear agreement must also eventually empower the Iranian People against their government, moderate the Iranian political establishment, and change how Iran engages its neighbors.
In other words, the Peoples of Iran see the deal as a path to political reform and a bridge to the rest of the world. If the Iranian government is simply empowered by the lifting of sanctions, global powers will earn the scorn of the Iranian People and the Peoples of the Middle East.
Furthermore, the Saudi-led air campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen can be seen in the interest of the Yemeni People. Thanks to the globalization of the Muslim identities, the actions of the Arab coalition can also be seen in the interests of all Muslim throughout the region, thus bolstering the image of America for its military support. This, of course, depends upon whether Middle Easterners view the Houthi and the influence of the oppressive Iranian regime as a far more serious threat than the Arab coalition.
If the bombing campaign leads to more destruction, more suffering than what the Houthi have done and the Yemeni government continues to neglect the interests of its People, it can easily be seen as a move to empower pro-Western governments and the oppressive nature of pro-Western dictators. Unfortunately, the political impulse to avoid this situation is to thoroughly demonize the enemy, i.e. Iran, instead of criticizing what they are doing wrong.
Not only would this derail the nuclear deal, it could help spark a regional war. Because the Middle East is globalizing, attempts to channel populous civil discontent aimed at oppressive and unresponsive governments to foster “patriotic support” of a war between Saudi-allies and Iranian-allies could easily erupt into a regional sectarian war.
The United States and the rest of the West would, of course, be caught in the middle of this sectarian war. Because the US has greater interest in supporting Saudi Arabia, polarization along sectarian divides would mean a loss of US influence over Iraq and, by default, increased support for Sunnis over Shiites Instead of cultivating better governance, regional stability, and improved relations, US and Western engagement in the Middle East would come to serve the interests of Middle Eastern powers.
In turn, this outcome would force the US and the rest of the West to disengage from the Middle East, which would lead to greater, longer-lasting instability. Consequently, the West must engage Middle Eastern governments in ways that support the Peoples of the Middle East. The West cannot afford to be inadvertently pulled into the conflicts of Middle Eastern governments. In order to do this, the West must press forward by diplomatically engaging Iran, Saudi Arabia, and all other Middle Eastern government in ways that support the interests of the Peoples of the Middle East.
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