Stability is the least understood and most derided of the trio of strategic interests pursued by the United States in the Middle East since it became the region’s sole superpower. Vexing, because it is patently obvious code for coziness with kings, presidents-for-life and other unsavory autocrats. Perplexing, because it seems to involve only cost, lacking the material benefit of protecting oil deposits or the domestic political profit of backing Israel, the two other members of the troika.
For decades, idealists of the right and left have taken aim at the concept of stability, hoping to marshal disgust at its amoral nature or disillusionment with its blowback. Such are the impulses of activists for human rights and a just peace; such was also the thought underpinning ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s dictum that “for 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”
Such was not the thought that counted, however. The Bush administration, despite its willingness to part with stability in policy salons, proved quite happily married to the notion when elections in Palestine hinted that democratic polities in the Middle East would not be so pliable as the potentates when it came to oil and Israel.
For the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Washington, which the Obama administration personifies, stability is not so hard to love or difficult to comprehend. Its ethical challenges, when they are bruited at all, are greatly outweighed by the geopolitical advantages. For 60 years, minus a few revolutionary interruptions here and there, stable regimes have pumped the petroleum to the world market, keeping the price per barrel relatively low and allowing the US Navy to police the tanker lanes. For 40 years, with an occasional dissent, stable Arab regimes have acquiesced in Israel’s colonization of Palestine, some of them signing up as partners in the various US-sponsored “peace processes” intended to license the illegal facts on the ground. To these clear strategic benefits has been added the eagerness of stable Arab regimes to enlist in the US-led war on terrorism and repress the less militant Islamist movements that have long raised the most credible specter of disruption to the preferred order.
Now that non-religious popular uprisings have given flesh to the threat, it is still the commitment to stability that guides the White House. Where rebels rushed to the dictator’s ramparts, as in Libya, the US has cut its client loose, pursuing sanctions and indictments, in hopes of forging ties with a steady-handed successor government. Where the CIA calculates (so far) that despots can withstand the tide, as in Bahrain or Yemen, the US has confined its interventions to lectures reflecting the liberal distaste for violence. That unease is, of course, relative, expressed in much stronger terms to the “delusional” Col. Qaddafi than to the “moderate” Al Khalifa.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the Obama administration underestimated the power of the crowds, standing by its men Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Husni Mubarak for unseemly durations before each in turn was ousted. The White House’s maneuvers in Egypt, in particular, revealed the grip of the stability cult in Washington. The administration’s more traditional realists, gathered around Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urged reassurance of Mubarak and his cronies, while the liberal internationalist wing pushed vague pro-democracy rhetoric while busily designing constitutional stratagems to help the octogenarian Egyptian president manage his own “orderly, peaceful transition” to retirement. In both cases, the underlying prerogative was to blunt the will of the street, which might take Egypt’s revolution in unpredictable directions. Obama is the president who invited America’s predatory insurance industry to help draft his health care reform legislation; with regard to this key US ally, as well, his instinct will be that deals with the forces of darkness are the best guarantor of minimal friction.
Stability, after all, is prized for its own sake, in addition to the succor it lends to other strategic goals. Historically, and particularly in the last 30 years, stable regimes in the Middle East have been malleable interlocutors with Washington — not puppets or yes-men in some crude sense, but reasonable sorts who, precisely because they were unaccountable to their populations, were willing and able to put free markets and “peace processes” above wealth redistribution and justice for the Palestinians. Revolutions in the Arab world cannot dislodge stability from its perch in US thinking. But if the revolutions are completed, and produce governments that derive their stability from genuinely participatory politics, Arab chanceries will drive much harder bargains — and Washington does not relish the prospect.