Webcast Recap

Nathan Brown, former Wilson Center Fellow and Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University; Ellen Laipson, President and CEO of the Stimson Center; and Michael Singh, Managing Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, discussed the challenges America faces in dealing with new governments after the Arab uprisings, U.S. interests in the region, and how the U.S. must alter its strategy toward the Middle East.

On April 23, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting on “The Arab Spring, a Year On: How’s America Faring?” Aaron David Miller, Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar, moderated the event. He opened the discussion by asking how the Arab world and America are doing a year into the uprisings.

Brown addressed how the U.S. is faring in dealing with the uprisings. He emphasized that the U.S. is now dealing with entire societies instead of a handful of leaders, which poses unique challenges. The U.S. has no practice at addressing entire Arab societies, having only dealt with individual leaders before the uprisings. Brown argued the U.S. couldn’t identify institutions when they emerge, since they lack distinct leadership similar to the old regimes. He added that transitions will be difficult for the societies themselves since they will not have a clear set of institutions and processes emerging. Brown approved of certain things the U.S. has done, including recognizing the limits of its ability to dictate how the transitions will progress, focusing on only a few key issues, and reaching out to new political actors.

Laipson argued America’s role has to be examined in the context of the redistribution of power across the globe, which will result in less American influence over world affairs. The U.S. is dealing with a period of two Middle Easts that it must develop strategies to deal with: a prosperous oil-exporting Middle East and an economically stressed, democratizing Middle East. American policy is in a state of transition; the U.S. identifies with emerging democracies while still looking to do business with autocratic countries. The U.S. also needs to adjust to an area less receptive to a large American presence, instead engaging via society-to-society interaction, democracy promotion, and human rights. She identified that challenges remain in culture wars with countries in transition, mainly regarding women’s rights, a deficit of strong leadership that can create change, and an inability to know how to mobilize the private sector.

Singh claimed American interests in the Middle East have not changed, but there are obstacles to achieving them. The U.S. doesn’t fully understand internal politics in the transitioning countries, which will limit foreign policy considerations. The new governments will also be more anti-Western, since people see those relationships as reminiscent of the overthrown regimes. There may be a higher risk of conflict in the region, as states may use external issues to unite their populations and mask domestic problems. Singh explained the U.S. needs to update its strategy by overcoming the need for American leadership in the region, since the U.S. will have to work harder to assert its power as it becomes viewed as less relevant. The U.S. must seek help from its allies in the region, who are reassessing the dynamics of the Middle East and their relationship with the U.S. Finally, Singh said America must promote democracy and political reform, especially in countries that remain autocratic, to reemphasize its commitment to the region.

Miller concluded by stressing that American policy toward the Middle East has not changed on core issues, but the U.S. must identify its interests so policies are more effective. Though the U.S. can pursue conflicting policies, it is necessary to appeal to societies’ interests before pro-American attitudes can follow.

By Joanna Abdallah, Middle East Program