The Arab Spring is an Opportunity… For Europe

The Arab Spring is a historic moment of opportunity for the Middle East — as well as Europe — that must not be wasted. Who could have imagined even a year ago that the Arab Spring would blow a fresh wind across the Middle East, opening minds and hearts to new possibilities. Now in the next chapter of this remarkable story, the Palestinians have taken their quest for statehood to the United Nations. Perhaps no other issue in the Middle East packs as much symbolic value as this one, and holds as much potential to be a catalyst for profound change.

To maximize this potential, Europe will have to play a leading role, stepping up with foreign aid and technical assistance in the short term, and trade and economic development in the longer term. In addition, it must speak with an amplified voice, particularly when it comes to  encouraging the United States to modify its disastrous policies in the region that have been pursued by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

In June I attended a roundtable discussion in Barcelona which featured over a dozen young leaders of the Arab Spring, from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco and more. They made it clear that they need European assistance, especially financial resources and know-how. But, several said — showing the delicacy of the situation — that any support from former colonial powers risks a backlash from their populations. So Europe should avoid launching grand, ambitious, broad stroke programs that are not fully endorsed by the leading democratic forces there.

The complex brew of the Middle East does not need another hegemon that tries to settle conflicts with ineffectual bluster and blunder. The Libyan military intervention was the right thing to do to prevent a massacre and contribute toward regime change, but in most situations Europe is better off deploying its trademark “smart power” approach of patient multilateralism, founded on the sturdy bedrock of small, constructive steps of engagement over mutually shared interests, like the kind that brought Germany and France together in the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. When coupled with a transformative amount of financial assistance, that would provide a supportive matrix like that imparted by western Europe to central and eastern Europe post-1989, and by the United States to Europe and Japan following World War II. Monnetism and Marshall Plan-like support, that’s what the Arab Spring needs and what Europe knows how to deliver.

Patience and a long-term perspective are essential, even as short-term action is required. But part of the challenge also is for Europe to talk bluntly to its longtime ally, the United States. American policy in the Middle East consistently has undermined stability and prospects for peace. Europe could start by confronting the Obama administration with such basic questions as: who exactly are the enemies of America in the Middle East today? Is it Afghanistan? Afghanistan is a poor, ravaged country with an economy smaller than that of the tiny U.S. state of Rhode Island. Is it Iran? Despite all its oil, Iran is a poor country badly in need of development with an economy smaller than that of the state of New Jersey. It has a burgeoning population of young people born after the Islamic revolution and who want a more secular, middle-class existence than the ruling religious clerics can deliver. Change is in the air, but it needs the right sort of push that doesn’t produce an equal and opposite hostile reaction.

Unfortunately U.S. policy often has resulted in unintended blowback again and again. In one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in American history, the U.S.-led removal of Saddam Hussein delivered the Iraqi government into the hands of Shiites with long-standing ties to Iran. Thanks to that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld folly, the delicate Mideast power balance has tipped somewhat toward Iran.

This in turn has turned into an irrational fear over Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. But even if Iran were to gain nuclear arms, the West could deter it from using them through carrot-and-stick diplomacy, including the threat of a catastrophic retaliatory strike, just as it did with the Soviet Union. This is not appeasement but a realpolitik assessment reached by various U.S. national security experts, including the U.S. Congress’ bipartisan Iraq Study Group and General John Abizaid, President George W. Bush’s former U.S. commander for Iraq and the Middle East region. General Abizaid has stated, “There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran. Iran is not a suicide nation.”

Besides tamping down tensions with Iran, Europe also should encourage the United States to pressure its main Middle East ally, Israel. Myopic American support for Israel, which includes forking over $3 billion a year to the increasingly belligerent Israeli leadership during a time of budget slashing and austerity at home, is based on many factors. But the one that gets talked about the least is the impact of the antiquated US presidential election process.  It’s not simply that the Israeli lobby is well-funded and powerful, shoving money at members of Congress and presidential candidates alike. The American method of electing the president gives disproportionate influence to Jewish voters living in Florida, which in recent years has been a key battleground state in presidential elections.

The electoral college is a byzantine method in which each of the 50 states are contested as individual contests; there’s no national election for president. Florida is a large state with the fourth highest number of electoral votes, and it is also a battleground state, which means it is usually close enough that it can be won by either a Democrat or Republican (compared to other large states like California, New York or Texas, which are all solidly Republican or Democratic states).  Florida also has a lot of Jewish voters, and in a close contest the disproportionate Jewish vote can be crucial in deciding who wins Florida. In several recent presidential elections, Florida and Ohio have been crucial in deciding the presidential winners.

This factor, perhaps more than any other, explains why Democratic presidents like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have Middle East policies that vary little from that of Republican presidents like George W. Bush. They know they can’t afford to lose Florida in the presidential sweepstakes. This is pandering to the Jewish vote at its worst.

At any rate, it’s clear that both the United States as well as Israel are suffering from the calamity of terrible leadership. Like the US economy, the Israeli economy is a mess, with massive demonstrations and occupations of city centers by protesters crippling the domestic scene. On September 3, some 450,000 people thronged the streets of Tel Aviv and three other towns, calling for affordable housing, cheaper basic food and better social services. Ironically, an “Israeli spring” is in the offing.

Rather than enabling the Netanyahu government’s bungling of both the domestic economy and relations with the Palestinians, the Europeans should push the Obama administration to push the Israelis to get more serious about negotiating over a two-state solution. Foot-dragging over Hamas not recognizing Israel’s right to exist might seem justified, but it really just provides a fig leaf over the failures of Israel’s own short-sighted leaders. Nothing will undermine Hamas’ credibility more than making gains in bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Beyond that, a more visionary Israeli leadership – as well as American leadership – would recognize that Israel has much to gain from a peaceful Middle East, as well as to contribute to it. Israel could become a key economic and technology hub, and lead a regional Renaissance. It could be to its region what Germany has been to Europe – the center of a robust commercial zone where a rising tide lifts all boats. A peaceful Middle East and Mediterranean basin, transformed by the emerging democracies and developing economies of the Arab Spring, would contribute much to Israel’s own peace and prosperity.

Due to its geographic proximity, the Eurosphere also would benefit greatly from a stable and developing Middle East and Mediterranean. Bilateral as well as continent-to-continent trade would receive a substantial boost. Greater regional prosperity would reduce the flood of immigrants fleeing troubled zones. So Europe has much at stake, and should be alarmed that unfortunately the Israeli and American leaders are about to squander another historic opportunity. Europe needs more unity, and less timidity, when dealing with its American and Israeli allies.

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  • Gray

    Good points, Steven! Always glad to read your educated insights about European issues, in this case European opportunities. Those stories have convincigly more 'flesh on the bone' than most of the other stuff in the US media, where I often ask myself "where's the meat"?

  • Bill Raymond

    The Arab spring is an opportunity for the Arab people. Europeans who believe in social justice must expose the reality of Nato intervention and neocolonialism – it's all about oil. Europeans who believe in social justice must support the Palestinians in their struggle. Europeans who beliee in social justice must abandon a Eurocentirc approach that sees the self determination of the Arab people (some chance) as an opportunity for Europe – I mean the core of the global system of capital accumulation.