A Greater Middle East Spring? Or War?
No. 1 2012 January/March
Pyotr Stegny

Ph.D. in History. He is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, and a member of the Russian International Affairs Council.

Implications of “Security through Democracy” Policies

Mass disturbances, unprecedented in terms of civil activity and tension, have been shaking the Middle East for more than twelve months. The revolutionary gale has carried away the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. The overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya required assistance from NATO aviation, but the events developed there along the same scenario anyway. It looks like Syria is standing next in line, just as any Arab country whose leadership is unable to carry out democratic reforms, on which the majority of people pin hopes for a better life. Generally speaking, the region features all the symptoms of a systemic crisis. In all appearance, it is time to look deeper into the nature of this crisis and the intricate patterns of the “network revolutions,” to consider them against the background of the world order realities, and to assess prospects for further developments.

It is quite obvious that the revolutionary processes in the Arab world were caused by objective reasons, primarily social and economic ones. In essence, the participants in mass protests, organized by social media networks, voted no confidence in authoritarian regimes (or “presidencies for life”). The latter had proved unable to cope with the problems of poverty and unemployment and – in a broader context – to modernize their countries and integrate them into the increasingly globalizing world and growing interdependence.

There was also another obvious fact. The actions of the opposition, sporadic at the beginning, received strong support from the West, and not only in the form of cross-border solidarity when people who came to Tahrir Square in Cairo sensed the support of the “democratic international” operating in the virtual space of the Internet. External political, informational and economic (and, in Libya’s case, military) pressure on the ruling regimes also became a crucial factor in the success of the revolutions – at least, in Egypt and Libya. In addition, the picture of events, drawn as a rule on the opinions of the opposition, was composed almost exclusively by Western electronic and printed media and the Internet.

Of course we cannot speak of an “imperialist conspiracy” in the traditional sense of this expression: it would be dangerous to view the Arab Spring as an imported product, since the processes, which eventually brought it into being, had been brewing for quite a long time. For experts who had been aware of the growing problems, the outburst of popular discontent came as an “expected surprise.” And not so much in terms of time and place (the disturbances began in relatively well-off Tunisia) as in terms of severity of the protests.

The reason may be in the “viral” mechanism of the proliferation of “network revolutions,” which develop according to an intricate and little-studied algorithm. Or the root cause may be found in the supra-national nature of social media networks. The internal and external factors fuelling social protests are so tightly interwoven and form such an intricate mix that often it is really hard to make out where some factors end and other factors begin.

Nonetheless, even at the current – and apparently initial – stage of the Arab Spring the events in the region not only reflect the free choice of the Arab nations in favor of democracy. They are also a byproduct of Western nations’ efforts to create instruments for global democratic transformation.

This factor changes dramatically the implications of the ongoing developments, because sooner or later an approach of this kind begins to be viewed as an intention to meet one’s unilateral interests. In this sense, attempts made in recent years by some countries (especially the U.S.) to establish criteria for democracy and apply them to other states are fairly vulnerable. This practice inevitably results in double standards and compromises the very principles of democracy. Examples are plenty. Suffice it to compare the U.S. Department of State’s assessments of the human rights situation in oil-rich Gulf monarchies and in Syria.

I would like to make it clear from the very start that I am not going to justify, let alone defend, authoritarian Arab regimes like Syria or Libya under Gaddafi. Everyone, including the Arab League which is persistently working with Bashar al-Assad, recognizes the need to stop the bloodshed and carry out reforms in Syria. But where is the borderline separating the right of a legitimately elected president to defend the constitutional order against an armed revolt, and criminal suppression of opposition actions which calls for interference by the international community? Is it the number of victims among civilians? But were these victims not too many during NATO’s operation in Libya and, before it, in Afghanistan and Iraq?

The propagation of democracy as the most efficient form of state and political self-organization of society tends to be universal today, and the monitoring of the basic elements of democracy, such as human rights and elections, on the part of international and regional organizations is justified – just as the reaction in the form of sanctions – unless it becomes a subject of loose interpretation, like the UN Security Council’s resolution approving a no-fly zone over Libya. Otherwise the unity of the international community is put at stake, as the events of the past few months have shown, especially as this may happen at a time when unity is needed the most.

On the whole, the impression is that the West is developing an inclination in the wake of the Arab Spring to link the notions of democracy and security and give democracy a priority in building a new, safer world, if not to place democracy above security. This looks quite attractive from the strategic angle but, given the current situation, this is a rather risky trend that is able to deform the global security system, which is already too slow to adjust to new threats and challenges. Verbal games (like “democracy as a prerequisite for stability”) are impractical. It is hard to believe that the West, with its huge potential in political science, does not realize such obvious things. Yet the paradigm of ensuring global stability through the “export of democracy” is taking an increasingly greater place in its actions.



To see the reason for this tendency, let us look at the West’s behavior from a broader angle of view and analyze its basic geopolitical, political and economic interests.

In the geopolitical sense, the Western community seeks to ensure security in the Greater Middle East, a strategic and energy-important region. This task emerged on the international agenda after the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The exceptional significance of the task stems not so much from the forthcoming pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the already accomplished withdrawal of military units from Iraq as from serious nuclear and other risks to international peace and security that emerged along the eastern perimeter of the Greater Middle East (Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan). Paraphrasing Sir Winston Churchill, the Greater Middle East has become a “soft underbelly” of Euro-Atlantic security, the way the Balkans were between the two world wars.

In the political sense, the task is to bring under control the dismantling of the post-Soviet legacy – governmental and political structures that came into existence on a wave of Arab nationalism during confrontation between the Western and Soviet blocs. The effort is meant to clear the way for new elites that would be ready to accept democratic values (using the same logic that was used during the events of the late 1980s through to the early 1990s in Eastern Europe and the Balkans and the ‘color revolutions’ in the post-Soviet space).

The economic dimension of the West’s strategy in the Middle East (with account of its evident interest in keeping control over natural resources) is in achieving fundamental understanding on division of the spheres of influence in the context of the changing regional and global political geography. Simultaneously, it is vitally important to balance off the interests of multinational oil and gas companies and financial quarters in the face of an approaching global crisis and to ensure the fulfillment of the 1973 agreements with oil-producing Arab countries on keeping up the bound character of petrodollars circulating in the American economy. Another priority task is to counter the growing financial and economic expansion of China into the Arab East and Africa.

Of course, there is no consolidated strategy in the West in any of the above areas (except, perhaps, the political sphere). In addition to the natural competition of economic interests and ensuing political nuances, a large-scale transformation of the region requires large-scale investments, which involves obvious risks. Hence the seemingly growing distancing of NATO from U.S. actions in Iraq, or the United States’ distancing from the active phase of the military operation in Libya, which it “entrusted” to its European allies. On the whole, the growing tumult in the region is forcing Arab oil-producing countries to focus on multibillion-dollar social programs, which leaves open the question of how strong the resource base of the regional strategy of the West is.

The West’s basic approaches towards the Arab Spring are developing by and large within the same ideological framework that brought to life the Greater Middle East project, which was aimed at checking the threat of Islamic terrorism that surged after the 9/11 terrorist acts (efforts to combat it were already in full swing in Afghanistan and Iraq). The plans suggested that acute social and economic problems of the region, which really served as a spawning ground for extremists, would be resolved through mass assistance from the international community. However, the project, presented by the U.S. at the G8 summit in London in 2004, did not receive support, not least because of the negative reaction to it by the leading countries in the region, above all Egypt and Syria. Neo-cons, who were steering the political course of the U.S. Republican administration at the time, had to change their tactics.

In June 2006, the then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice introduced the term “New Middle East” during her tour of the region. She mentioned in this connection the importance of “reshaping” the region on the basis of democracy. Shortly after her statement, the U.S. and then the regional press published a “Ralph Peters map” which supposedly reflected the position of the American expert milieu close to the neo-cons. The map proposed (obviously for the purpose of probing the situation, if not provocation) a radical redrawing of state borders in the Greater Middle East along the principles of traditional ethnic or religious distribution of the population. The map provided, for instance, for the creation of a Kurdish state at the expense of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, a Greater Armenia that would incorporate part of today’s Turkey, and a partitioning of Saudi Arabia into three states. Although the map was unofficial, its appearance sparked an angry reaction in the region, especially in Turkey which saw parallels between the map and plans for partitioning the Ottoman Empire after World War I (the modern Republic of Turkey came into being as a result of resistance to those plans).

The Democrats, who came to the White House in 2008, had to tackle the heavy burden of Middle East blunders made by the Republicans. The unreasonably big spending for the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (which cost some $1.5 trillion in rough estimates), compared with their highly unconvincing results, became extremely burdensome for the U.S. itself, and started affecting global finance.

Barack Obama, who made a keynote speech in Cairo in June 2009, shifted accents in the U.S. Middle East policy, bringing two main tasks into spotlight – the promotion of democratic reforms in the Arab world and a speedy (i.e. before the expiry of his presidential powers) settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It would not be an overstatement to say that his concept of remodeling the world in a tie-up with the promotion of political and diplomatic approaches to resolving a wide range of regional problems provided a strong stimulus to the processes that paved the way to the Arab Spring a year and a half later.

By the same token, the Americans already had a non-violent (and less expensive) set of tools for implementing the ideas embedded in the Greater Middle East project. In line with the umbrella concept of transformational diplomacy developed when Rice was in office, the Americans rearranged the operations of the Department of State and other agencies towards prioritizing assistance to democratic reforms abroad (including via social media networks). Emphasis was placed on nongovernmental organizations and direct contacts with the non-systemic opposition, bypassing the government.

Still, the practical fulfillment of the “Cairo scenario” once again highlighted the weak points of the U.S. Middle East strategy and, specifically, the insufficiently profound research into regional realities. First and foremost, this concerned the role Islamists play in Arab countries. Mass manifestations in some countries waved anti-American slogans, which only buttressed the feeling that had emerged from the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, namely that Washington’s social engineering was malfunctioning in the Middle East – precisely because of superficial assessments of the existing inter-religious balances and the Islamic factor.


In the meantime, the provisional results of the Arab Spring, and primarily the outcome of elections in Tunisia and Morocco, as well as the first round of the parliamentary election in Egypt, point to the apparently predominant influence of Islamic parties and organizations on the moods of the man in the street in Arab cities. There may be differences in the political positions (but surely not in the style of action) of the moderates and radicals or the Sunnis and the Shiites when it comes to issues like rejection of outside interference or the attitude towards Israel. And yet it would be naХve to build a policy upon them. The Islamists of today have in very many respects inherited the political agendas of Arab nationalists of the past. The seizure of the Israeli embassy on the eve of the second wave of popular protests in Cairo served as one more reminder of that.

The fundamental differences between moderate and radically-minded Islamists lie in their outlooks as to what the state should be like – secular or theocratic, based on Sharia laws. There is also the possibility of a third option, which would ensure smooth and democratic transformation of the traditional society. This option stems from Turkey’s experience of building a secular state where the ideals of democracy and a successfully developing market economy blend with the traditions of Islam.

The development of democracy in the Arab world along the Turkish model would, without a doubt, be preferable in all respects. However, the Turkish model was borne out in an entirely different historical environment when the Army, the backbone element of Kemal Ataturk’s system of containment, confronted Communists and then Islamists. But this system does not work even in Turkey anymore. That is why there is little wonder that the military in Egypt, whose role as the guarantor of the constitution is not codified in law, have so far been unable to cope with Islamist crowds.

Moreover, the Arab world is not so much drifting towards Turkey as Turkey is drifting in the direction of the Arab world amidst the shifts that have begun in the region. Quite illustrative is the crisis in relations between Turkey and Israel which broke out about two years ago when Turkish nongovernmental organizations played an active role in the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” raid intended to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. The toughness the Turks have been showing in the course of the crisis clearly aims to demonstrate that democracy and North-Atlantic solidarity is one thing, while the priority of the Palestinian problem for the regional agenda is quite a different thing.

This line of conduct is typical not only of Turkey. The expectations of politicians and experts who think the Arab Spring will push the problems of the Arab-Israeli conflict backstage scarcely have any grounds. The Arab League’s solidarity motions to condemn the persecution of oppositionists in Libya and Syria and a similar position taken by Turkey towards Damascus do not mean at all that the spirit of solidarity will conduce them to drop the demand for creating an independent Palestinian state (which has already become a full-fledged member of UNESCO with support from the Arabs). On the contrary, the rapprochement with the West on the issues of democracy in the Middle East gave rise to expectations of reciprocal steps on the part of Israel and the U.S. However, it is exactly in the sphere of Middle East peace settlement that Obama’s dual-purpose strategy is bringing the most disappointing results.

No doubt, Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government is far from a simple partner for negotiations, to put it mildly. It bears the immediate responsibility for disrupting the George Mitchell mission and later efforts undertaken by the Americans and the Quartet of mediators. This cornered the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue eventually. Thinking of the reasons for the persistent tightening of approaches to the problem of the “final status” by the Netanyahu cabinet, I would not rule out that the Israelis, who usually foresee possible developments in the region, simply failed to see the inevitability of revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world.

Like other parties, Israel proved unprepared to face the scale and intensity of the unfolding events. The Israelis, who found themselves in the epicenter of the regional tsunami with an unclear outcome, realized that the “network democracy” virus did not hit the “right” targets (Tehran) but destroyed the fabric of their relations with predictable, albeit insufficiently democratic, neighbors. Tel Aviv, which is concerned about the future of its peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, is critical about Washington’s surrender of pro-Western Hosni Mubarak, let alone the Americans’ contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood. As regards Syria, a weakening of its rapport with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas would be more preferable for Israel than the Assad regime’s exit.

Nonetheless, Israel has to support the U.S. efforts to bring democracy to the region, which is only natural for a state that has for years been exploiting its status as the only democracy in the Middle East. But it looks like the Israeli government – along with other actors inside and outside of the region – does not have a well-thought-out plan of action to meet the drastically new regional situation. This, in turn, pushes up the risk of the conflicts going out of control.


Now we approach the main aspect of the current regional situation, namely Iran. The tight knot of contradictions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program and Tehran’s policy in general has affected so profound international policies that any attempt to cut it may blow up peace already in the short term, and not only in the Greater Middle East.

Iran is a “threshold” nuclear state, and the future of the nascent global security system depends in many ways on whether or not it obtains a nuclear bomb. The problem is not only a possible proliferation of nuclear weapons across the explosive Middle East and not the fact that Iran is critical for the safe supply and transportation of energy resources from the Gulf countries.

Much more important is Iran’s location in a triangle of potential global danger (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq) and in the region where the geopolitical interests of different centers of power of the contemporary world – Europe, the U.S., Russia and China – intersect. Pakistan, one of the corners of the triangle, already has the nukes. In another state, Afghanistan, the formula of “security through democracy” is being put to test and the situation there (as well as in neighboring Iraq) does not give grounds for optimistic forecasts.

It will not be an overstatement to say that the “triangle of instability” arose from the disruption of the traditional “triangle of stability” which consisted of Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia and which was destroyed by the war in Iraq. Baghdad and Tehran would contain each other within that triangle and Riyadh would maneuver between its bellicose neighbors. This pattern would rule out the emergence of a nuclear bomb in any of the three countries, which watched each other vigilantly.

Yet the logic of global dominance (of democracy, of course) prevailed in Washington during George W. Bush’s presidency. The “triangle of instability” was included in the Greater Middle East project, along with Arab nations already overburdened with problems of their own. This strategic blunder generated a critical mass of threats in the region, now stretching far beyond the regional boundaries.

The Israelis feel this threat especially acutely. The Israeli leaders view the prospect of Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons as a threat to the very existence of the Jewish state. They have repeatedly stated – especially of late – that they are ready to deliver a strike at Iranian nuclear facilities. The Israeli political establishment is divided on this issue, judging by public statements about the danger of using force against Iran, made by top officials of Israeli security agencies, who resigned at the beginning of 2012. However, the Israelis have a motivation lying at a very deep existential level. Officials in Israel have compared Ahmadinejad to Hitler and his statements against Israel, to the Holocaust.

The Israelis understand that it is dangerous to enter into a direct confrontation with Tehran without Washington’s political umbrella and its overt or covert logistical support. But the Arab Spring and the collapse of radical nationalistic regimes may tempt one to use the regional situation for a large-scale realignment of forces: for instance, to bring into play the contradictions between the Shias in Iran, on the one hand, and the Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, on the other. Naturally, the Iranian-Saudi contest in the Gulf area is a story with deep roots and the accusations against Iran of expansionism have objective grounds, but, by virtue of their nature, the Gulf oil monarchies always tend to take sides with the potential winner. Yet, if the situation grows over into a conflict, there may be no winner in it at all.

Is it still possible to stop the sliding of the situation around Iran into the realm of irrationality? Surely, this is possible – if everyone understands that after Afghanistan, Iraq and, most recently, Libya the threat of a “democratic intervention,” preceded by sanctions, will only stimulate the complex of excessive self-defense, and not only in Iran. There may be other countries and leaders confident that in this every-man-for-himself world they can defend their identity and lifestyle only if they have a nuclear bomb.

The Iranian nuclear program must remain a nonproliferation issue and it must be resolved exclusively by political and diplomatic methods, while Iran should be kept within the sphere of control of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Five-plus-One talks with Iran can produce a result acceptable to the international community. A cooperative atmosphere at the talks could be facilitated by signals to Tehran that there is no risk of its coercive democratization along the Iraqi model, or of its fragmentation along the recipes of the Greater Middle East project. In addition, the Iranians’ reaction to the signals of this kind may serve as a test for the genuineness of their intentions and be reflected in the positions of all the negotiating parties.

The situation around the Iranian nuclear program, which has reached a critical point, calls for speedy and concerted efforts of the international community. Otherwise the Greater Middle East Spring may turn into a Greater Middle East War.