Arab Spring's uprisings reshape U.S. influence

A Yemeni protester holds a dagger and chants slogans during a demonstration demanding the prosecution of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, Dec. 6, 2011.
AP Photo

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - About 18 months before the Egyptian uprising that would doom Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. diplomatic cable was sent from Cairo. It described Mubarak as the likely president-for-life and said his regime's ability to intimidate critics and rig elections was as solid as ever.

Around the same time, another dispatch to the State Department came from the American Embassy in Tunisia. In a precise foreshadowing of the revolts to come, it said the country's longtime leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had "lost touch" and faced escalating anger from the streets, according to once-classified memos posted by WikiLeaks.

Special Section: Anger in the Arab World
Special Section: WikiLeaks

So what was it? Was America blindsided or bunkered down for the Arab Spring?

The case is often made that Washington was caught flatfooted and now must adapt to diminished influence in a Middle East with new priorities. But there is an alternative narrative: that the epic events of 2011 are an opportunity to enhance Washington's role in a region hungry for democracy and innovation, and to form new strategic alliances.

There is no doubt that Washington was jolted by the downfall of its Egyptian and Tunisian allies. The revolutions blew apart the regimes' ossified relationships with the U.S. and cleared the way for long-suppressed Islamist groups that eye the West with suspicion.

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But declaring a twilight for America in the Mideast ignores a big caveat: The Persian Gulf. There are deep U.S. connections among the small but economically powerful and diplomatically adept monarchies, emirates and sheikdoms, which so far have ridden out the upheavals and are increasingly flexing their political clout around the Arab world.

The Gulf Arabs and America are, in many ways, foreign policy soul mates. Both share grave misgivings about Iran's expanding military ambitions and its nuclear program. The Gulf hosts crucial U.S. military bases — including the Navy's 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain — and is an essential part of the Pentagon's strategic blueprint for the Mideast after this year's U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

In summary: America's influence took blows from the Arab Spring, but also remains hitched to the rising stars in the Gulf.

"America has lost the predictability of friends like Mubarak," said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. "But, at the same time, its allies in the Gulf are on the rise. So I would call it a shuffle for America. Maybe a step back in some places, but not in others."

Led by hyper-wealthy Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Gulf rulers have stepped up their games in various ways as the region's political center of gravity drifts in their direction.

NATO's airstrikes in Libya got important Arab credibility from warplane contributions by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The Gulf's six-nation political bloc also has tried to negotiate an exit for Yemen's protest-battered president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and has taken the lead in Arab pressures on Syria's Bashar Assad, one of Iran's most crucial partners.

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Yet the Gulf rulers' desire for change stops at their own borders. In March, they authorized a Saudi-led military force to help their neighbor, Bahrain, defend its 200-year-old unelected Sunni dynasty against pro-reform protests by the island's Shiite majority.

And here lies one of the paradoxes for U.S. statecraft in the Middle East: to align with rulers who are firmly vested in the status quo, but not be cast as the spoilers of the Arab uprisings.

"No one is immune from the waves of change," said Nicholas Burns, a former No. 3 official at the State Department. "There's certainly an effort to advise the Gulf Arabs to continue to get on the side of reform."

Burns believes the Arab Spring has taught U.S. diplomats valuable lessons in patience and perspective.

"We are witnessing something that is transformative and whose full impact will play out over years, maybe decades, ahead," said Burns, a professor of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "Here is one of those times when the U.S. has to not overact and overreact."

But when events move fast, that may not be the easiest advice to follow. Mubarak was a loyal guardian of Egypt's groundbreaking 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and there is no certainty that whoever succeeds him will do likewise. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have overridden U.S. objections and asked the U.N. for statehood.

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"Our ability to influence is limited today more than at any time in the last 35 years," said Graeme Bannerman, a former State Department analyst on Mideast affairs, at a conference in November co-sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace.

That assessment may have some traction in places such as in Tunisia or Egypt, where the U.S. is widely viewed as tainted by its long alliance with Mubarak.

But ask about America's pull in other Mideast points — the free-spending Gulf, the new proto-state in Libya, even slow-healing Iraq and its Iran-friendly government — and the conversation is different. It is more measured about how the U.S. fits into the new Mideast. There is more talk about the arc of history rather than the latest sound bite.

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"It's too early to tell whether U.S. influence has diminished or indeed any change will happen because the Arab Spring is still in process," said Nawaf Tell, former director of the University of Jordan Strategic Studies Center.