Can the Arab Spring Bring Peace to the Middle East?

The Arab Spring presents a unique opportunity to envision a better Middle East, joining the global community with dignity and prosperity. If the people of the Middle East embrace this vision, America should provide significant support in achieving it, because a successful Middle East is our best defense against terrorism and our best guarantee of stable oil supplies.

The post-World War II Middle East has experienced: decolonization, autocratic governments, the 1948 War, the 1956 Suez Crisis, the June 1967 War, the Yom Kippur War, the Iran-Iraq Wars, the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Oslo Process, America's invasion of Iraq, and many other dramatic events.

The current period, however, presents the most significant changes in regional alliances since WWII. To name a few: Hamas' partnership with Syria has ended, Hezbollah is less able to rely on Syria's support, Syria's ability to intervene in Lebanon's affairs has been reduced, and Egypt's cooperation with the U.S. will likely decrease. Perhaps most disturbingly, Iran may (subject to many caveats) become a de-facto nuclear power within several years, challenging Israel with a threat to its existence.

American goals have not changed. The U.S. wants: a stable Middle East that provides secure oil sources; non-discriminatory democratic governments, subject to the rule of law; a two-state Israel-Palestine solution, just and equitable for both parties; and the prevention of nuclear proliferation.

The Arab Spring presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape events to achieve these goals. Unfortunately, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton's policies (while well-intentioned) have been merely reactive, day-to-day, and ad hoc. And some approaches outlined by Republican presidential candidates would be disastrous (e.g., Newt Gingrich referring to the Palestinians as an 'invented people').

The time has come to shape the future. Consider America's greatest foreign policy successes: Japan's post-WWII rebirth, Europe's post-WWII revival through the Marshall Plan, China's reintegration into the world system post-1979, and integration of former communist bloc countries after the Warsaw Pact collapse. They occurred because these countries shared a vision, and were willing to work to achieve it. The U.S. offered that vision, together with support to make it a reality.

Translating this to the Middle East, U.S. policy could look like the following:

  • Israel/Palestine: Offer incentives to both sides (paid for by the U.S. and other interested parties) that provide real reasons to make painful compromises. For both Israel and Palestine (conditioned on their achieving a real peace treaty) -- Entry into NAFTA (or analogous trade concessions) on favorable terms to promote economic growth. For Israel -- Entry into NATO, with a significant number of NATO troops stationed in front-line positions (so an attack on Israel becomes an attack on NATO), and reimbursement of costs for settlers evacuated from the West Bank. For the Palestinians -- Payment of all claims for people displaced during the various wars (by payment directly to the refugees), and citizenship in Western countries for any Palestinian refugees who cannot be resettled in the Middle East.
  • Egypt: The U.S. currently provides ~1.5 billion/year to Egypt of which 80 percent is military aid. Many Egyptians don't want this money, so the current aid package should end. In its place, we should offer (conditioned on Egyptians requesting the aid), a much larger package of incentives directed to the economic development of the Egyptian people. The new aid package should be conditioned on the Egyptian government achieving human rights, democratic and other soft goals, and its support for whatever peace agreement the Israelis and Palestinians reach.
  • For the broader Middle East: A similar package of incentives that encourages people to focus on improving their societies.

Will this be expensive? Yes. The 1947 Marshall Plan for Europe cost 5 percent ($12 billion) of America's 1947 GDP ($254 billion), equivalent to ~$750 billion in today's terms. However, the combined Afghanistan and Iraq wars cost ~$3 trillion, our 2011 defense budget was $700 billion, and we currently spend ~$350 billion/year importing petroleum products. Real peace in the Middle East will repay our investment with substantial dividends in increased trade, reduced military spending, stable oil supplies and (most importantly) lives saved.

In 1947, America was recovering from a war that killed 400,000 Americans, and staggering under a federal debt that exceeded GDP. The challenges of ending segregation were just ahead, and everyone feared a return to the Great Depression. Congress was controlled by Republicans and the Presidency by Democrats. However, that generation of Americans understood the world needed its leadership, and rose to the challenge. It's time for us to live up to their example.

I welcome your comments:

  • Do you agree U.S. policy towards the Arab Spring has been reactive and ad hoc?
  • Do you think the policy proposed above would work?
  • Any other thoughts you'd like to share?

Steven Strauss was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). He is an Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University for 2012. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University and over 20 years' private sector work experience. Steven has advised a number of Middle Eastern governments on various strategy projects. You can follow him on twitter at: @Steven_Strauss