Muammar Qaddafi has brought in the fighter jets. Our UN ambassador has called him "delusional". Hosni Mubarak's assets have been frozen after his ouster. As the photo above shows, Yemen looks like it might not be far behind. And that's to say nothing of the whole oil picture. With political upheaval from Libya to Oman moving faster than Charlie Sheen's mouth on a good day, we called up Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, to get the view from his chair.
ERIC GILLIN: As someone who has been analyzing this region for a long time, when you wake up in the morning do you look at the paper and say "Holy shit?"
ILAN BERMAN: I'm taking my family on a long overdue vacation — not anywhere in the Middle East — next week. I was talking to my family yesterday and they were like, "What the hell are you doing? You can't go on vacation!" I'm like, "Whatever, let this play out, I'll be back in a week, it'll still be going on. It's no big deal." Look, I have trepidation. There's a lot of uncertainty. The price of oil's going through the roof. There's a lot of potential for real calamity. But at the same time, this is a region that's in remarkable need of a good bleaching. It's very hard for me to cry tears for these sclerotic regimes that are corrupt, unrepresentative and have remained in power simply because they're historical holdovers. If there's really grassroots change, wonderful. I'm just worried about the fact that if history's any judge, you might have democratic leanings in a revolution but that doesn't necessarily mean that the revolution is going to end up with democratic results.
EG: Right, Hitler was "elected."
IB: And Khomeini certainly represented the will of the people at the time, right? We know how this turns out. My worry is how you preserve American primacy in this era of uncertainty. I'm not sure there's a good answer. The administration is trying to muddle through the best they can but they don't have any good answers either. It's a real challenge.
EG: What's been the biggest surprise?
IB: It's all fairly surprising. Not because the potential wasn't there — those of us who have studied the region have all known there is revolutionary potential in these countries. Demographics don't lie, economies don't lie. When the median age of your population is twenty-four-years-old and a quarter of the working population's unemployed — this is not a recipe for success. But for a long time, the politics has managed to trump the socioeconomic indicators. The sheer lack of outrage at how these kleptocrats and autocrats have mismanaged their own governments led a lot of us to think this is just the way it is. So the biggest surprise in all of this is how dynamic the Arab street has become, practically overnight.
EG: And this is because of Twitter and Facebook, right? You buy that?
IB: Yes and no. Social media is important, but it does not bring down governments. Governments can shut down the Internet. Governments can control media access. If they do what the Tunisians did and try and negotiate with the opposition, then the media's still open, the international community can learn what's happening in the country, and then that can provide inspiration. But in mid-2009, the Iranian regime just shut down the Internet. Facebook went dark. Twitter went dark. BBC Persian, Voice of America, Persian News Network all went dark. That was it.
EG: And the revolution was quelled by guys with guns.
IB: Exactly. Listen. The fundamental truth is that the guys with the guns matter more than most.
EG: OK. So, this is one of the most important times in modern Middle Eastern history. And you're going away on vacation for a week. Where do you go for vacation?
IB: I go to the Caribbean. [laughs]
EG: When you get back, what do you think you'll be walking back into?
IB: It's a good question. I'm only speaking for myself but I think the smart money is to focus on U.S. interests, not so much on the countries. If you were to flesh out a dime-store list of a half dozen American interests in the region, you can craft a pretty workable American policy.
EG: Meaning like what Halliburton wants to do?
IB: No, no. Meaning, like, maintaining access in terms of both equipment and material to Afghanistan. Maintaining alliance solidarity. Preserving our partnership with the Iraqi government. Access to battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. Making sure al-Qaeda can't exploit regional political unrest. As you enter this transition period, all of these things are going to be much more important because they're going to inform not only the way the United States looks at the region but they're going to inform what the United States tells these new governments in formation: "Here's what we want you to do." Like it or not, we're a huge player. We are the world's most generous philanthropist. These new governments, even if they didn't like the last regime, they're still going to want American aid.
EG: Looks like Hilary Clinton's job just got a whole lot more complicated.
IB: Absolutely. I'm worried that the back and forth that you see publicly within the administration gives a bad signal that they don't know what to do. The President told Mubarak he has to go. Imagine if the situation was reversed and we were having ferment in our country and Mubarak told us that Obama has to go. Right? We would double down on Obama just because some foreigner said something. You can do a lot of harm by doing stuff like that. You can do a lot of good by backing policies and institutions. For example, we shouldn't press for elections in Egypt. The date of the elections doesn't matter. The type of civil society you build between now and the elections matters more because it guarantees that the vote, when it does come about, is going to be truly representative. We didn't do that with the Palestinian Authority and we ended up with Hamas as the legitimately elected representative of the Palestinian people.
EG: What's the one thing America should do right now?
IB: Fix foreign aid. It comes with political baggage. The two billion dollars annually that Egypt has received for the last thirty-one years was essentially a payoff for Camp David. And there was no corresponding requirement for the Mubarak regime to build civil societies. If we had pushed for greater political participation, anti-corruption measures, a reduction of the share of the Egyptian military in the country's economy, things may not have happened the way they did. We dispersed something on the order of $67 billion every year to 105 countries. It's become the foreign policy equivalent of a free lunch. There's no such thing as a free lunch. We should be asking these guys to do something.
EG: You've said a few times that you're worried or nervous. This kind of thing happen when you analyze the Middle East for a living?
IB: Oh, absolutely. I often get this question because I do a lot of work on Iran and everybody's like, "You're so cheerful!" But what am I supposed to do? This is just a situation that gets worse every year. One of the things that makes me the most nervous is that the Middle East has historically had a sense of predictability. You may have a terrorist incident or you may have a revisionist regime like the Iranians, but on the whole, the region is twenty countries. On the whole, you go to bed and you wake up and you have a pretty good idea that most of those twenty are doing just fine, you don't have to pay attention to them. There's some stuff going on but you don't have to worry about a governmental overthrow that will suddenly force you to evacuate your embassies.
IB: So, while you're always nervous, because it's not a very nice place, what you're sensing now is more a fear of the unknown than anything else.
EG: The spike in oil prices isn't helping much, either.