Foreign ministers of the Arab League take part in an emergency meeting at the league's headquarters in Cairo September 7.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The United States should exploit the new window of opportunity that has been opened by Arab states seeking a proactive role in combating destabilizing forces in the region.
The Middle East is in flux. This is evident not just on the ground where the US-led air-strikes are making gains against Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq. It can also be observed in the meaningful participation of several Arab states in this campaign, as well as a handful of other efforts to root out forces of instability in the region. The time is ripe for the United States to encourage these efforts for the sake of fostering what have for too long been absent in these areas: indigenous regional collective security initiatives.
Decades of great power competition and military intervention have left the Middle East regional system highly penetrated, principally by the US, where organic regional security cooperation schemes have had scant room to flourish.
While the habitual need for the US to re-secure the region may have seemed palpable to President George W. Bush given his unilateralist ideology, President Barack Obama has over the past month made it crystal clear in his repeated calls for Arab states to play a serious role in battling IS that he is keen on a change in the entire modus operandi.
Fortunately for this strategy, what started as Arab frustration at Obama’s own perceived unreliability in supporting allies (i.e. Syrian rebels, Ukraine) and Secretary of State John Kerry’s inability to broker a cease-fire in Gaza has now evolved into proactive Arab contributions toward common international objectives. These contributions were most notably seen in the mini-saga of Gaza cease-fire efforts, by which in spite of deep-seated rivalries, multiple Arab countries led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia managed to bring Israel and Hamas within range of a deal. They also include the independent UAE and Egyptian bombing of Islamist militias in Libya in late August. Most recently adding to the scoreboard, multiple Arab states and the Arab League joined in the new US-led coalitional effort against IS, for which Arab countries launched the first aerial strikes against IS.
AS ARAB states continue to demonstrate such initiative, if the US were to seize the moment it would guide them toward shouldering more of the security burden (and costs) of safeguarding regional stability. Naturally, this will require sustained US leadership and investment in combating the more risky sources of unrest in the region. Congressional approval to vet and arm “moderate” Syrian rebel groups – a decision that put Republicans in the awkward position of supporting the president’s strategy – will likely provide some encouragement for local populations skeptical of whether the US is still willing to stay the course.
Obama’s admission that the US erred in its initial assessment of the IS threat may also (paradoxically) serve to restore faith among its Arab allies that it has indeed committed itself to – in the words of Obama at the UN on September 24 – “dismantle this network of death.”
Obama fittingly used the occasion of the United Nations General Assembly summit to meet prior with the five Arab allies that participated in the anti-IS campaign, as well as the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and during his speech promised to build even broader international support against the militant group.
The US might also profit from Arab regional engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian front. The events in Iraq and Syria have for a month now overshadowed the so-called epicenter of Middle East conflict. Yet the inclusion of key Arab partners such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others could be advantageous both in ameliorating the situation in Gaza and in possibly forging ahead with a final push during the Obama presidency to resurrect the peace process.
In a geopolitical adaptation of the “give a man a fish” parable, a US strategy of countenancing Arab countries bolstering their own regional security can empower them to acquire more experience in initiating efforts to tackle the region’s most destabilizing issues. The time is ripe, and long overdue.The author is a Visiting Fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.