The internationalist

Learning to love change

Why America needs to end its obsession with stability

Anti-government protesters shouted slogans and waved the Libyan, Bahraini and Palestinian flags during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa,Yemen. (Muhammed Muheisen/AP photo) Anti-government protesters shouted slogans and waved the Libyan, Bahraini and Palestinian flags during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa,Yemen.
By Thanassis Cambanis
April 3, 2011

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America’s main goals in the Middle East have remained constant at least since the Carter years: We want a region in which oil flows as freely as possible, Israel is protected, and citizens enjoy basic human rights — or at least aren’t so unhappy that they begin to attack our interests.

In working toward these goals, the byword and the cornerstone of the entire venture has been stability. Washington has invested heavily — with money, weapons, and political cover — to guarantee the stability of supposedly friendly regimes in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The idea is simple: A regime, even a distasteful and autocratic one, is more likely to help America, and even to treat its own people with a modicum of decency, if it doesn’t feel threatened. Instability creates insecurity, the thinking goes, and insecurity breeds danger.

But the unrest and dramatic changes of the past months are offering a very different lesson. An overemphasis on stability — and, perhaps, an erroneous definition of what “stability” even is — has begun harming, rather than helping, American interests in several current crisis spots. Our desire to keep a naval base in a stable Bahrain, for example, has allied us with the marginalized and increasingly radical Bahraini royal family, and even led us to acquiesce to a Saudi Arabian invasion of the tiny island to quell protests last month. To keep Syria stable, American policy has largely deferred to the existing Assad regime, supporting one of the nastiest despots in the region even as his troops have fired live ammunition at unarmed protesters. In a moral sense, this “stability first” policy has been putting America on the wrong side of the democratic transitions in one Arab country after another. And in the contest for pure influence, it is the more flexible approaches of other nations that seem to be gaining ground in such a fast-changing environment. If we’re serious about our goals in the Middle East, “stability” is looking less and less like the right way to achieve them.

Foreign policy shifts slowly, and it’s hard to replace such a familiar, if flawed, approach to the world. But recent events have strengthened the ranks of thinkers who argue that there may be more effective and less costly ways to press our interests in the Middle East. We could take an arm’s length approach, allowing that not every turn of the screw in the Middle East amounts to a core national interest for the United States — in effect, abstaining from some of the region’s conflicts so we have more credibility when we do intervene. We could embrace a more dynamic slate of alliances that allows the United States to shift its support as regimes evolve or decay. Finally, we could redefine stability entirely and downgrade it as a priority, so that we recognize its value as simply one of many avenues toward achieving US interests.

“We’re obsessed with stability because we have defined US national interests, particularly in the Arab world, as basically limitless,” says Michael Cohen, a senior fellow at the American Security Project who served in the Clinton administration and has written a stream of articles arguing that America is embroiled in counterproductive military interventions. “Anytime an event roils the region we feel the need to respond.”

As the Obama administration is learning, it pays to have many balls in the air during times of transformation. Rather than trying to preserve the status quo by picking favorite regimes and propping them up, America could try a new approach: publicly articulating its core interests — including a mention of oil prices, the unsavory elephant in the room — and then making clear that it will work with whoever can best promote those policies and values. Such a move would, naturally, create some short-term instability, and would certainly unsettle the Arab dictators allied to America. But it would serve a greater goal, putting them on notice that Washington backs them for what they deliver, and not because our pro-stability policy effectively gives them the right to rule indefinitely.

The notion of stability as a policy ideal dates back to ancient Greece and beyond. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia inaugurated the modern view of national sovereignty, which among other things promoted a premium on stability above all else in statecraft. Today, “stability” in international affairs has become almost a shorthand for a number of goals: preserving the existing international system, ensuring the survival of current national rulers, and keeping powerful nations from meddling in the affairs of other states.

The US government has considered stability paramount since it emerged as a superpower during World War II. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly embraced the idea that policy choices often amount to chaos versus stability, and in recent months has advocated approaching the Middle Eastern unrest through cautious reforms that would incrementally change brittle dictatorships without breaking them. Her message is intended to comfort American allies like the Saudi royal family, who clearly understand “stability” to mean regime survival. It also signals the continued American investment in known channels of power: When Clinton visited Cairo in March, she met with government officials, most of them holdovers from the Mubarak era, and a small group of establishment activists — not with the revolutionary leaders of the Tahrir Square protests, or with members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

A pro-stability policy has virtues, to be sure. But the challenges we face now — the international intervention in Libya, the uprising in Syria, the unrest in the oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf — are starting to show how much it limits us.

As Clinton’s recent Middle East tour illustrates, America’s definition of stability restricts who we talk to. The governments that have thrived during this time of change, by contrast, are the ones with the most utilitarian and flexible approach: regional powers like Turkey and Iran, and emerging global powers like China and Russia. All of them have punched above their weight in the Islamic world in large measure because they’re comfortable operating in a dynamic environment, and willing to deal with the entire political cast of characters in a country, rather than with a single, familiar leadership clique. Turkey has maintained lucrative relationships with the old Arab regimes without being viewed as an enemy of the liberal movements; it has deftly capitalized on its existing relationships with dictators, offering to negotiate between Arab governments and their domestic opponents — playing intermediary rather than backer. Russia and China have carefully positioned themselves as enemies neither of the regimes nor of their opponents, lending rhetorical support to Mubarak in his final days and abstaining from voting for the Libya intervention. America has a different agenda. We are less concerned with national sovereignty and occasionally willing to sacrifice profit for principle, but we could learn at least one thing from the agnostic approach of other powers: Washington doesn’t have to take a side in every domestic dispute in the Arab world.

If that kind of flexibility seems like a recipe for unreliability and chaos, that might be because we interpret “stability” too narrowly, as a snug embrace of the status quo. In fact, the interest of long-term stability may be better served by a short-term acceptance of change. Marc Lynch, an expert on Arab politics at George Washington University, argues that substantial democratic reforms and political liberalization would create a much more stable Arab and Islamic world than the current state of affairs, where strongmen and dictators constantly jockey to suppress dissent. Real stability in the Arab world, Lynch and others say, depends on legitimacy. What we’ve been chasing, instead, is a “stability” built on rule by brute force rather than rule of law — one that contrasts with our self-image as supporters of freedom, and which hasn’t served America’s aims over the long haul. In this view, we need to replace our obsession with short-term stability with an acknowledgment that only a period of change can take us to a more stable long-term future.

Others have put forth the view that stability is a fine goal, but only if correctly understood. In “The Prosperity Agenda,” Nancy Soderberg, a former diplomat, and Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress, argue that America should use its might to promote change and reform, but should expand its definition of “stability” and “freedom” to include the well-being of foreign publics. In this view, the most stable Middle East is one in which average citizens have access to education, health care, and political rights. “Stability should be a core element all societies have, but it should be one of several that includes respect for basic rights, an institutional framework that provides for political, social, and economic rights, and so forth,” Katulis says.

There’s no doubt that, in principle, stability remains a good thing. People are better off if they can lead their lives peacefully, under consistent governance. As a global superpower, too, America benefits from the established order: We gain the most wealth and security by dealing with states that depend on us, cooperate with our interests, and share our priorities. But as the past months have shown, America’s policy in the Middle East has gone too far in that direction, staking its stability on a fixed set of leaders, surrendering its potential leverage, and forswearing alternatives.

So how to accept change in the region, even capitalize on it? One new approach, which some observers believe might already be emerging, is to assume that some countries will be shifting quantities and build in room for change. Instead of “stability” we could talk about “security” — security for American interests, for a region known for strife, and for the beleaguered citizenry of the Middle East. Another overarching value that could win points for America is “justice,” a concept that resonates with American values, Islamic law, and the aspirations of Middle Eastern rulers and publics alike.

In this new, more open terrain, diplomats and military envoys could cultivate ties with all the competing stakeholders, whether in friendly states like Saudi Arabia or in hostile ones like Iran. Such overtures would surely irritate the rulers of Saudi Arabia, who have grown used to unblinking American support. But they would have little choice; they need America as much as America needs them.

Second, American policy makers could embrace political change as an opportunity to extend American power, rather than seeing it as a threat to existing relationships. In Bahrain, for example, America could pressure the opposition to propose reasonable demands for reform, while also pressuring the ruling family to negotiate. Playing the role of behind the scenes broker would effectively hedge our bets — granting America much more influence over whatever version of Bahrain emerges in the future.

Ultimately, if our diplomacy were more clearly driven by America’s policy goals — energy, regional security, and a better quality of life for citizens — rather than by loyalty to regimes and personalities, it might reap a better deal. If America can shift its framework for thinking about the region, as Issandr El Amrani, an expert on Arab politics who blogs at The Arabist (, puts it, the Middle East will no longer be populated by two teams: rogue states and American clients. A less polarized diplomatic playing field would require less direct American support and military aid. A new flexibility would leave us more agile and responsive, rather than locked into damaging long-term relationships. And it could assure that during the inevitable periods of instability like the current one, America could help shape the outcome.

What would this diplomacy look like in practice? America’s role in Libya may offer a guide.

True, it is comparatively easy to lead an intervention that has such wide support, and whose target is a leader so widely loathed. At the same time, America’s involvement in the Libyan intervention has been far more nimble than its flat-footed response to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Washington gently escalated its rhetoric, and advocated force only as a last resort and at the request of Libya’s rebels — and with other nations taking a leading role. The response was quick and decisive, but limited. More importantly, by pushing a no-fly zone over Libya, the United States has told the Arab dictators something it hasn’t told them before: If they lose the support of their own people, they won’t necessarily be able to count on America’s.

Thanassis Cambanis is the author of ”A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at He is an Ideas columnist.