Watching the Arab Revolt of 2011 unfold from faraway Washington, it might seem natural to assume that the United States is still manipulating the levers of power in the region. After all, for the past four decades, the kings, generals, presidents-for-life and emirs of the Middle East—not to mention the leaders of Israel—mostly revolved in the US orbit, and many of those who didn’t, such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, were crushed.
But, like the Great Oz, the United States has found itself increasingly pulling levers on machinery that doesn’t work. In Egypt and Yemen, autocrats openly defied US diktats. In Libya and Syria, authoritarian rulers flouted sanctions, regime-change rhetoric and, in the case of Libya, resisted a US/NATO military assault for months. Washington’s closest allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, were furious over the gradual US abandonment of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Uncertain in its response, taken aback by the rebellion’s contagion, the United States alienated allied regimes while simultaneously failing to win much favor with the various opposition movements. Many of those who filled town squares in Cairo, Damascus, Manama and Sana’a—already holding views about the United States that ranged from skeptical to hostile—were disappointed by the Obama administration’s half-hearted support for their demands.
“We didn’t ingratiate ourselves with either the former regimes or the incoming ones,” says Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia who is a frequent critic of US foreign policy in the Middle East. “We’ve not found new friends, and we’ve lost old ones. As a result, our influence in the region is probably the lowest it’s ever been.”
Used to hobnobbing with the region’s long-entrenched rulers, Washington found itself dealing uncomfortably with unknown and unfamiliar leaders or, in some cases, leaderless opposition groups. “All these embassies had to toss out their Rolodexes,” says Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an expert on Middle East political transformation. From the young protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and among Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to Syria’s amorphous local coordination committees, from Libya’s fractious, Benghazi-based Transitional National Council to Yemen’s dizzying array of well-armed tribes, young Tahrir Square–inspired protesters and Al Qaeda–linked Islamists, the Middle East’s new players threw the Obama administration’s policy-makers off their game.
“It has taken not just us, but many people, by surprise,” declared Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in early February. The White House was reportedly miffed at the US intelligence community for failing to provide early warning of the explosions, but it’s probably too much to have expected the CIA to predict them. “Not only was it hard to predict, especially with the forces so three-dimensional—social, political and economic—but it’s impossible to know what might be the trigger,” said Wayne White, former deputy director for the Near East and South Asia at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “The typically demanding policy-maker probably feels let down by the intelligence community, but only because the policy-maker doesn’t appreciate how fluid these things are.” Among those caught by surprise were the protesters themselves. In Cairo, organizers used to seeing a few dozen people show up at demonstrations in recent years were stunned when thousands, and then tens of thousands, descended on Tahrir Square.