As the reverberations of the Arab Spring continue to affect Middle Eastern stability, the United States has attempted to manage the situation and maintain its leverage. Unfortunately American policies may be encouraging further militarization of the Arab Spring. Here I lay out two potentially dangerous trends in the American reaction.
First, there’s a risk of creating moral hazard through intervention. The intervention in Libya, even if successful in producing a stable pro-western regime, may have incentivized rebels and protesters in the Middle East to use violent means in the belief that the United States, other western powers, or the Arab League will back them up. In his 2008 paper, Alan Kuperman suggested that international interventions produce just such a moral hazard, citing the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo.
There is some reason to believe that the Libyan intervention had such an effect in Syria. Syrian National Council head Abdulbaset Sieda has called for the Arab League to back a solution modeled on Libya. Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the SNC made similar comments that suggest a reliance on the possibility of international support or intervention in early 2012:
ELEANOR HALL: So can this escalation of violence in Syria be stopped without the sort of international intervention that occurred in Libya.
RADWAN ZIADEH: No without, without international intervention Bashar al-Assad will not stop the killings. Without such kind of action enforcing no-fly zone in Syria zone, I don’t think that Bashar al-Assad will understand the message and stop the violence.
The Christian Science Monitor even reported on Free Syrian Army soldiers stating a preference for Romney over Obama based on their perceived likelihoods of arming the rebels.
Of course, these comments may simply reflect the situation after militarization occurred for other reasons, for example as a response to Assad’s brutal violence. To be sure an examination of earlier views on intervention would be needed. However, the Libyan intervention seems to, at least now, be influencing the rebel decisions regarding the use of violence.
The danger may become more serious, as Western nations begin to see arming rebels and other forms of support as possibilities and stray from their earlier lack of will. Even if intervention or arming rebels can work in Syria, a far from certain assertion, the signal of increased support may cause violence to break out where it will not be workable. Even if the violence does break out where intervention can work, there are only so many interventions the US can engage in with a poor economy and while facing an enemy, Al Qaeda, pursuing an exhaustion strategy.
The second risk is produced by the United States’ avoidance of the Palestine issue. This case of the United States creating perverse incentives is much clearer. The United States has cut down its support for the Palestinian Authority, allowed Israel to continue settlement construction without triggering pressure, and blocked the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations. The result: an increase in popularity for Hamas, whose violence at least appears to be obtaining results, and a collapse in PA legitimacy. Others have addressed this issue more eloquently than me, so instead of continuing I’ll just point you to Yousef Munayyer’s take and the discussion of the issue on Up with Chris Hayes.
Moreover, Palestine is arguably only the most visible and resonant of the cases where the United States may be encouraging violent protest by sustaining unrepresentative regimes or dictatorships. Yemen and Bahrain are commonly cited as other cases.
There are good reasons to support the current American strategy in the Middle East. At the very least it has significantly set back Al Qaeda’s power and reduced the American footprint in the Middle East. It may still result in a broad stabilization of the Middle East. However, such a stabilization is more likely if the United States takes care that it does not signal that violence is a more effective strategy in Middle Eastern politics than non-violence whether it signals such through intervention and arming rebels or by neglecting peaceful protest.