What Is Genuine Leadership in the Middle East?

by Graham E. Fuller

A supreme challenge to US policies in the Middle East—especially in the Arab world—has been dealing with the no-win dilemma of leadership in the Arab world. As we look out across the wreckage of the present scene in the Middle East, many observers, including myself, highlight the striking absence of any genuine Arab leadership in the region today.

Yet “leadership” is a highly subjective word. What kind of “leadership?” And from whose perspective? The painful answer is that most of the foreign policy goals sought by the people of the region are not in synch with US preferences and goals. And leadership that does promote popular goals will likely be on a collision course with Washington.

If you ask US government officials what the ideal foreign policy of a Middle Eastern state should be, the answer is well known: full engagement in the struggle against terrorism and Islamic extremism, stability, normalization of relations with Israel, open markets, and membership in the “global community.”

Yet this well-rehearsed list is tailored first and foremost to meet western, and especially US, goals. Muslims might buy into some of them, as far as they go. But they represent a consolidated package of specifically western interests. We’ve all heard them—to us these goals are the norm. But taken together they do not constitute a comprehensive package of foreign policy priorities remotely acceptable or sufficient to most Muslims. Part of the constant grief of US policy stems from our outright ignorance, or deliberate dismissal, of alternate goals by other states and societies in the world. Americans somehow assume that America’s goals represent a self-obvious and universal good for the world. We are offended when they are rejected by others as being neither—even when a few of those goals, under the right circumstances, could be a part of a much larger basket of Muslims’ own goals.

Of course, the Muslim world (or Arab world) is not a homogeneous bloc; different preferences and ideologies exist. But overall it is evident to everyone that most Arabs (and other Muslims) are clearly deeply alienated and disillusioned. So if Washington’s agenda does not represent their package of foreign policy goals, what does?

A Muslim package would highlight the following principles for international policies. First and foremost, the exercise of genuine independence and national sovereignty free of foreign control, external intervention or suppression via great power politics—qualities long absent in the Muslim world today. The free choice of national leaders without external pressure, intervention, or countermanding western actions is another key goal. The freedom to avoid serving as pawns in some larger global geopolitical game between great powers is an additional essential prerequisite for national self-determination and preservation of local interests.

Muslims are similarly hostile to manipulation by US autocratic allies that seek to impose a particular regional agenda; Saudi Arabia in particular comes to mind with its propagation of Wahhabi/Salafi religious values, and its promotion of an ugly and essentially bogus sectarian confrontation between Sunni and Shi’a. Additionally, nearly all Muslims undoubtedly favor unremitting pressure on Israel to accept the establishment of a fully sovereign Palestinian state after fifty years of harsh Israeli occupation; they seek the freedom to articulate such demands in responsible international fora without being shut out.

Sad to say, articulation of such views in the past has primarily resided in the “rogue states”—under anti-American leaders such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Ayatollahs in Iran, Assad in Syria, or Qadhafi in Libya—none of whom feared defying US policies. They were all dictators in their own right of course, but Washington has never objected to that as such; they were “rogue” because they resisted imposition of a US-dominated regional order. It is “sad to say” that these values had to be promoted primarily by rogue states because such values are hardly radical at all: genuine sovereignty, freedom from foreign intervention, justice in Palestine. There is hardly a nation that does not seek them.

Thus any leader who aspires to be “legitimate” and offer genuine leadership in the Middle East will predictably be required to promote precisely these “radical values.” Yet almost none of the Arab world’s rulers today speak out in their favor—demonstrating thereby a key indicator of their own “illegitimacy.”

Regrettably, western foreign policies—UK, France, then the US—over the past century in the Middle East have given short shrift to any of these local values. Indeed, they have often viewed local pursuit of such values as harmful to the maintenance of Western hegemony in the region. The West has never truly even sought genuine elections in the Arab World if there was a possibility that leaders might be elected who would not remain responsive to western interests.

What do Muslims want on the domestic agenda? They want what most people in the world want. The first fundamental human and social need anywhere is of course reasonable order, stability and basic personal safety, without which few other good things can proceed. In that sense, nearly all of the region’s dictators indeed did traditionally provide state-imposed order and stability, albeit often harshly, and always self-serving. But that’s not enough for human satisfaction. Other basic needs call for jobs, housing, food, health and education—nearly all would agree on that. Thereafter peoples’ priorities might begin to diverge, depending on the individual: certainly creature comforts, human intimacy, a modicum of toys, entertainment, an interesting and creative environment, opportunities and choices, connectedness with the broader world—all come into play.

The old mold of Middle East politics has thus demonstrably failed to provide these things, nor has the West helped—except to support unstable “stability” until the stability exploded—as in the Arab Spring. The Arab world in particular has not yet found its new voice and vision. If the Middle East region is in need of sharp, even radical change—political, social, economic, intellectual—then precisely such “radical” new policies are likely what are required to constitute genuine new leadership.

Not surprisingly, the emergence and early spectacular successes of ISIS represent one form of breaking the old mold—the rethinking of old institutions in drastic, revolutionary, even violent new ways. But not all radical change needs ape the ISIS “model.” But it does suggest that a major break with the past in many respects is still needed—and when frustrated, takes radical form. This may not be welcome news in the West, but if our policies are to have any chance of even partial success they will have to accord with what the people of the region themselves need and want. However self-evident, that would still seem to be a somewhat “radical” concept to Washington.

Such a situation poses a genuine dilemma for the West at this point. Western-engineered stability and western-appointed or -backed “leadership” has not delivered what most in the region want. We’ve been there before, and we’ve seen what that has brought us over the past decade or more. Surely it’s time for a hard rethink. Real leadership in the Middle East will offer primarily tumultuous times as the countries of the region struggle to gain experience at more genuine self-rule, mistakes and all, and overcompensate for past grievances against the West. It may be—at least for now—that only Turkey and Iran today possess the foundational qualities to provide some kind of regional leadership.

There are serious doubts as to whether the US is any longer even capable of achieving its own tradition goals as in the past. Long range stability in the Middle East must come on Middle East terms, not western versions. This recognition needs to be one of the foundations of US policy formulation.

(See my latest book, “Turkey and the Arab World: Leadership in the Middle East,” for a more extended discussion of this problem of absence of leadership in the Arab world today.)

This article was first published by Graham E. Fuller and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright Graham E. Fuller.

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  1. re: “the striking absence of any genuine Arab leadership in the region today.”

    The US benefits from instability, financially and politically, and so it has created instability in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and throughout MENA. Hussein and Gaddafi, two strong leaders and former US allies, have been deposed by the US and its allies. Bashar al-Assad is the only effective, democratic leader leader remaining. Assad has, so far, successfully defied the attempts for regime change in Syria by the US together with its despotic Gulf state allies and Turkey.

    Three years ago US Ambassador Frederic Hof testified to the Congress that the Assad government was a “dead man walking” and its days were numbered.?The US has tried many ways to do that, but Assad has prevailed to the point that the US is currently having to take an active military role against Syria–yet another fiasco.

  2. Understanding, what the problem is, from an Arab/Muslim point of view. How many Arab/Muslim scholars/intellects from the various countries of the MENA, that are really plugged into the needs and wants of those countries, are employed in the U.S. Government? Pitting one or more countries against each other, be it to exploit mineral wealth or for what ever reason the U.S. thinkers/business leaders need/want, has produced the mess we see today. Unless the U.S. can radically change its operation from the present mindset, failure will continue to be the outcome. One thing is certain, the U.S. leadership certainly haven’t learned anything from all this. The Congress seems hell bent on continuing the destructive policy’s into the future, at the expense of the U.S. homeland.

  3. What would genuine leadership look like? How about this? Somebody proposing a formal merger between Judaism and Islam. And why not? These two religions share the same the same roots, the same history. In fact, I’ve heard them described as cousins.

    The Israelis are always boasting how only they really “know the Arabs”, what makes them tick, how to get under their skin, etc. Sure sounds like sibling rivalry to me.

  4. 37 years ago I had the opportunity to discuss the Middle East situation with several Arab students in the US, mostly Saudi Arabian. They were extremely angry and belligerent towards the Us policy in the region and how their governments were puppets in the hands of the US. I absolutely condemn these terrorist groups like AQ and IS but understand to some degree the anger of the youth who join the terrorist groups. The whole Arab world is now run by dictators mostly aligned with the West and Israeli occupation and killing of Pals continues for 60 years. Unfortunately, the West continues the same practices expecting different results. The policies of the west have been the biggest reasons for radicalization of the Middle East and must change it to increase hope and prosperity for the Arab/Muslim youth unless the chaos is planned to take advantage of it for a full and continued domination of the regions.

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