Last week, Hillary spoke at the American University in Washington, DC—where she’s now teaching U.S. foreign policy, in addition to her appointment at Yale University. She spoke about the Arab awakening and its impact on the Middle East’s balance of power. Please click here to listen to her talk, and see highlights below:
“The Middle East is going through a period of momentous change, turmoil. Many describe it as the ‘Arab awakening’—a ‘bottom up’ phenomenon; a dramatic manifestation of ‘people power’. There are good reasons to look at what’s happening in the Middle East this way.
But as someone focused on U.S. foreign policy and international int’l strategy, I think it’s important also to look at and interpret what’s going on in the Middle East from another angle: the breakdown of the U.S.-led political and security order in the Middle East…What we’re seeing in the Middle East today is a dramatic shift in the regional balance of power—a shift in the relative distribution of power against America and our regional partners in favor of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies.
While this shift has been ongoing for at least a decade, one of the most important consequences of the Arab awakening that is unfolding today will be an acceleration and intensification of this shift in the regional balance.
Beyond the shift in the relative distribution of power among important regional actors, the very essence of power politics in Middle East—is shifting—from hard military power, where America has the advantage, to soft power, where the Islamic Republic its allies have the advantage…
What is driving these shifts?
To answer that, it is important to look, first, at the basis for U.S. dominance in Middle East. U.S. dominance in the Middle East has rested on two things: capacity and legitimacy.
Regarding capacity, America remains uniquely capable of projecting enormous amounts of conventional mil power into the Middle East. No one else can project this hard power, conventional military power into the Middle East, today. But prolonged, strategically indeterminate U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have underscored the limits of what U.S. military might can accomplish.
Regarding legitimacy, America has tried—under the first President Bush, President Clinton, The second President Bush, and now, President Obama—to gain buy-in of Arab states for a U.S.-led, highly militarized political and security order in the Middle East on the grounds that U.S. leadership would bring good things to the Middle East, including greater security and a resolution to the Arab/Israeli conflict. But, simply put, America hasn’t delivered on those promises…And, it has cost America dearly in terms of the perceived legitimacy of America’s purposes in the Middle East.
Likewise, it’s become increasingly clear to the people of the Middle East that America isn’t going to deliver an end to the Arab/Israeli conflict. Instead, the United States is now widely seen in the Middle East as enabling an Israeli national security doctrine that requires a kind of regional hegemony for Israel, through permanent occupation and the freedom to use military force, unilaterally and disproportionately. That, too, has cost America dearly, in terms of the perceived legitimacy of its purposes in the Middle East…
When Obama became President, in January 2009, he pledged to change how America dealt with the Middle East and to put our Middle East policies on a more effective, sustainable trajectory—in Iraq, Afghan, on Arab/Israeli peace, and to pursue “engagement” with the Islamic Republic. But, instead, Obama is presiding over the demise of a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, turning America into a quasi-perm occupying power in Afghanistan by surging additional troops into Afghanistan with no strategy for a political settlement there, and discrediting engagement as a strategy by saying he tried but failed to reach out to Iran when, in fact, he never seriously tried. There has been no Nixon to China moment under Obama.
As a result, the Middle East’s balance of power has shifted even further away from the United States and toward the Islamic Republic and its allies…And, now, Obama stands by, for the most part, as new openings for Iran to reset the regional balance in its favor emerge in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunis, Yemen, and perhaps elsewhere. (Obama is standing by with the possible exception of Libya where he may end up in a Somalia-like military intervention.)
The fact is: every Middle East regime that has been seriously challenged by sustained popular unrest so far is either a close U.S. ally (Bahrain, Egypt, Tunis, Yemen) or a former rogue that made a surrender-type deal with America (Libya). That’s the pattern. Rather than acknowledge this fact, this pattern, and deal with the deficiencies in America’s Middle East policies, Washington has focused on the possibility that the wave of popular unrest that’s taking down one U.S. ally in the Middle East after another will now bring down the Islamic Republic—and, perhaps, Assad’s government in Syria, too.
In my view that is wishful thinking.
But why is this—why has the Islamic Republic defied conventional wisdom and not only survived but strengthened to the extent that Iran can now balance effectively against the United States in what is now a competition for influence in the Middle East?
The Islamic Republic has come through because, even at the height of the opposition Green Movement’s activism following Iran’s June 2009 presidential election, the Green Movement did not represent anything close to the majority of Iranian society, and, the majority of Iranians continue to support the idea of an Islamic Republic—even if they want it to evolve in significant ways. What’s left of the Green Movement in Iran today represents an even smaller portion of Iranian society than it did in the summer of 2009. Moreover, recent efforts to restart protests in Iran have taken place at what most Iranians inside Iran understand is their moment in the Middle East—which has further reduced political space for the Green Movement’s message.
So, from the perspective of many in Iran—and, I would argue, in reality—the relative distribution of power in the Middle East is shifting away from America and our allies and toward the Islamic Republic and its partners in the resistance camp. In this context, Iranian policymakers are confident—with good reason—that any government in the Arab world which becomes at all more representative of its people’s values, beliefs, concerns, preferences, and interests will become, first of all, less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States and Israel, and that is a plus for Iran.
Iranian policymakers are also confident—again, with good reason—that any Arab government which becomes more representative of its own pop will become more receptive to the Islamic Republic’s message of resistance to U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. This message appeals not just to Shi’a. Public opionion polls and just the experience of spending time in these societies indicate that the message of resistance resonates throughout the region, and has tremendous appeal not just to Shia but on the Sunni Arab street.
As long as currently or once pro-American regimes aren’t replaced by salafi-dominated Islamist orders, Arab governments that emerge from the present turmoil will want to follow an independent foreign policy line. Iran calculates that this will work in its favor, and this is a real plus for the Islamic Republic.
But the regional balance of power is also shifting at another level—in the very essence of the Middle East’s power politics. On this level, the critical point is that the balance of power in the Middle East is becoming relatively less defined by “hard” military capabilities, quantifiable economic indicators, etc, & relatively more defined in terms of a “balance of influence” in the Middle East.
Here it’s important to discuss “soft power”, famously defined by Harvard University’s Joseph Nye as the capacity of “getting others to want what you want”, and which Nye contrasted with the ability to coerce others through the exercise of “hard” military and/or economic power.
One of the most remarkable things about the shift in the Middle East’s balance of power over the last decade, away from America and its allies, in favor of the Islamic Republic and its partners, is that this shift has virtually nothing to do with military capabilities or other forms of hard power. It’s very much about soft power, and the fact that the Islamic Republic has picked winners rather than losers as its political allies in key regional theaters.
The Islamic Republic has cultivated an expanding reservoir of soft power, derived from its support for resistance movements on the front lines of the Arab/Israeli conflict and its defiance of U.S. and other Western powers over the nuclear issue.
For the last decade or so—and especially since Ahmadinejad’s initial presidential election in 2005—the Islamic Republic has worked to maximize the strategic leverage it derives from its soft power edge. In particular, the Islamic Republic has used its standing as the de facto leader of the Middle East’s resistance bloc to mobilize regional publics’ most intensely felt grievances—including grievances against America, Israel, and the region’s pro-Western regimes.
Many Western analysts dismiss the significance of soft power in the coldly competitive venue of the Middle East’s power politics. But the kind of soft power that the Islamic Republic has cultivated has real world impact.
Zbigniew Brzezinski has written with particular insight about what he describes as the “global political awakening”, in which “nearly universal access to radio, television, and the Internet is creating a community of shared resentments and envy that transcends sovereign borders”. In the Middle East and other regions scarred by memories of colonial or imperial domination, this is generating a yearning for human dignity and cultural respect among local populations. Consequently, those same populations, disliking the status quo, are susceptible to being mobilized against those whom they perceive as self-interestedly preserving it. (i.e., America propping up Mubarak)
Iranian policymakers, before Brzezinski made his observation, grasped the potential for Middle Eastern populations mobilized against the status quo to challenge existing regimes, a regional order dominated by America, and a regional balance of power tilted against the Islamic Republic. In strategic terms, the Islamic Republic is using the political awakening of Middle Eastern publics to alter the very nature of power politics in the region.
More specifically, the Islamic Republic is working to transform the Middle East’s traditional balance of power framework, defined by conventional military capabilities and other “hard power” assets in which Iran is deficient, into a balance of influence, defined by aspects of “soft power” in which the Islamic Republic enjoys unique advantages. This transformation is bolstering Iran’s ability to shape strategic outcomes in the Middle East.
America faces serious challenges in the Middle East. Our strategic position in this vital part of the world is eroding before our eyes. To forestall the collapse of our strategic position in the Middle East, the United States needs to come to terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, just as President Nixon discarded 20 years of dysfunctional China policy and came to terms with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s.