On Egypt, Libya and Foreign Policymaking

An Interview with Vali Nasr

Vali Nasr
On Egypt, Libya and Foreign Policymaking : An Interview with Vali Nasr - Editorial Staff

Question 1

In your last book, Meccanomics (Forces of Fortune in the U.S.), you argue that the key to social freedom and political liberalization in the Middle East is the “battle to free the markets”. How is that “battle” related to the Arab Spring?

For me, the question began as wanting to find out whether there was a possibility of change in the Middle East. The belief among most people was that change could only come through religious moderation. But based on the work I was doing, I thought there was actually a lot more good news than people were seeing based on that preconception. That doesn’t mean the good news was overwhelming or suggested a massive trend, but as social scientists you look for evidence of the beginnings of trends.

The most promising kinds of trends were associated with the middle classes. The middle classes seemed to want greater integration into the global economy and more moderation. When you went to a place like Dubai, it became very obvious that people’s main interest was shopping, not martyrdom. And by middle class I didn’t just mean people who worked for the government and had a salary, but really the bourgeoisie: that middle of society that’s connected to the market and that generates economic means.

So it was possible for the Middle East to have a middle class, and it was possible for the middle class to imagine the Middle East in a much more liberal way. The question became, ‘Where does the middle class come from?’ Where I parted with conventional wisdom was that the middle class, in my opinion, is not built top-down. The Middle East already had middle classes that were built top-down, by Egyptians, by Iranians, by the Turkish government. But what you really want is a middle class that looks like the middle classes of India, China, Brazil, or Europe. A middle class that may have different views but is grounded in market forces. If you look at history, you see that the middle class is responsible for democratization in Europe, for liberalization of theology, and for greater moderation. But there are also certain points in time, some spikes, in which middle classes don’t behave in ways you might expect.

My thesis was that the main story was not that Middle Easterners were genetically preprogrammed towards certain ideas or behavior. If there were market economies in the region, there would be middle classes, and they would look a lot more like Indians, Thais, Singaporeans, Japanese, Koreans, and so on. The problem is not religion, but the market. The problem is not that the Middle East has too much religion, but rather that it has too little capitalism. And by capitalism I don’t mean taking billions of oil dollars and spending them, because you haven’t created that. By capitalism I really mean the production of wealth.

That was the thesis of the book, and it was relevant because the Arab Spring proved that the Middle East can embrace progressive ideas. The forces that started the Arab Spring were grounded in the middle classes in Egypt and Tunisia. At some point it got derailed. Other forces took over, and in the end you have civil war in Syria, a bloody uprising in Libya, and parts of the Arab world lacking a robust middle class. It’s not a coincidence that Egypt, the most globally integrated part of the Middle East, the one with the biggest middle class, is where these events were born.

I would say that there are two values to this argument. One, at the level of academia, it allows us to deal with the Middle East not as an exception to everything we know about social sciences —that this is the one place in the world where everything is about religion and stable authoritarianism and somehow the Middle East sits outside everything we know—but to prove that the same historical forces that changed Scotland, the Netherlands, England, Brazil, or Poland could change the Middle East as well. The second is for policymakers, to argue that if you really want moderation in this region and if you really want change, start with the economy. I finished my book with this sentence from someone in Pakistan: “Focus on the economy and everything else will work itself out.”

Question 2

In Egypt, protests have re-erupted over dissatisfaction with the pace and direction of political reforms. How have “Meccanomics” played a role here?

The classic account of the Arab Spring is that because the middle class did not produce enough leadership, it wasn’t able todominatethemovement.Theylostout to the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not have a leader that can claim leadership of the whole country either, so you end up in a seesaw battle between liberals and Islamists over who controls Egypt. This instability causes money to leave Egypt. Along with the fact that the international community is not engaged on economic reforms, this means you don’t really have a focus on the economy at all. Because the middle class has lost its way, because you don’t have that dynamism, I don’t buy the argument that Egypt is actually still democratizing, that these are just short- lived problems.

Question 3

What should the international community be doing to help that process along?

Generally, the international community has been fairly disengaged with the Arab Spring in Egypt. If you compare this to its historical level of engagement with Southeast Asia, East Asia, Latin America, or Eastern Europe when they became democratic, engagement with the Middle East has been less. We can hide behind many arguments, but the reality is that there has been this disengagement. Now the Europeans say, ‘We’re busy with Greece and Spain.’ The United States says, ‘Well, we’re busy with our own economic issues.’ At the end of the day, whatever it is, there is not really a strong desire in Europe or America to say,‘What can we do to make sure this goes in the right direction? What kind of economic reforms do we need? What kind of economic investment do we need?’

Question 4

What about regional rivalries in the Middle East—does this impact or limit how involved the U.S. could get in the Arab Spring?

The U.S. definitely could have done a better job of managing this. If you had a friend who was a dictator but was a close friend for 37 years, and overnight, you tell him to get out... I don’t think they look at Mubarak’s departure and feel very comfortable about it. So there is a dilemma here. The dilemma is that we were very hopeful about peace and democracy, but we still have a lot of dictatorial friends. This requires a lot of nimbleness, to be able to say, ‘We are excited about democracy, but we are still committed to you.’

I don’t think this was done sufficiently well, and a lot of our friends ended up being unhappy. There are times, like in Bahrain or Syria, where they actually started to work at cross-purposes with us. They ignored us, openly disagreed with us, or started doing their own thing, which we all of a sudden found shocking. I think the U.S. had a very difficult time being so close to dictatorships in the region, advocating democracy and yet still dealing with whatever dictators were left.

Question 6

Does the model of international intervention used in Libya offer a blueprint for effecting change in the future?

The thing with Libya was that this had not been tested, so the Europeans made it clear that they would be willing to carry a lot of the heft. They were willing to do the air strikes, they were willing to do a lot of the work.This was not an American expedition charging into Iraq or Afghanistan, this was the French. Secondly, the administration looked at the Libyan opposition and thought that they were far better organized. This is very different from Syria, where our job is actually to get them together. Thirdly, there was a sense that this would happen quickly. You have to notice that even in Libya, right up to the minute that Gadhafi died, there were the beginnings of great worry in Western capitals that it was going to become a drawn-out effort. When Tripoli fell, there was a huge sigh of relief.

It’s been marketed as an unbridled success, but I think that the people who were involved know how close this was. Next time, it’s not going to be a slam-dunk. The lesson learned by the administration is not, ‘Let’s do more of these.’ It’s to say, ‘You know, we got lucky one time. Let’s not try our luck again.’

Finally, the United Nations, and especially China and Russia, believe that NATO abused the resolution. The U.S. and the Europeans interpreted the resolution, which was for the protection of Benghazi and its refugees, to be regime change. China and Russia are not willing to give that authority to NATO again. The precedent might be legitimacy for intervention in the domestic issues of other countries during an uprising in, say, Chechnya or Tibet.

Question 7

You have criticized the manner in which this administration has let foreign policy become beholden to domestic electoral politics. Can you tell us more about your experience with the current administration, and how it represents a departure from the way foreign policy decision-making has been conducted in the past?

Well you have to examine foreign policy at any given point in time given what the challenges are in the world and at home that you confront. Of course, every foreign policy is subject to domestic opinion. During the Cold War, it was always a big part of presidential campaigns. There’s the famous case of Kennedy playing with missile numbers during his presidential campaign with Richard Nixon in 1960 to win. But what I’m criticizing is that it has reached a level that the balance has broken in terms of when you respond to domestic political imperatives and how you conduct foreign policy based on what ought to be our national interests. I think that, partly, the policy of disengaging from the Middle East is very much driven by what would make sense in terms of a domestic political agenda, as opposed to asking whether or not this is in the long- run interest of the United States.

Question 8

So you’re saying that we should be staying in the Middle East?

Yes, not with 300,000 troops, and our engagement should not only be with the military, but yes. The question shouldn’t be between having troops or being completely disengaged. There is economic engagement, diplomatic engagement... you have ongoing relationships that you build. First of all, during the Bush period and also during the Obama period, our relationships in the Middle East became very narrowly focused, largely military, and revolved around the security imperative. So when the democratic opening happened, we did not rush in to build relationships with the new order in the region. We just didn’t engage with it. The president hasn’t been to any of the Arab Spring countries since the uprisings started two years ago.

Now we have decided to rapidly withdraw troops from the region, driven largely by economic needs at home. Whether or not the Iraq War was a good idea, we did go in. And we changed things on the ground. Now whether it’s a good idea to just disappear overnight, I think that has to be judged on the merits of what it will do to Iraq and the Middle East, and not only by the fact that it was George Bush who went in.

Question 9

Is it fair to say that the world still needs America, that it is still the only country that has the ‘bandwidth’ to assert its influence around the world?

There’s no doubt that the world is changing; nobody should come away saying that this is the same old world. At the moment, until there is another set of global powers that are able to take responsibility for global governance, the United States has the most capability economically, military, and diplomatically. Even as it transitions out of that role, it will still be leading during the period in which another leader arises. It can’t just disappear from the scene. That would leave a vacuum.

We also have to consider the possibility that some of these rising countries are not going to be good for the world. To say that emerging markets are going to take responsibility for global leadership should give us pause, at least before we know which emerging markets, how they are going to take leadership, and based on which values. Take the case of climate change: as much as you criticize the United States, at the end of the day the most reluctant parties in this have been the emerging markets. So what sort of leadership are they going to be playing on these sorts of issues?

We kid ourselves if we think that we can very easily just step aside, or that somebody else is capable and willing to take over right now. American leadership matters, and not exercising it does have certain costs internationally.

We are proud to introduce our readers to SAIS’s new dean with this interview. Vali Nasr, who joined this institution in the summer of 2012, is a prominent scholar and policy advisor on Middle East issues. He was a senior advisor to U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, and is a member of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board. He previously taught at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, among other leading institutions.