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The Arab Sprung

It is possible that the Obama administration, having tried to straddle the middle, will wind up losing on both counts. Thus far it's diplomacy in Yemen has neither managed to direct the Yemeni crisis nor deflect the threat from Saudi Arabia in the geopolitical sense. Instead of facilitating a diplomatic settlement in Yemen, the administration finds itself watching a possible civil war unfold. What was once Saudi Arabia's backyard has now become its front line.

There are now reports that Saudi Arabia is circling the wagons:

The Gulf Cooperation Council, which is kind of like ASEAN but is looking more and more like NATO, is thinking about increasing the number of troops in the group’s joint military force, which is known, rather apocalyptically, as the Peninsula Shield.

The New York Times:

Invitations to Jordan and Morocco this month to apply for membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council are aimed at strengthening the security of the monarchies in the Gulf, political analysts and diplomats say.


Analysts say the turning point came when Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors saw how the United States dealt with the fall of the Egyptian regime.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, said: “The Saudis worried that if the U.S. was able to turn its back on one of its closest allies in the region when former President Hosni Mubarak left, will they do it again if unrest erupts somewhere else in the region? Who will they throw under the bus next?”

Elliot Abrams at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that Saudi Arabia has drawn a final defense line around the monarchies in the area. It will allow the "Arab Spring" to come no closer than that:

My theory is this: for the Saudis, it’s fine if citizens of a fake republic like Tunisia or Egypt demand a real republic with real elections and democracy. But they draw the line at monarchies: kings have to stay in charge. So they lecture the kings of Morocco and Jordan to be careful about too many reforms (if the rumors are correct), and invite them to join the Club of Kings that is the GCC. Presumably financial benefits will follow, so long as the kings don’t play around with any experiments that might give Saudi subjects ideas of their own. And in Bahrain, they put down a revolt that might have brought constitutional monarchy—though admittedly that situation appears far more complex in the eyes of Saudi royals, as the Bahrainis who would be empowered are Shia whose success might give Saudi Shia unacceptable ideas about their own fate.

The situation presents a dilemma for Washington: from an objective point of view it can't afford to stop in the middle. Either the Arab Spring succeeds completely in democratizing the region or its old alliances in the region are destroyed completely. The problem is the administration has not seen it as a real dilemma. By attempting to be on "both sides of history" the administration may achieve neither of its goals and in fact obtain the worst of all worlds. Its attempts to split the difference may deliver the entire region to turmoil while destroying the entire fabric of its old alliances.

President Obama's current strategy, though he may not have considered it, implies that he either has to win the whole kahuna or lose it. This setup is known as the "Gambler's Ruin" problem. "Consider a game that gives a probability a of winning 1 dollar and a probability b = 1-a of losing 1 dollar. If a player begins with 10 dollars, and intends to play the game repeatedly until he either goes broke or increases his holdings to N dollars, what is his probability of reaching his desired goal before going broke? This is commonly known as the Gambler's Ruin problem." The difficulty is that you can't quit while you're ahead. Either you get the N dollars or go broke trying.

For any given initial holdings, if we increase our upper target from ... to some larger number, we see that our probability of going broke before reaching that number also increases. If we have no "quit while we're ahead" target, and simply intend to play the game indefinitely, our probability of eventually going broke approaches 1, which presumably is why this problem is called the gambler's ruin.

One way to think about the situation is that, despite President Obama's rhetoric about "false choices," he really must choose between two mutually exclusive outcomes: an authoritarian Middle East and a democratic one. If he puts all his weight behind a democratic Middle East the final result must be the end of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On the other hand if he wants to preserve the current alliance structure, it must spell the end of the Democratic Middle East.  But if he keeps trying to support the princes and promote the Arab Srping he will sooner or later realize that the price of keeping the princes in power is that they must be kept in power.

But if he supports the rebels half-heartedly, then Washington will lose the leadership of the democratization movement to groups like al-Qaeda. In that case, Washington loses on both counts. Al-Qaeda gets to benefit from the Arab Spring and the president gets to destroy his network of alliances. It would be interesting to know whether Washington sees the choices in these terms. Probably not. When it comes to a fork in the road, it usually takes it.

"No Way In" print edition at Amazon

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