The Remaking of the Middle East

Bruce Jentleson, a professor at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy, has worked on Middle East policy in the Obama and Clinton administrations, and his most recent books are "American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century" (4th edition) and "The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas," with Steven Weber.

In an article in the June/July issue of Duke Magazine, Jentleson writes that the U.S. needs both an "overarching regional strategy and country-specific ones."

"Even at that we cannot determine any of these countries' futures," Jentleson notes. "But we can help shape them."

In the article, Jentleson outlines several reasons for the unrest. He agrees that new technologies like Facebook and Twitter "have been crucial tools," but notes the movement quickly spread through the region for other important reasons, one of which he calls the "Wizard of Oz effect."

"Recall the scene when Dorothy pulls back the curtain and reveals that the great Oz was nothing more than a small, unimposing man? The first Arab dictator falling punctured the aura of invincibility surrounding political leaders and countered the popular sense of powerlessness."

Other factors, he writes, include political repression, socioeconomic inequalities, corruption, generational differences and gender issues.

Jentleson recommends the following steps for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East:

"First, our policy needs to be flexible, multifaceted, and coalition-minded. Flexible means no one size fits all. Military and diplomatic strategies have to be situation-specific -- for example, intervening militarily where most justified, as in Libya, while in other cases, such as Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, using strategies best geared to those situations. Multifaceted means drawing on a broad range of tools and policies. These include both political reform and economic assistance, and a mix of initiatives that are public, private and through NGOs. Coalition-minded means working multilaterally, with international institutions and with other states that also have interests at stake and capacities to bring to bear. Indeed, in this 21st-century world, while the U.S. still has an important leadership role to play, there is very little that we can accomplish on our own.

"Second, in bilateral relations with Arab states, the balance needs to shift with less emphasis on the old adage 'He may be an SOB, but he's our SOB,' and more on 'Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.' There still needs to be a balance: Purism in promoting democracy is neither practical nor prudent. ... What happens when successor regimes come to power through more violent means? What happens when they come to power, as well, with more intensely anti-American orientations -- sentiments that would have been mitigated had change come more civilly and without such close identification of the U.S. with the dictatorial regime? The risk is a lose-lose for U.S. interests and ideals alike.

"Third, we must not make the same mistake with political Islam that we did in the Third World during the Cold War, when we lumped together most leaders, parties and movements that in any way smacked of radicalism as part of the Soviet orbit. ... Political Islam is here to stay. It will be part of the political mix more often than not. We cannot be for political change if we exclude all political Islam. We have to distinguish between those that are fundamental enemies, like Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, and those with which we have differences but with which co-existence and cooperation may be possible.

"Fourth, democracy does not spring forth like Athena from Zeus' head. It takes a long time to build. ... Nor is sustainable political stability only about elections and political process. It has to be democracy that delivers on the economic and social-justice issues that underlay the revolts, and on which the internal political competition and overall stability of the system depend.

"Fifth, real progress on Arab-Israeli peace is now that much harder, yet that much more essential. Israel is becoming even warier of peace agreements. Arab regimes may resort more often to the diversionary script of invoking the Zionist enemy. But if there is no Arab-Israeli peace soon, there may well be another war."

Jentleson acknowledges that "even the optimal outcome of these policy guidelines would not make the Middle East a fully stable place." For that very reason, "unless we finally reduce our dependence on oil, we will continue to leave ourselves vulnerable to the when -- not if -- of the next oil market crisis and its cascading effects on our economy and on our everyday lives. ... Energy independence is not possible, but reducing energy vulnerability and enhancing energy security are."

To read the entire Duke Magazine article, go to

A version of this article was originally published in Duke Today on May 18.