These days for a government to set a West Asian foreign policy is like trying to simultaneously shoot several moving targets. The region is in permanent and unpredictable flux. Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was the last Arab ruler anyone would have expected to be now struggling to stay out of jail. Sparsely populated and oil-rich Libya is the last place anyone would have predicted a protracted civil war. And Bahrain’s emergence as the fulcrum of the unsteady power equation in the Persian Gulf probably still surprises this tiny dot of an emirate.
The United States, for better or worse, still remains the most powerful external power for the part of the world that stretches from Morocco to Oman, Turkey to Sudan. Which is why President Barack Obama’s latest speech towards the region, particularly its dominant Arab Muslim population, is so important. Such speeches, by definition and especially in times of rapid change, will be short on specifics. But he did understand three things. One, that the Cold War status quo of dictatorships and unfinished bits of history, most notably the Palestinian issue, could no longer continue. Two, that the so-called jasmine revolts have changed Arab politics in ways that it would be self-defeating for outsiders to attempt to roll back. Three, liberal societies do not spontaneously come into being. They need support from other liberal societies. The fundamental development has been the reawakening of the Arab Street. What the US did this time, which it did not do in the past, was to not get in the way of the uprising. Many governments, including India, have been wary of what these nascent democracies will produce in the years to come. Conservative Islamicist parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood, are expected to be major beneficiaries of elections and the recent attempts at Palestinian political unity. Their past record of political violence and their rhetorical support for terrorism unnerve many governments. Mr Obama, in a curious echo of George W Bush before him, argues that America’s faith in democracy is such that it is prepared to take the gamble that democracy will, eventually, create the sort of stable societies that the world has long wished for.
The US will continue to place hard-nosed strategic interests over moral ones in some cases. Saudi Arabia was notably missing in his speech. But the scope and number of these interests is clearly much reduced and confined largely to the Persian Gulf. Mr Obama has modified one major US interest by endorsing the idea that Israel return to its pre-1967 boundaries – an indicator that things in West Asia have changed to the point that even as close a US ally as Israel can no longer depend on the past for guidance. Mr Mubarak has already found that out. And others will as well in a Brave New West Asian World.