- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 20, 2011

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — About 18 months before the Egyptian uprising that would doom Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. diplomatic cable was sent from Cairo.

It described Mr. Mubarak as the likely president-for-life and said his regime’s ability to intimidate critics and rig elections was as solid as ever.

Around the same time, another dispatch to the State Department came from the American Embassy in Tunisia.

In a precise foreshadowing of the revolts to come, it said the country’s longtime leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had “lost touch” and faced escalating anger from the streets, according to once-classified memos posted by the anti-secrecy website Wikileaks.

Was America blindsided or farsighted over the Arab Spring?

The case is often made that Washington was caught flat-footed and now must adapt to diminished influence in a Middle East with new priorities.

There is an alternative narrative: that the epic events of 2011 are an opportunity to enhance the U.S. role in the region.

There is no doubt that Washington was jolted by the downfall of its Egyptian and Tunisian allies. The revolutions blew apart the regimes’ ossified relationships with the United States and cleared the way for long-suppressed Islamist groups that eye the West with suspicion.

Declaring a twilight for America in the Mideast ignores a big caveat: the Persian Gulf.

There are deep U.S. connections among the small but economically powerful and diplomatically adept monarchies, emirates and sheikdoms, which so far have ridden out the upheavals and are increasingly flexing their political clout around the Arab world.

The Gulf Arabs and America are, in many ways, foreign-policy soul mates. Both share grave misgivings about Iran’s expanding military ambitions and its nuclear program. The Gulf hosts crucial U.S. military bases, including the Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. It will be an essential part of the Pentagon’s strategic blueprint for the Middle East after this year’s U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

“America has lost the predictability of friends like Mubarak,” said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “But, at the same time, its allies in the Gulf are on the rise. So I would call it a shuffle for America. Maybe a step back in some places, but not in others.”

Led by hyperwealthy Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Gulf rulers have stepped up their games in various ways as the region’s political center of gravity drifts in their direction.

NATO’s airstrikes in Libya got important Arab credibility from warplane contributions by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf’s six-nation political bloc also has tried to negotiate an exit for Yemen’s protest-battered president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. It also has taken the lead in Arab pressures on Syria’s Bashar Assad, one of Iran’s most crucial partners.

Yet the Gulf rulers’ desire for change stops at their own borders. In March, they authorized a Saudi-led military force to help their neighbor, Bahrain, defend its 200-year-old unelected Sunni dynasty against anti-government protests by the island’s Shiite majority.

“No one is immune from the waves of change,” said Nicholas Burns, a former No. 3 official at the State Department. “There’s certainly an effort to advise the Gulf Arabs to continue to get on the side of reform.”

Mr. Burns thinks the Arab Spring has taught U.S. diplomats valuable lessons in patience and perspective.

“We are witnessing something that is transformative and whose full impact will play out over years, maybe decades, ahead,” said Mr. Burns, a professor of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Here is one of those times when the U.S. has to not overact and overreact.”

However, when events move fast, that may not be the easiest advice to follow. Mr. Mubarak was a loyal guardian of Egypt’s groundbreaking 1979 peace treaty with Israel, but there is no certainty that whoever succeeds him will honor the pact.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians have overridden U.S. objections and asked the United Nations for statehood.

“Our ability to influence is limited today more than at any time in the last 35 years,” said Graeme Bannerman, a former State Department analyst on Middle Eastern affairs, at a conference in November co-sponsored by the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace.

That assessment may have some traction in places like Tunisia or Egypt, where the United States is widely viewed as tainted by its long alliance with Mr. Mubarak.

However, the conversation is different in the free-spending Gulf, the new proto-state in Libya and even in the slow-healing Iraq and its Iran-friendly government.

Talk is more measured about how the United States fits into the new Middle East. There is more discussion about the arc of history rather than the latest sound bite.

“It’s too early to tell whether U.S. influence has diminished or indeed any change will happen because the Arab Spring is still in process,” said Nawaf Tell, former director of the University of Jordan Strategic Studies Center.

Mr. Tell sees the Arab Spring as the death rattle of the Arab revolutions and coups defined by the all-powerful state and embodied by winner-take-all leaders like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1954, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi in 1969, the putsch that brought Hafez Assad to power in Syria in 1970 and is now a dynasty-in-peril under his son, Bashar.

“These regimes have exhausted their revolutionary credibility and have seen their legitimacy go bankrupt,” Mr. Tell said. And as with any big unraveling, there are new rules in the aftermath.”



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