U.S. pundits commenting on the wave of protests that have swept across the Middle East this past week have tended to focus on "finger-pointing and partisan sniping," as Greg Scoblete notes, with conservatives vaguely calling for Washington to show more "strength" and liberals advocating more "outreach." Few have wanted to deal with a far more unpleasant reality: The de facto coalition of Turkey, Israel and "moderate" Sunni Arab states that for decades worked to advance U.S. interests in the region is disintegrating.
The aftermath of the Iraq War and the outbreak of the Arab Spring were just the first tremors of this regional reconfiguration. Moving forward, long-established geopolitical landmarks in the region will continue to disappear, especially if the coming year sees the collapse of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and military action taken against Iran in an effort to halt its nuclear program. Ian Bremmer is right to warn that, whether it is President Barack Obama who returns to the White House or Republican nominee Mitt Romney who takes residence there come January 2013, the next U.S. president will be forced to navigate "undiscovered country" in charting policy toward the Middle East.
The events of the past 20 months are ample reminders that unexpected "black swans" can upend previously expected outcomes. Two years ago, U.S. policymakers correctly assumed that political transitions would be underway in Libya and Egypt, laying the groundwork for evolutionary political and economic reform. However, analysts expected Seif al-Islam Gadhafi and Gamal Mubarak, rather than Mohamed Magariaf and Mohamed Morsi, to be the new chief executives leading those transitions.