Learning from the Post-Soviet Era

How Not to Make the Same Mistakes in the Middle East

Foreign policy experts are heatedly debating whether there are useful precedents from the post-Soviet period in Central and Eastern Europe as they try to wrap their heads around the rapidly evolving and unsettling situation in the Middle East. But the truly valuable lessons from the period after the Berlin Wall fell are not about Egypt, or Libya, or Bahrain and how much or how little these countries are like Poland, Russia, or Slovenia. They are about the international community itself and how it deals with upheaval, uncertainty, humanitarian interventions, and shaky democratic transitions.

Western diplomats, aid agencies, and legislatures are still prone to the same types of approaches—both good and bad—that they employed in the early 1990s. They are already replicating some of these missteps. What’s more, we must approach the countries in the Middle East as very different than those in the former Soviet space, as Tom Carothers argues in Foreign Policy.

Here are some key points, based on what happened in the post-Soviet transition, that the international community should bear in mind as it deals with turmoil in the Middle East.

We should expect mixed and very uneven results

Many countries did emerge as stable, democratic market economies after the Berlin Wall’s collapse. The transitions in places such as Estonia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Hungary are remarkable.

Then there’s Belarus, where things are possibly more repressive and backward today than they were under the Soviets. The end of the Soviet order also led to renewed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The point is that we should not expect the countries of the Middle East to follow a linear path simply because many of them are engaged in protests at the same time. Even in the most reform-minded countries, transitions will be full of fits and starts. We need to have the strategic patience to see as many of these transitions successfully through as we can.

Diplomatic discord is immensely counterproductive

In the early days of the Middle East’s transition, there are a number of instances where Western diplomats are not on the same page. France scrambled ahead of its allies to recognize the Libyan opposition. The United Kingdom sent military advisors to Libya without getting agreement from rebels that they were wanted. Germany opposed a no-fly zone as France and the United Kingdom supported one, and the U.S. National Security Adviser had to walk back the comments of the National Intelligence Director on Libya.

The early 1990s highlight the best and worst of Western diplomats getting their act together. NATO members’ collective insistence that they would only recognize new states that conformed to the borders of the previous Soviet republics largely headed off a spate of territorial conflicts. On the negative side, Germany’s rush to recognize Croatia as it seceded from the former Yugoslavia helped set off a chaotic land grab within the former Yugoslavia and helped foment an “every man for himself” environment.

The upshot: U.S., U.K., French, German, and Italian diplomats and senior military officials need to be able to come out on the same day and deliver the same messages again and again in the months ahead if we want to get this right.

Old suspicions will complicate assistance

In retrospect, U.S. assistance to Russia in the wake of the Soviet’s Union’s demise was far too modest and not nearly ambitious enough to achieve some of its key goals. Many in Congress continued to view Russia largely through the lens of communism. Sensible efforts—such as assisting demobilizing Russian military officers with housing as they withdrew from the Baltic States—ran into a buzzsaw of congressional criticism from members critical of assisting a former enemy.

Such an approach missed the forest for the trees. Russia may not have swung back toward authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin if the international community had spent more to lock in reforms early on that Russians supported.

In today’s environment it is all too easy to imagine that U.S. democracy assistance to Egypt will somehow invariably get tied into knots the first time members of the Muslim Brotherhood attend a conference or drink a cup of tea paid for by U.S. taxpayer dollars.

We can help achieve great things

Adroit Western diplomacy helped ensure that there was one nuclear successor state to the Soviet Union instead of four. Soviet nuclear weapons were removed from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. This stands as one of the more important diplomatic achievements of the late 20th century even though it is rarely mentioned.

Even messy transitions such as today’s can lead to real improvements in global security if, and it is a big if, the United States and its European allies can identify issues of great import and reach a common framework for achieving them. Realizing a shared strategic vision is every bit as important as dealing with the constant crises de jure.

Expect old enmities to flare up

Autocratic governments—whether run by Hosni Mubarak, Marshall Tito, or Leonid Brezhnev—didn’t resolve social, ethnic, and religious tensions. They brutally suppressed them. No wonder, then, freer systems often have to cope with the oldest of grievances when the dictators depart.

Such grievances can quickly snowball and become deadly, as we’ve seen in Egypt where clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims left more than a dozen dead. That’s why it is absolutely essential that the United States and its allies make clear that assistance to the Middle East during this critical period be hinged upon respect for basic human rights, particularly those of women and minority groups.

This will be especially tricky since some of the governments now flagrantly abusing human rights in the region—such as Saudi Arabia—are traditional U.S. allies, not enemies.

You can’t do half-hearted humanitarian interventions

The international community painfully learned from the initial U.N. intervention in Bosnia that you can’t do humanitarian interventions on the cheap. Subsequent NATO-led efforts to use military force in Bosnia and Kosovo were vastly more successful. But they demanded far more resources and a long-term commitment from the United States and its allies than almost anyone was willing to admit up front.

Consider that in Kosovo, a territory the size of Delaware, NATO inserted a peacekeeping force of 50,000 troops to keep order after the conflict. The United States needs to demonstrate that it can actually work with the international community to get postconflict assistance and peacekeeping right after the fiascos of the early postinvasion periods in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Any plan to move toward a no-fly zone in Libya needs to answer two important questions: Are we willing to escalate pressure if the no-fly zone doesn’t work and Qaddafi continues to terrorize his own people? And do we have the fortitude and resources to work with our allies in Europe, the Arab world, and at the United Nations to put in place a postconflict plan to help Libya actually build viable democratic institutions and stability if Qaddafi is toppled? This will likely necessitate a highly capable peacekeeping force.

The old order in the Middle East is unsustainable but the path to a brighter future for even the most capable Middle Eastern states will be precarious, unsettling, and chaotic. The international community absolutely must rise to the challenge of dealing with a whole series of fires determined to burn at the same time.

John Norris is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative. The Center for American Progress will continue to monitor the crisis in Libya and offer recommendations as the situation develops.

More on the Middle East: