June 22, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Foreign Policy in the Middle East: When Bureaucracy is the Answer

As of late June 2012, the cascade of multiple, unrelated regional crises —  unprecedented in the post-war era — is severely taxing Middle Eastern governments that have long relied almost exclusively on the capabilities of the head of state to launch peace initiatives and construct foreign policies. These personalities have too often had to operate without the much-needed infrastructure provided by a supporting bureaucracy to facilitate the rapid implementation of these initiatives and manage the day-to-day affairs necessary for lasting success.

Plans led unilaterally by the senior executive —  be it a king, an emir, or a long-serving president — are proving to be less than effective in dealing with such a panoply of problems precisely because that executive is almost always simultaneously consumed by the other myriad tasks of leadership (which, in many instances, involves retaining power against a burgeoning opposition). Just in recent months, the wave of concurrent issues that require immediate yet, thoughtful action is overwhelming even the most skilled and experienced of leaders. Current realities that often involve deepening domestic woes no longer afford regional leaders the time or space to focus with any consistency on a single pressing external issue. Ironically, what appears to be the most viable solution to this deepening crisis of geopolitical policy management is a structure that is routinely denigrated in the West: a durable bureaucracy.

To be fair, the Middle East has no shortage of talented heads of state or senior executives with impressive negotiating talents and charismatic interpersonal skills, both of which are essential in bridging the vast differences in position, perspective, and personality within the region. King Abdullah II of Jordan and the royal families in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar all have initiated and sustained high-profile peace talks and initiatives over the last decade. In most cases, these efforts generated initial progress with great expectations, only to see far more modest outcomes emerge over time. Granted, the issues being confronted were — and remain — deep-seated and seemingly intractable, and Western governments have been responsible for achieving even less success with initiatives that date back even further. But two new geopolitical realities are bringing unprecedented stress on long-established models of crisis management in the region.


Different Problems, Different Solutions

The crises that have rocked the region — in Tunis, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, and Sudan, just to name the most pressing — are all distinct, each with their own unique problem set of causes…and unique solutions. While the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, contentious as ever, lingers in the background (albeit front and center for the Palestinians and Israelis and their respective supporters around the globe), the challenges facing individual nations have exploded in a chain of similar-but-not-related conflagrations that are now burning through even the best of the personality-driven peace initiatives the region can bring to bear.

Meanwhile, the usual array of external actors — the United States, the European Union, and Russia, among others — are consumed with their own internal problems, not the least of which is the unremitting economic instability that now threatens the very foundation of the EU, as well as the financial ability and national will to invest on issues that voters view as tangential to their own concerns. Additionally, as is the case every four years, the upcoming election in the United States has paralyzed the current administration in terms of Middle East initiatives. These factors have left the region, for better or worse, to its own repair.


Policymakers Require Policy Implementers

In the past, during a time of crisis — which commonly was contained within a given country — the standard model called for a regional conference. Heads of state or their foreign ministers would gather in a hotel in Cairo, Doha, or Amman and, if possible, hammer out a reasonable (or, at least, acceptable) plan for tamping down the emergency. The most recent regional conferences have made some progress (such as the Arab League's plan that was at least accepted by Syria before violating it); but it is simply impossible for a head of state or foreign minister to dedicate sufficient time to force meaningful change in any one of these difficult  and dynamic situations, let alone a host of such situations simultaneously. This is not to diminish their intelligence or their leadership skills; to the contrary, their engagement is crucial. But this engagement requires the supporting cast of hundreds of long-serving government workers to be fruitful in solving the problems of millions. In a very real sense, the success of the policymakers depends largely on the discipline of the policy implementers.

One of the strengths of Middle Eastern diplomacy is the personal involvement of the heads of state and members of the various royal families in the negotiations, an element that is rare among Western governments where presidents and prime ministers often only gather for the final push in a carefully staged public ceremony. Arab leaders are more attuned to connecting personally with their counterparts, a strategy that works best if their focus is not diffused by too many other pressing issues. The strength that can be leveraged through personal involvement can rapidly become a weakness when the problems become too many and too detailed for a leader and his close circle of advisors to manage. Here, a bureaucracy becomes a force multiplier in the very best sense. It might relieve some of the burden on the individual by having, in each country, a large, skilled cadre of foreign affairs officers with expertise in conflict resolution, crafting treaties, and devising monitoring agreements, as well as in dealing with the copious and often unavoidable paperwork that, while often derided, is still preferable to bloodshed. Peace, to be sure, can be just as complicated as warfare, and it might make just as much sense to plus up foreign ministries with trained bureaucrats to prepare for diplomatically-earned peace as it is to expand the defense ministries in preparation for militarily-imposed solutions.    

Another benefit of having a durable, professional foreign affairs bureaucracy is that it gives a much-needed sense of permanence to any agreement forged at higher levels. Governments need to have reasonable confidence that negotiated settlements — and the critical technical details that attend them — will be honored over the long term by a capable partner. While leaders periodically come and go, a bureaucracy provides the crucial stability during times when power is being transferred and regimes change. While priorities can, and often will change with new leaders, an established professional foreign affairs bureaucracy in each Middle Eastern country will establish the ability to engage productively in multiple arenas and serve as the invaluable institutional memory that survives the passing of personalities.



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