From the Mediterranean basin to the Arabian Sea, the Arab “moderates”—who once served as the epicenter of US policy in the Middle East and North Africa—have gradually lost the American rationale for their role. In recent years, they have also encountered intimidation and marginalization in the emerging regional order. Since President Donald Trump took office three years ago, this trend has been increasingly reinforced and is now significantly altering the landscape of Arab politics, putting the region on a dangerous path.
There is no conclusive definition for the Arab “moderates” as this term has evolved over the past six decades. After the 1967 Arab Israeli War and during Richard Nixon’s presidency, the “land for peace” concept defined US policy of bolstering the Arab “moderates,” aiming to keep them away from the Soviet orbit and to give them an incentive to work with Washington around the theme of Arab-Israeli peace and regional stability. As managers of central authority in their own countries, these moderates were portrayed as western friendly and security dependent; they were concerned with political survival, open to compromise with Israel, and resistant to radical rhetoric and behavior. This era came to an end following the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, which triggered the Second Intifada, and the 9/11 attacks that shifted the US focus in the Middle East from peacemaking to counterterrorism and nation-building. Under the George W. Bush presidency, so-called moderate leaders became pillars of counterterrorism efforts; their cohort was then expanded to include Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and even Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi; the latter after he abandoned his alleged nuclear ambitions in 2003.
In his 2009 book titled The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation, the former Jordanian foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, defined two overarching rationales for Arab moderation: implementing a two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the foundation for lasting regional peace, and winning the battle against radical ideologies in the region. These two bedrock principles have been severely eroded under the Donald Trump presidency since the two-state solution is not an explicit priority in the recently unveiled Trump plan and there is no real plan to defeat extremism. The focus has shifted to deterring Iran.
Seminal Regional Events
The trend of weakening Arab moderates can be traced back to the US invasion of Iraq, a momentous event that shocked the regional order and left it vulnerable to Iranian influence. The Bush Administration failed miserably in deterring an emboldened Iranian regime. In Lebanon, the moderate Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in February 2005 and, in May 2008, Hezbollah dealt a military blow to the anti-Syrian regime March 14 Movement. The quagmire after the invasion of Iraq forced the Bush Administration in December 2006 to make a deal with Iran by accepting Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister, a move that weakened US allies among moderate Shia Iraqis. After the US decision to prop up the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank as an alternative to Hamas in Gaza, Hamas seized full control of the strip in June 2007 which further weakened the PA.
The trend of weakening Arab moderates can be traced back to the US invasion of Iraq, a momentous event that shocked the regional order and left it vulnerable to Iranian influence.
The second transformative development in the region was the start of the popular Arab uprisings in 2011 that brought down key Arab authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. While the Islamists failed in their attempts to fill the void, the emerging alternatives were weak or repressive central governments that somehow carried the mantle of political moderation. However, a crucial shift occurred when the moderate camp lost some of its pioneers with the emergence of a new generation of Arab leaders who appear to no longer want to be identified by this old label nor to fully endorse its traditional principles.
This strategic exit from the traditional label of the Arab moderate camp, mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, began when the Barack Obama Administration backed away from supporting the Egyptian regime during the 2011 popular revolt. The break became more acute after the US decision to strike a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. An emboldened Saudi Arabia briefly provided support for Syrian rebels, inspired a counterrevolution in Egypt that returned authoritarianism, began a war in Yemen, and launched a diplomatic offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon. The emerging young leaders in these countries became foreign policy hawks, especially on Iranian policy, and sought to deter the Islamic Republic at any price, even if this required engaging with Israel prior to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Their ultimate objective was to preserve the status quo from what they perceived as the threat of Islamists and anarchy.
More importantly, they no longer viewed their allies in the Arab world as reliable partners, blaming them for not confronting Iran’s proxies or Islamist factions. Arab moderates from the old political order, as well as new ones from the new order who emerged post-2011 and did not want to effectively confront Iran, were perceived as weak alternatives to authoritarian leaders and were subsequently marginalized. In other words, the notion of moderation shifted to become one of weakness vis-à-vis Iran.
Local Responses and Ramifications
Lebanon’s former prime minister, Saad Hariri, looked at the US policy shift under Obama as a green light to mitigate the damage on his political survival and preserve the little influence he had in Beirut. In 2014, Hariri mended fences with Hezbollah and in 2016, he endorsed the party’s ally, General Michel Aoun, as president in order to secure his return to power as prime minister. Post-2011 moderate leaders such as Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj failed to militarily rein in militants in their own countries.
Meanwhile, the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) led to the formation of new paramilitary forces. Iran’s use of armed militias, by emulating Hezbollah’s model, has paid off with the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. The United States empowered Kurdish forces in Syria and the United Arab Emirates backed separatist forces in southern Yemen. While these paramilitary forces are being endorsed by foreign powers, the post-2011 Arab moderate leaders were marginalized not only by the Iranian regime, but they were increasingly weakened by the United States and and its regional allies.
While these paramilitary forces are being endorsed by foreign powers, the post-2011 Arab moderate leaders were marginalized not only by the Iranian regime, but they were increasingly weakened by the United States and and its regional allies.
The Trump Administration’s policy leading to the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, unveiled in January, further undermined one of the residuals of this Arab “moderates” order, the Palestinian Authority, by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cutting aid to the PA. Lebanon’s Saad Hariri, who was weakened by Saudi policies (including cutting his funding and detaining him in Saudi Arabia in November 2017), is now no longer in power, struggling for political survival under public pressure.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have intentionally or unintentionally forced the hands of Yemeni President Hadi in Aden and beyond as he remains in exile in Riyadh with symbolic powers. The growing force of southern separatists further undermined the Yemeni government’s central authority. Libyan Prime Minister Sarraj, who supposedly leads an internationally recognized Government of National Accord, lost over at least two-thirds of his country as General Khalifa Haftar and militias challenge his authority. The Syrian opposition’s High Negotiation Committee has been incapacitated and the recent developments in Idlib have highlighted, once again, the irrelevance of the opposition as a representative body. The main country left in the old moderate camp, Jordan, is increasingly weak and dependent on external aid. Washington no longer considers Amman the traditional gateway to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, hence the Jordanian leadership feels increasingly isolated. This is only a snapshot of the current dynamics that are the product—or an accumulation—of policies shaped in the last two decades.
US Policy Fluctuations
The Trump Administration is shifting the direction of US policy by propping up Arab authoritarian leaders among their allies with the expectation that they will help advance the White House’s interests, including agreeing to engage Israel. To Trump, the revised definition of Arab “moderates” encompasses those who have an alliance with Israel to deter Iran and who view this as a priority over resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
To Trump, the revised definition of Arab “moderates” encompasses those who have an alliance with Israel to deter Iran and who view this as a priority over resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The recent US-Iranian tensions under Trump and the last wave of Arab popular uprisings continued the erosion process of these Arab moderate leaders, with Lebanon’s Hariri and Iraq’s former Prime Minister Haidar Abadi out of power. While the Trump Administration has heightened the rhetoric and has actively deterred Iran by killing al-Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani last month, Washington remains without a strategy to benefit from the opportunities of potentially weakening Iran’s allies. Moreover, by prioritizing Arab-Israeli normalization to deter Iran, the Trump Administration is not only enabling Arab authoritarians but also weakening Arab moderate leaders who are seeking to reach a consensus with their political foes at home and/or establish central, albeit weak governments that keep their countries unified.
The Trump Administration has been continuing this systematic marginalizing of Arab moderates. It has not attempted to create an alternative or to support the growing protests across the region in producing their own alternative leadership as these Arab moderate leaders are considered by protesters as ineffective and/or corrupt. Further, the United States is playing into the hands of Russia, Iran, and Turkey while pushing the Middle East toward a new era of lawlessness. Meanwhile, these Arab moderate leaders are left with two choices: appease the United States or Iran to stay in power or fade from the political scene.
The uprisings and turmoil of the past few years have shaken the power structure across the region. Armed militias have overrun governments with waning sovereign authorities; protesters have taken to the streets to challenge a dysfunctional status quo that is unable to deliver on basic public services. The coming months and years will be decisive in defining what political systems will emerge across the Middle East and how these broken communities will recover from devastating conflicts. Insisting on fighting IS or deterring Iran without a larger strategy means that Washington is burying its head in the sand. The next decade of Middle East politics might be governed by chaos, partitions, and the barrel of a gun. The United States must lead the way in preventing this collapse using a minimal yet strong engagement. Otherwise, in the coming decade, the international community might once again face the prospect of picking up the pieces of a broken Arab regional order.