Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who has spent most of his four-decade-long career in the US Foreign Service dealing with the Middle East and Central Asia, gave a very perceptive overview to LAWAC members last night of how the Arab Spring is developing across the region. His overall point was that two and a half years after the seminal uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the Arab Spring is just in its first phase, “and it may get a lot worse before it gets better.” He sees no quick solution in Syria – and argues Assad will hold on much longer than many think. And he sees neighboring Lebanon being dragged back into civil war because of Syria. On Iran, he thinks that parallel with sanctions the US should try high-level diplomacy – “negotiations with your enemies are more important than talks with your friends.” And in Egypt he sees a danger of growing extremism prompting the military to get involved in politics.
Looking back through history he pointed out that the last great era of upheavals in the Middle East – the 1950’s – saw a widespread toppling of monarchies and an emergence of republics. This time round the monarchies – Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan, Morocco - are proving resilient, while it is the republics that are falling. “This suggests some humility on our part is required,” he said. The US is a champion of democracy, but in the Middle East “there are other types of government that are in touch with their people” – suggesting the Kings and Emirs may be around for some time yet.
On the question of al Qaeda, he said “Al Qaeda is living large today”. Although the network has been disrupted in Pakistan, it is growing in Syria, Iraq, northern Africa, and holding its own in Yemen. The ambassador bemoaned the fact that the US is apparently turning inwards now, at a time when a robust US role in solving many international problems is more important than ever – “this is a time when diplomacy counts.” He paid particular tribute to the World Affairs Councils for their role in helping to keep Americans focused on international issues. He ended on a cryptic note that amused the audience: “As bad as things may look today, they are better than they are going to be tomorrow.”