Wilmington native and Salesianum School alumnus (class of 1976) Gregory Gause, Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, is one of America’s top commentators on the Middle East. A noted expert on Saudi Arabia and author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf, Dr Gause will be doing a monthly Q&A on current events in the Middle East with TownSquareDelaware.
TSD: Bin Laden is now dead. Yet many Delawareans are wondering what this means in practical terms. Some say Bin Laden was more of a figure-head whereas others argue he played a direct hands-on role in planning operations. What’s your take? How much safer is the US following the Al-Qaeda leader’s death?
GG: Hello, Delaware. It is very nice to have the chance to reconnect with home, where my parents and three of my siblings still live.
There are no downsides to killing Osama Bin Laden. It was a great day for us and for our military. Maybe not such a great day for the Pakistani military, but that is a price worth paying on this one. But we should not exaggerate its effects. Al-Qaeda was already on the downslide. It is dangerous, particularly its regional offshoots, but it had failed completely in its post-9/11 hope of establishing friendly governments anywhere in the Muslim world. It had lost its Afghanistan base. It failed to establish itself in Iraq, though our war there gave it a chance to do so. It failed to overthrow the Saudi government, though it tried. The killing of Bin Laden will accelerate this slide, I think. They lose their chief recruiter, their symbol. His absence could open up splits in the organization itself. This is an important milestone on the eventual disappearance of the organization. They are still a threat and have to be watched, but they are not what they were on 9/11.
TSD: From Vermont to Delaware, the price of gas isn’t getting any cheaper! In large part, this is due to continued unrest in the Middle East, especially in major oil producer Libya. So far, however, the region’s top oil exporter, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has been relatively quiet. What are the chances that protests could spread to Saudi Arabia in the near future?
GG: I think Saudi Arabia is the most stable state in the Arab world right now. I do not think that the regime is in trouble. They have plenty of problems, both economic and political, that will appear down the line. But right now, with oil prices over $100 and their leadership united, they have the means to deflect pressures and coopt opposition. The big change in Saudi Arabia is that, given the financial obligations they have taken on to immunize themselves from the Arab upheavals (lots of new commitments on domestic spending), they need oil prices to stay high. I do not think we will be seeing them using their spare oil production capacity to increase production and bring prices down. The Saudis might not be the biggest price hawks in OPEC now, but they are hardly price moderates.
TSD: Speaking of Libya, it looks like the US-backed rebels have Colonel Gaddafi on the defensive yet are not powerful enough to deal a decisive knock-out blow. Even if the rebels succeed in forcing Gaddafi from power, do they have enough popular support to rule the country peacefully without resorting to violence? What do you see happening in Libya over the coming months?
GG: I think we are in stalemate in Libya, unless the British, French or us get in a lucky punch and kill him from the air (which they and we are clearly trying to do). We can prevent him from retaking the east of Libya but cannot dislodge him from his control of the west. So it looks like we have a situation similar to that with the Kurds in Iraq after the Gulf War of 1990-91. We can help to sustain a regional government in eastern Libya not under Gaddafi’s control, but not overthrow him. I cannot understand why the Administration thought that this Libya intervention made sense; I do not see the American interest at stake here. But we are now stuck. We can only hope that there is something going on within Gaddafi’s circle that we do not know about that will bring him down from within.
TSD: President Obama made jump-starting the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians a major part of last Thursday’s speech on the Middle East. Yet, it’s one thing for a US President to want to see progress in the Peace Process, but quite another to actually have it happen. Moreover, just last week Senator George Mitchell announced his resignation as Senior US Envoy to the Middle East. Combined with continued unrest in Egypt and in Syria, are the conditions ripe for new progress in Peace negotiations?
GG: I do not think so. My judgment has less to do with Egypt and Syria (though the uncertainty in both places does not help) and more to do with Israel and the Palestinians. The current Israeli government is among the most nationalist, or, as the media short-hand would have it, “right-wing” in Israeli history. Prime Minister Netanyahu does not want to give up the West Bank or the Golan Heights. He is not a closet moderate constrained by his domestic situation. He is an ideologue whose entire career has been devoted to holding on to the West Bank and the Golan Heights. For him, it is an ideological commitment, as it is for his political party. That is their raison d’etre. So they are not looking to make a deal. The Palestinians, despite the recent Fatah-Hamas “reconciliation,” remain profoundly divided. It is not a situation that is conducive to progress on the negotiation front. I applaud Pres. Obama’s instincts here. It would help American interests enormously to get an Israeli-Palestinian deal. My fear is that the realities on the ground right now are not conducive to such progress.
TSD: Professor Gause, thanks so much for sharing your insights on the Middle East with TownSquareDelaware.com. Look forward to chatting next month.