As countries in the Middle East and North Africa roil with political upheaval, the United States is faced with the dilemma of choosing which regimes to back and which to abandon. Countries that have traditionally earned U.S. military and political support have conceded some control to America, but that reality is being challenged by global citizens who are demanding that they be allowed to guide their own destinies.
The ramifications of these rising challenges were the focus of the April 7 Harrington Lecture given by David Lake ’78, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of San Diego, author, and one of the leading experts on international relations theory and global conflict and cooperation.
The lecture, titled “America’s Hegemonic Dilemma: Building Legitimate and Loyal States in an Age of Global Insurgency,” was presented by Clark’s Political Science Department.
“This is a wonderful time to be a political scientist. I can’t wait to get up and read the newspaper to see what happened next.”
— David Lake ’78
The United States is trying to build states “that are legitimate to their own people and loyal to the U.S.,” Lake said. “In the Middle East today, it’s likely you can have one, but not both.” These attempts perpetuate the United States’ pursuit of an “indirect empire” in which the U.S. supplies military security to countries who in turn “accept the legitimacy” of the U.S. involvement in those countries.
This so-called “Pax Americana” has resulted in countries that serve United States interests while benefiting from military protection, Lake said. These nations exist with the reasonable certainty that the U.S. will respond to a security crisis on their behalf, and in return they are more likely to join “coalitions of the willing” who support the United States in a time of war.
However, the nations that subordinate themselves to the United States often do so to the benefit of a small, elite governing body, with the wider citizenry realizing little or no gain from the relationship, he said.
A global insurgency is “the natural reaction to U.S. trying to extend its hegemony” in the world, Lake said. While religion is not the cause of the insurgency, Islam has become a vehicle to mobilize societies and creates a common foundation in many countries from which opposition movements are cultivated.
The U.S. has been propelled into a global war on terror that is largely unwinnable, he said. Drive the insurgents out of one country and they’ll simply move on to the next fragile nation, with countries like Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Sudan prime landing spots for displaced terrorists.
The United States recently has focused on building stronger states in regions where terrorists dwell, with the ultimate goal of winning the hearts and minds of the moderates in those countries. This strategy is costly, Lake said, as the U.S. assumes increasing responsibility for providing services such as infrastructure, water, schools, etc.
The dilemma is that to ensure loyalty to the United States, the U.S. props up weak leaders — Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, for instance — who don’t engender confidence in their own people. “We want legitimate states and weak rulers who are dependent on us to stay in power,” Lake said. “We can’t get both.”
Even if President Obama were able to put a stable regime in place in Afghanistan, the insurgents would simply move elsewhere, leaving the U.S. to chase them around the globe. “Insurgents can bleed the U.S. dry,” he said. “Our current strategy is unsustainable.”
The uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have exposed the United States’ support of pro-Western autocrats in the Gulf states, Lake noted. “Unless some reforms are enacted, new opposition forces likely will grow disenchanted with U.S. rule.”
So what’s to be done?
Some insist the United States should withdraw from the Middle East. Lake said that in his opinion the U.S. has few vital interests in the region, with oil available in other parts of the world. He advocates placing a high tax on oil to break the U.S. dependence on fossil fuels and reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.
Realistically, however, the U.S. won’t withdraw from the Middle East because of the cost to the U.S. consumer in higher oil prices, he said.
If the United States chooses to remain engaged in the Middle East by following the hearts-and-minds strategy, that, too, will prove expensive.
“My best guess is we’ll do a little of both, and little will change,” he said. “It’s a real dilemma and a real tragedy.”
Prior to delivering the Harrington Lecture, Lake took time to recall his undergraduate years at Clark. He called his time at the University “a life-changing experience.”
“Something clicked,” he said. “It awakened an intellectual curiosity in me.” Lake described Clark Research Professor Cynthia Enloe as “by far the best teacher I ever had in anything.”
In addition to the April 7 lecture, Lake also spoke with students in two International Relations courses the following day.