Stability has long been a pillar of U.S. foreign policy and is a newer thread - stabilization - in civil-military operations.
Writ large, it has usually meant that we prop up dictators whom we think will be loyal to us and tough enough to control their populations, to preserve the status quo and prevent any change that might negatively impact our interests. Mubarak in Egypt is only one of the more recent. The Shah of Iran was another. We also supported Saddam in his war with Iran. Aid is predominantly military. (Let’s make sure the guys with the guns are on our side.) Obviously, this does not take into account the interests of the local citizens, whose needs and aspirations are given considerable lip service, but are otherwise largely shunted aside (or trampled) in favor of stability that supposedly advances U.S. interests. Egypt’s military has received at least $1.3 billion per year since 1979—while the literacy rate for Egyptian women is still only around 60%.
Stability for us has too often meant stasis for the local citizens. With tight control from the top, nothing changes, perhaps for a generation or more, while under the surface, citizens seethe with no outlet. Our support helps keep the lid on, but does nothing to deal with the pressures that continue to build underneath. Indeed, large amounts of money supplied to the military, without transparency or accountability, only reinforces corruption and autocracy, widening the gap between our rhetoric of democracy and the reality of dictatorship. Underlying tensions (reflecting ethnic divides, corruption, lack of economic opportunity, joblessness, etc.) are not addressed; the population is in suspended animation, with no means to address concerns in the ordinary course of electoral business. At some level, we must be aware of these festering problems. Otherwise why would we conclude that dictatorship was necessary to contain them?
Nevertheless, we are always surprised when it blows, and unprepared for the pendulum swings that result. Consider, for example, Iran. In 1953 the CIA engineered a plot to overthrow the elected Prime Minister, Mosaddegh (to protect our interests in Iranian oil), which consolidated the Shah’s dictatorship. Why were we surprised at the convulsion in 1979 when the Shah was finally overthrown? Now, when we talk about Iranian nuclear ambitions, we act as though history began in 1979 and Iran is inexplicably anti-American.
Analysis by analogy is always risky, but the physics of pendulum motion are very suggestive. When a pendulum is restrained at one end of its swing and then released, the ball does not stop at neutral; kinetic energy sends it over to the opposite pole. Only over time do the successive swings decrease in amplitude and reach neutrality. The Bush Administration, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, apparently thought that the repression of the Saddam years, with a minority Sunni faction subjugating a majority Shi’a population, would be replaced not by a pendulum swing to Shi’a dominance, but by an immediate settling at neutrality - with Sunni and Shi’a suddenly seeing the virtues of democracy with checks and balances, and spontaneously cooperating to create a peaceful Iraq. Instead, we saw the normal pendulum swing to “our turn now!” and the settling of old scores.
Pendulum swings are more the rule than the exception. The Westernized Shah was an oppressor. Let’s try something dramatically different - the fundamentalist Islamic and anti-Western Ayatollahs. Mubarak bad? Let’s try the Muslim Brotherhood. This might be termed the Monty Python approach to regime change: “Now for something completely different!”
A similar pattern played out in the Balkans after Tito’s death in 1980. None of the ethnic conflicts had disappeared under Tito; they were merely submerged. The eventual result was the emergence of rampant nationalism, the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, and the ethnic atrocities of Srebrenica, Kosovo and Mostar, among others.
Without experience in the give and take of democratic elected government, it may be impossible to go directly from one extreme to a peaceful middle ground. It is much easier - and a more familiar dynamic - to go to another variety of black and white certainty with no shades of grey. The experience of stasis also leads to an identification with one’s group - victims or oppressors - solidifying us vs. them, and an intense attachment to one’s own group’s point of view. Acknowledging that the other faction may have some good points or productive ideas is being a traitor to the group. (Such acknowledgement is hard enough for today’s U.S. Democratic and Republican parties.)
During the years of stasis that preclude political participation, the population acquires no skills or experience in non-violent political means of sharing resources and reconciling conflict. In fact, old grievances become further solidified when there is no way to address and resolve them. Instead of a wrong done a few years in the past and amenable to resolution by those who were personally involved, new generations grow up trained to remember - and avenge - the insults to parents or remote ancestors, which may have taken on mythic proportions. I remember working in Kosovo in 2001 and being startled when, in conversation over coffee someone complained that, “The Turks took our property.” Really??!! When?? (My naïve question.) Turns out the reference was to the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. The past is always present when there is no mechanism for creating new futures.
Not only is there no experience with practical politics and strategies of compromise, rhetoric becomes a substitute for proven ability to govern. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was apparently rather good at organizing dissent, but did an incompetent job of governing - a fact that might have been discovered (or they might have learned from) years ago had they had a chance to contest local elections. Their first attempt at governance was at the national level and was, not surprisingly, inept. Hamas in 2006 won the most free and fair election in the Middle East, but the U.S. - demanding a particular result rather than the democratic process we claimed to support - immediately boycotted the new Palestinian government. We let Hamas become martyrs to U.S. intransigence rather than allowing them the chance to succeed or fail at governance on their own merits.
For all these reasons, our stability efforts implemented on a national scale, in someone else’s nation, invariably - sometimes sooner, sometimes later - have been a spectacular failure. In the long run, coerced stability always comes back to haunt us.
Despite this track record, stability on a small scale has recently become a staple goal of civil-military operations. USAID’s OTI (Office of Transition Initiatives) similarly has “stabilization” as an explicit goal. Examples of stability operations (digging wells, forming community councils, cleaning canals) abound from Iraq and Afghanistan. The theory is that stability bridges the gap (whether or not there is a gap is unexamined) between immediate humanitarian assistance and development. Again, the goal seems to be stasis for the local population; please don’t shoot at us or at each other at least while we are here. Why people are shooting, and whether they will resume shooting as soon as we leave, is not considered. Projects appear to be aimed at buying people off for our immediate benefit, not at addressing underlying problems or supporting local government decision-making that might manage canals or schools sustainably into the future. Temporary outside support for or provision of (e.g.) girls’ education or health care or road paving is no substitute for—and often simply delays—a people’s ability to work out their own operational and funding priorities. Not surprisingly, millions in CERP (Commander’s Emergency Response Program) money has not made Afghanistan or Iraq notably more secure. The slogan “money as a weapons system” was inadvertently prescient; we shot ourselves in the foot.
The next time someone suggests a need for “stability” operations, ask why we want the local population to be locked in stasis with underlying conflict unaddressed until we decide to withdraw. At that point, the local population is back to square one, with the opportunity for gradual give and take and adjustment having been squandered.