It's Not Just the Arab Spring, It's the Economy (Stupid)

Article excerpt

It's the Economy Election and foreign policy has suffered predictable silence, receiving only intermittent murmurs from the mainstream media. Bloody battles still sweep the streets of the Middle East from Tripoli, Libya, to Tripoli, Lebanon, yet--besides the tired drumbeating about bombing Iran--the Republican U.S. presidential candidates act as if they have no dog in the fight. Well they do, and its tail could soon wag the U.S. economy.

What does the so-called Arab Spring have to do with American jobs? A lot more than you may think. And for once it's not just about oil prices. American companies today are heavily invested in the economic success of countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and--of course--the Gulf states. Burgeoning consumer markets and the promise of democracy-led economic openness make tomorrow's Middle East more than a blip on the American economic radar. As politicians flog promises of job growth in stump speeches from Arizona to Virginia, they would do well not to dismiss events outside our borders as mere "foreign" policy and instead to integrate foreign policy discussions into America's economic development strategy.

Russia recently learned the economic cost of ignoring what happens in the Middle East. When the UN Security Council was debating the intervention in Libya, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was spending time on issues that seemed to hold greater economic priority, like the country's gas transit price crisis with Ukraine. But in choosing to stay out of the Libyan operation, Russia lost the chance to win local favor. As a result, Libyan rebels wasted no time in ejecting Russian companies as they overthrew the Gaddafi regime. Now, as if to make up for its losses in Libya, Russia is taking a firmer stand. According to Syrian insiders, Medvedev is holding anti-Assad UN Security Council resolutions hostage to Russia's veto threat until someone--be it the Syrian opposition or the international community--promises lucrative contracts for Russian companies in the new Syria.

Russia's policy is hurting Syrians with every passing day, and in any case, the United States is committed to a more values-based foreign policy. Nevertheless, our policy makers--and presidential candidates--should pay attention to how the economics of our engagement in the Middle East are changing with local politics.

In Tunisia, American companies are looking past a foggy business environment to a bright investment future. In December 2011, twelve months of postrevolutionary hubbub finally led to the election of a shaky Islamist coalition government in Tunisia; but that didn't stop American giants Fidelity Investments and IBM from opening up new regional headquarters in the capital city, just feet from ransacked palaces belonging to deposed Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Executives of both companies cited Tunisia's untapped market of human skills as the chief motivation for the move, as many Tunisians speak French, English, and Arabic fluently, and well-groomed university graduates go for cents on the American dollar in salary terms. …