People may recall that in Barack Obama’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, the president promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. Mr. Obama’s own background, his eagerness to apologize for America, and willingness to engage the Arab world would usher in an unprecedented era of cooperation.
Mr. Obama said, “We have the power to make the world we seek.” He added:
but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written. The Holy Koran tells us: “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.” The Holy Bible tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.
I thought about the president’s New Beginning the other day, glancing at the top three items in the “What’s News” section of the Wall Street Journal. And this is what I read:
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk begins his book on the Clinton administration’s Mideast diplomacy with the initial focus on brokering peace between Israel and Syria, then led by Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez. Assad’s demand was a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace. The Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, was open to it both because he wanted real peace with Syria–Israel already had a longstanding peace agreement with Egypt, a certain level of cooperation with Lebanese officials and armed forces, and a relationship with Jordan that was a peace agreement in all but name, which was finally signed in 1994–and because he thought it would encourage the Palestinians to want peace as well.
He was right about the latter point, though the Palestinians would end up hijacking the entire process and peace with Syria never happened. But ahead of a trip to Washington to meet with Clinton, Rabin wanted to know how the U.S. would guarantee the peace, as Indyk phrases it, “especially in the event of Asad’s death.” Would Clinton put American troops on the Golan, if it came to that and Israel was proscribed by the peace agreement from sending its own troops? Clinton asked Colin Powell for his advice. Indyk recounts the exchange:
I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that title more or less sums up the response of Peter Maass, a writer for the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine in a recent blog post to this column by Iraqi American intellectual Kanan Makiya in the New York Times entitled “The Arab Spring Started in Iraq.” Now, anyone who has ever contributed an op-ed to a newspaper knows that writers do not pick the headlines. Makiya’s argument is more nuanced than the headline would suggest. Makiya writes:
If the 1991 war was about the restoration of the Arab state system, the 2003 war called into question that system’s very legitimacy. That’s why support from Arab monarchies was not forthcoming in 2003, when a new, more equitable order was on the agenda in Iraq… All the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was asking for in December 2010 was dignity and respect. That is how the Arab Spring began, and the toppling of the first Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein, paved the way for young Arabs to imagine it.
Here is Maass’ response:
While events in one country can impact other countries, this is a wish-based myth. It demonstrates a sad consequence of the Iraq war: its discredited backers are committing the same error they did in 2003, making dubious assertions without solid evidence… It is the right of Cheney, Rice, Makiya, Dan Senor, Fred Kagan, Joe Lieberman, and other backers of the war to argue as they wish and make whatever connections they wish, no matter how preposterous. But the rest of us are not obliged to keep a straight face; a skewering by Jon Stewart would be a better response than a respectful interview by, say, Wolf Blitzer. On the tenth anniversary of a war that killed more than a hundred thousand Iraqis and Americans, the authors of the catastrophe should do us the small favor of offering their chastened silence rather than their half-baked theories.
In her memoirs, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalls meeting with young Russian entrepreneurs in Moscow and, thinking the audience sympathetic to her concerns, knocked Russia’s state-dominated–and seemingly Soviet inspired–television stations. One of the men agreed: “Here is what our news looks like: The first story is about the great man [Putin]. The second is about agricultural production being up. The third is about whatever innocent people the United States killed today. The fourth is about the chosen successor to the great man.”
But having identified the problem, he seemed to dismiss it in the same breath. “But who watches television? We’re all on the Internet,” he told Rice. The secretary of state then went to meet with Putin’s handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev, and lodged the same complaint to him about Russian state media. He too agreed, and then added: “But who watches television? We’re all on the Internet.”
Did the invasion of Iraq lead to the Arab Spring? As a supporter of the operation to topple Saddam Hussein, I would like to think that it rippled outward to topple indirectly other noxious dictators from Gaddafi to, one hopes, Assad. But I remain unconvinced by the case made by the prominent former Iraqi dissident and author Kanan Makiya in this New York Times article.
Makiya makes many excellent and important points in the course of his analysis, but there is no direct evidence he can cite of the connection between the Arab Spring and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Indeed he has to concede: “Few of the brave young men and women behind the Arab Spring have been willing to publicly admit the possibility of a link between their revolutions and the end of Mr. Hussein’s bloody reign 10 years ago. These activists have for the most part vigorously denied that their own demands for freedom and democracy, which were organic and homegrown, had anything to do with a war they saw as illegitimate and imperialistic.”
Not all “Arab unrest” is equal. Consider these current headlines out of North Africa and try to spot the odd man out: “Libya’s south teeters toward chaos — and militant extremists,” “Egypt Takes Another Step Toward Autocracy—and Instability,” “Tunisia Sees Rising Jihadist Threat,” “Thousands march against Morocco government.” Chaos, autocracy, jihad, and … marching. Today in the Maghreb, where most populations are preyed upon either by unchecked authority or unchecked anarchy, Morocco is different. This is not an accident.
I was recently in Morocco, as a guest of its Institute of African Studies, and the point most Moroccans tried hardest to impress upon me was that their country is fundamentally unlike the failing and convulsed states around it.
In January, as the Syrian civil war closed in on its second anniversary, news broke that was tantalizingly close to a game-changer. Josh Rogin reported that a State Department cable indicated the strong belief that Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons. The next day, Rogin reported a stern denial from the State Department. In the fog of war, the two claims seemed to have roughly equal credibility. But the Obama administration’s denial raised some eyebrows, since President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons a clear red line that would necessitate intervention in the conflict. Was he moving the red line again, as he had appeared to do just months before, to avoid taking action?
The perception that President Obama was far too willing to find any excuse not to increase help to the Syrian rebels was especially unhelpful for the administration since the president had recently sent another dispiriting message to the Syrian opposition: the announcement of the nomination of John Kerry to be his next secretary of state. Kerry was, of course, one of the least perceptive American senators with regard to the cruelty of the man he called—as aides cringed—his “dear friend” Assad and bought hook, line and sinker the idea that the bloodthirsty tyrant might be ready to reform and moderate his behavior. So it’s not a complete surprise that, as Kerry seeks a meeting with them, the rebels are wondering whether they have any reason to let Kerry use them as props for a photo op to be almost certainly discarded thereafter. CBS News reports:
The so-called Arab Spring began more than two years ago when a Tunisian fruit vendor, upset by the Tunisian regime’s corruption and lack of accountability, set himself on fire. It soon became apparent that nearly every Arab country was a tinderbox, smoldering under dictatorship and popular discord.
A chief symbol of regional corruption was the leader’s son. Hosni Mubarak had his son Gamal, a bag man for the regime and for Mubarak’s personal fortune. Muammar Qaddafi had Saif, who traveled across Europe and the halls of Congress, charming almost every diplomat or congressman he met, and signing billions of dollars of deals along the way. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, penned a Foreign Policy piece about how the sons of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have transformed their connections into fortunes.
Throughout much of the rest of the Middle East—Kurd, Persian, and Turkish—the pattern is the same: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had Qubad Talabani; Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani had his son Masrour Barzani; and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has Ahmad Maliki. Indeed, across the Iraqi and Kurdish political spectrum, there are few politicians who do not transform their sons into business agents or recipients of nepotistic largesse.
That the Arab Spring has turned distinctly chilly throughout the Middle East is no surprise. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown itself as committed to anti-Semitism and antagonistic to democracy as its detractors feared. In Libya, militant Islamist factions continue to hamper Libya’s development, and make Benghazi and much of Libya unsafe. Syria remains embroiled in a civil war, which will see no winner emerge who will do anything but undermine regional security. Through all this bad news, however, diplomats could cling to Tunisia. The small, relatively wealthy North African country was the place where the Arab Spring first erupted. Even though Islamists had won Tunisia’s first elections, they appeared to hew a more moderate line, albeit with hiccups along the way.
Earlier today, Tunisia time, that changed:
Nobody could have seriously expected President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be pushed to explain their record of foreign policy failures in their joint interview on “60 Minutes” last night. With presidential sycophant Steve Kroft asking the questions there was little probing other than about their personal interrelations and the obligatory question about 2016 (which reminded us that the only real loser in the interview was Vice President Joe Biden who, despite being the adult in the White House when it comes to getting things passed through Congress, was sent the clear message that he is still an also-ran as far as the president is concerned). But there was one real nugget of information about the future of American foreign policy that the president let slip, and it actually deserves more attention than the titillating details about the Obama-Clinton alliance.
The real headline out of the interview ought to center on the following remark by the president in response to a rather soft question about his “lead from behind” strategy in the Middle East:
President Obama: Well, Muammar Qaddafi probably does not agree with that assessment, or at least if he was around, he wouldn’t agree with that assessment. Obviously, you know, we helped to put together and lay the groundwork for liberating Libya. You know, when it comes to Egypt, I think, had it not been for the leadership we showed, you might have seen a different outcome there.
Let me get this straight. President Obama is not merely bragging about a conflict in Libya that led to chaos not only in that country that produced the murders of four Americans including our ambassador. He is also saying that he thinks he positively impacted the outcome of the power struggle in Egypt over the last two years and actually thinks his “leadership” helped create a situation about which we are happy. So what he’s telling us is that he’s not merely pleased with what he did or didn’t do, but that he thinks the current situation in Cairo in which the most populous Arab country is now run by a Muslim Brotherhood government led by a raving anti-Semite is a good thing about which he can brag on national TV.
Watching political developments unfold in the Middle East—from Libya’s post-Qaddafi chaos to the growing authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Nouri al-Maliki in post-Saddam Hussein, and now the violent dissolution of post-Bashar Assad Syria—it is easy to despair of the possibility of real democracy taking root in the region or to pine for the days of the strongmen. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, offers a must-read counterpoint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. She reminds us that the process of democratic development was not very smooth in Western Europe either—that in fact it took decades, even centuries.
She offers the examples of France, Italy, and Germany: all now well-established liberal democracies but at one point they were anything but.
The most frustrating thing about being a liberal critic of Israel these days is the fact that the generally fractious people of the Jewish state are more or less united behind their government as it attempts to defend the country against terrorist assaults from Hamas. This consensus is rooted in the knowledge that neither the Islamist-controlled enclave in Gaza nor the supposedly more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has the faintest interest in peace. Left without any peace partners, Israelis understand their nation’s only choice is to do what it must to lessen the peril from rocket attacks while preparing for even greater threats such as that of a nuclear Iran.
The need to take a realistic approach to an intractable problem is merely common sense, but it still grates on Israel’s critics who still prefer to blame the victim rather than the aggressors. A classic example of such thinking was found in the form of an op-ed masquerading as a news analysis on the front page of the New York Times yesterday. Writing by former Times Jerusalem Bureau chief Ethan Bronner, the piece took as its premise that Israel was stuck in an outmoded mindset that refused to take into account the changing circumstances of the Middle East. Instead of realizing that the rise of a new wave of Islamist sentiment in the wake of the Arab Spring meant they should be more accommodating, Bronner wrote that the foolish Israelis are simply doubling down on their old tactics of being “tough” with the Arabs.
As Bronner writes:
What is striking in listening to the Israelis discuss their predicament is how similar the debate sounds to so many previous ones, despite the changed geopolitical circumstances. In most minds here, the changes do not demand a new strategy, simply a redoubled old one.
But what Bronner fails to comprehend is that the changes in the Arab world are exactly why Israel’s policies are correct.
While the international media has been focusing on the latest in the conflict between Iranian-backed groups in the Gaza Strip and Israel, events have started to boil over on the East Bank, in Jordan. Short synopsis: For well over a decade, King Abdullah II of Jordan has been promising reform. The reform has seldom moved beyond the promise, however. Abdullah II and his wife, the beautiful Queen Rania, may be popular in the West, but they are viewed through decidedly cynical eyes at home. Abdullah’s English is better than his Arabic, and Rania’s profligate lifestyle chafes ordinary Jordanians.
Jordanians see both as corrupt. The king has a scheme in which he sells crown land to the government, and pockets the money. No one points out that crown land and government land are pretty much the same thing. Another anecdote: Back in 2006, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was rushed to Jordan for emergency medical care. As he recovered, he handed out wads of cash to the doctors, nurses, and attendants. The hospital administrator ordered the tips collected, and then redistributed the “bonus” equally to those working, including those whom Talabani may not have seen. The comment among the doctors was it was a good thing Abdullah and Rania were nowhere around, because they would have simply taken the money, and not given any back.
At any rate, to the spark: After massive fuel price hikes, protests erupted and Jordanian security forces killed a protestor. After Friday prayers, protestors poured into the street and now openly call for King Abdullah II’s downfall. For a sampling of what some more radical Jordanian clerics were saying, Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi is a good place to start. Here’s how he explained it:
David Rieff has a long essay in the National Interest excoriating democracy promotion, which he deems a relic, a religion, and at this point in history “unwise.” But his essay is constructed around Russia and China, with the occasional nod to sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In his nearly 4,500 words, here are a few words and terms that do not appear a single time: “Middle East”; “Egypt”; “Tunisia”; “Libya”; “Syria”; and, bizarrely, “Arab Spring.”
To speak of the spread (or lack thereof) of democracy in 2012 while ignoring the Middle East seems woefully outdated. Rieff writes:
Considering that President Obama is running for reelection in no small part based on his foreign policy accomplishments, supposed or real, this long frontpage story by Helene Cooper and Robert Worth in the New York Times–hardly a hostile organ–paints a surprisingly mixed picture of his handling of the Arab Spring. On the one hand, it gives him credit for being ahead of some of his advisers in recognizing that Hosni Mubarak was finished by February 1, 2011, seven days after the start of demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
On the other hand, it argues that he was not especially skillful in managing the Arab Spring, especially in Bahrain, which led to tensions between the calls of human-rights advocates to back peaceful demonstrators and the demands of Gulf states to support the Bahraini monarchy, because he had not cultivated close relations with leaders in the region–or anywhere else. The article notes:
Shortly before protestors poured into the streets of Cairo’s Tahrir Square to put the final nail into the coffin of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the headline on the Presidential Daily Brief produced by the Central Intelligence Agency for the president was, according to word among administration officials, something to the effect of “Tunisian Unrest Unlikely to Spread to Egypt.”
It is no secret that the Arab Spring uprisings took not only the United States by surprise, but also the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamists as well. The Muslim Brotherhood filled the vacuum but, in recent days, the radicals appear to be unfurling a deliberate plan to whip up fervor and seize the initiative. The Bolsheviks are now supplanting the Mensheviks. This, too, appears to have caught the CIA and many of our diplomats stationed in the Middle East by surprise. It shouldn’t have: During the Iranian crisis 33-years ago, radicals seized the US Embassy as much to rally the hardliners for domestic reasons as they did out of animus toward the United States.
Given how common attacks on U.S. military and diplomatic personnel have become since the 1970s–the great age of international terrorism–it is a little startling to realize that it has been 33 years since an American ambassador was murdered by terrorists. It makes sense that the last such death–that of Ambassador Adolph Dubs in Afghanistan, on February 14, 1979–occurred in Afghanistan at the dawn of its agony, after a Communist coup but before the Soviet invasion. The year 1979 was, in fact, the year when militant Islam first became a major threat to the West. That was the year of the Iranian hostage crisis, the siege of Mecca, the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and, of course, the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan. That last gave rise to mujahideen groups some of which (e.g., the Haqqani Network) are now fighting American forces. We must hope that the tragic deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and other personnel at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya does not signal yet another era of anti-American attacks in the Middle East–but it might.
At the very least it suggests the uncertainties inherent in the Arab Spring, even in a country such as Libya, where relatively moderate forces have triumphed. The difficulty has been that the government in Tripoli has had trouble asserting its authority and disarming militia groups. Thus it was apparently a radical Islamist militia group that was behind the attack that killed Stevens. Some, no doubt, will take this attack as all the more reason why the U.S. should take a hands-off attitude toward the region. If only we had that luxury. But Libya and its neighbors remain of vital strategic importance for a variety of reasons–not least their oil–and our interests lie in helping the Libyan government to establish its authority. Indeed this latest attack shows just how important it is to step up security assistance–providing everything from weapons to advisers–so that the Libyan government can assert its authority over its own territory.
The Arab Spring has made reporters understandably excitable at the first sign of popular discontent in the Arab world, especially in places previously unaffected by the revolutionary wave. And so the Associated Press report out of Hebron yesterday took the step of repeating for readers just how unprecedented the Palestinian anti-government protests were. It began with this sentence: “Palestinian demonstrators fed up with high prices and unpaid salaries shuttered shops, halted traffic with burning tires and clashed with riot police in demonstrations across the West Bank on Monday— the largest show of popular discontent with the Palestinian Authority in its 18-year existence.”
Seven paragraphs later, the reporters made explicit the comparison, and in an attempt to ward off the dismissal of the analogy repeated again the rarity factor at work here: “The unrest was reminiscent of the mass demonstrations of the Arab Spring that topped aging dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and sparked civil war in Syria. While there is no sign that the protests are approaching that level, they nonetheless are the largest show of popular discontent with the governing Palestinian Authority in its 18-year history.” Yes, the AP is right: the protests have reached unprecedented levels. But the more interesting aspects of the public unrest are not the parallels with the Arab Spring, but the contrasts.
Last week’s terror attack on Egyptian army troops by jihadists whose ultimate aim was to kill Israelis provoked an unexpectedly harsh reaction from Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The chaos in the Sinai is the direct result of the revolution that brought down the Mubarak regime. The Hamas government looked to benefit from the triumph of their Muslim Brotherhood allies, but the embarrassing slaughter of Egyptians by anti-Israel terrorists has led the new government in Cairo to shut down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. The prospect of increased security cooperation between Egypt and the United States is slightly encouraging, though Israel’s exclusion from talks concerning its border is both spiteful and foolish.
But while the crackdown in the Sinai and along the border with Gaza may be a hopeful sign the new Egyptian government is unwilling to be dragged into conflict with Israel by the Palestinians, the real news in the aftermath of the shooting is very bad indeed. Morsi’s sacking of Egypt’s intelligence chief (who ignored warnings from Israel about a possible terror attack) is one thing, but the decision of the Egyptian leader to fire two of the country’s leading generals is more than just a personnel shuffle. If Morsi has assumed power of the country’s military, the notion that the army would or could act as a brake on the Muslim Brotherhood has been shown to be a myth. His firing of Egypt’s defense minister and the army chief of staff makes it clear the Brotherhood is now completely in control of the country. This calls into question not just the future of regional stability but the Obama administration’s equivocal attitude toward the Brotherhood’s push to power.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with the new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo and declared, “It’s clear that Egypt, following the revolution, is committed to putting into place a democratic government.” If so, neither “democratic” nor “clear” mean what they once did. Since taking power Morsi has ignored the violation of women’s and Christians’ rights, and his Muslim Brotherhood comrades have been drafting a constitution meant to elevate Islamists above all other Egyptians.
Critics of the Iraq War liked to say that ballots don’t equal democracy. Today a Muslim Brotherhood leader speaks the word “democracy” and its existence is taken as self-evident. The incredulity of the Bush years and the hypno-suggestibility of the moment are manifestations of the same popular wish: to extricate America from ideological battles in foreign lands.