Commentary Magazine


Topic: Arab Spring

America’s Priority? Stop the Brotherhood

While Secretary of State John Kerry is spending most of his time in office desperately trying to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the administration has seemingly struggled mightily to find a coherent approach to the turmoil in Egypt. After a year of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood government of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Obama foreign policy team was slow to wake up to the outrage this decision had generated inside Egypt or to understand the threat that the Islamist movement posed to the country’s future or American interests. Though this realization has been grudging, it is to their credit that they have resisted the impulse to label the Egyptian military’s actions as a coup (which is nothing less than the truth) or to exert much pressure on it to release Morsi or to cease its efforts to stifle the movement’s protests. But the escalating violence inside Egypt has heightened pressure on the administration to join the voices of outrage at the military’s violence against demonstrators or to use American aid to force it to stand down and restore what we are continually told was a democratically-elected government.

Some, including our Max Boot, believe this is exactly the time when American influence must be exerted to pressure Cairo to respect the human rights of its people and create an opening for moderate opposition figures that will gradually create a transition to genuine democracy. He’s right to point out that decades of U.S. support for tyrannies, such as the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, in the name of stability was a strategic mistake. Democracy promotion is not just an expression of idealism but a wise investment that will pay off in the long run. But though, along with many others, I might have been fooled into thinking the Arab Spring protests of 2011 in Cairo were the harbinger of democratic change, it’s now clear that such an outcome was never a possibility. America’s dilemma in Egypt today is not whether it will be associated with a military government but whether it will do whatever it can to aid the generals in their efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood never gets another chance to remake Egypt in their own image.

While encouraging democracy is embedded in America’s foreign policy DNA, it is vital that the administration understands that the main threat to both Egypt’s future and U.S. interests is the Brotherhood, not their military antagonists. Any effort or American pressure aimed at allowing the Brotherhood to get another shot at power, even by peaceful means, would, like the year of support for Morsi, be a tragic mistake.

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While Secretary of State John Kerry is spending most of his time in office desperately trying to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the administration has seemingly struggled mightily to find a coherent approach to the turmoil in Egypt. After a year of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood government of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Obama foreign policy team was slow to wake up to the outrage this decision had generated inside Egypt or to understand the threat that the Islamist movement posed to the country’s future or American interests. Though this realization has been grudging, it is to their credit that they have resisted the impulse to label the Egyptian military’s actions as a coup (which is nothing less than the truth) or to exert much pressure on it to release Morsi or to cease its efforts to stifle the movement’s protests. But the escalating violence inside Egypt has heightened pressure on the administration to join the voices of outrage at the military’s violence against demonstrators or to use American aid to force it to stand down and restore what we are continually told was a democratically-elected government.

Some, including our Max Boot, believe this is exactly the time when American influence must be exerted to pressure Cairo to respect the human rights of its people and create an opening for moderate opposition figures that will gradually create a transition to genuine democracy. He’s right to point out that decades of U.S. support for tyrannies, such as the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, in the name of stability was a strategic mistake. Democracy promotion is not just an expression of idealism but a wise investment that will pay off in the long run. But though, along with many others, I might have been fooled into thinking the Arab Spring protests of 2011 in Cairo were the harbinger of democratic change, it’s now clear that such an outcome was never a possibility. America’s dilemma in Egypt today is not whether it will be associated with a military government but whether it will do whatever it can to aid the generals in their efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood never gets another chance to remake Egypt in their own image.

While encouraging democracy is embedded in America’s foreign policy DNA, it is vital that the administration understands that the main threat to both Egypt’s future and U.S. interests is the Brotherhood, not their military antagonists. Any effort or American pressure aimed at allowing the Brotherhood to get another shot at power, even by peaceful means, would, like the year of support for Morsi, be a tragic mistake.

Like other totalitarian movements, Islamists may use democracy as a tool to gain power but they neither believe in it nor do they feel bound by it once in power. That point was demonstrated many times throughout the 20th century, but up until this month’s coup halted Morsi’s drive for hegemony, it was also being illustrated in Egypt. The coup was the last chance for secular and liberal Egyptians to stop the Brotherhood before it was too late. Had they been allowed to go on consolidating power, the idea that they would have ever relinquished it by peaceful means is farcical. Indeed, the only way to create even a minimal space for democratic development is for the military to ensure that the Brotherhood is permanently excluded from positions of power. Rather than urging the military to allow the Brotherhood a political outlet, the U.S. should be standing behind its efforts to forever end the threat of another Brotherhood government. In this case, it would be the lack of a crackdown on the Islamists that would set the stage for future problems rather than the opposite.

This opens the U.S. up to charges of hypocrisy when Washington speaks out against other tyrannies that may not be friendly to America. But taking a stand against the Brotherhood is not antithetical to democracy promotion. Indeed, struggling against it is the prerequisite for any hope for Egypt. While it may be wise for the administration to urge, as Max advises, repressive Arab monarchies that are U.S. allies to move toward democracy, that can’t mean tolerating Islamists whose only goal is to impose their theocratic views on the region. While Obama rightly doesn’t wish to be associated with shootings in the streets of Cairo, pressuring the military to let up in what may prove to be a life and death struggle against the Brotherhood would be a critical error. The president has gone from blunder to blunder ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring. It is vital that he doesn’t take another misstep and do anything, even in the name of the cause of democracy, that would serve to complicate the efforts of Egyptians seeking to stop the Brotherhood.

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The Sputtering Arab Spring

It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

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It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

This can be seen as part of the same struggle now playing out in Egypt and Syria between Islamists and their more secular adversaries. The United States has an obvious stake in the outcome–we don’t want to see a Middle East dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, although we also don’t want to see repressive military regimes that drive their population into terrorism.

This is why it’s vitally important–as Michael Doran and I argued in Foreign Policy magazine–to develop our capacity for waging political warfare, as we did in the early days of the Cold War, when the U.S. helped various anti-Communist forces. Today we should be helping anti-Islamist forces. Instead, because we have let our capacity for political warfare atrophy, we are forced to either send F-16s and Predators to push regime change (as in Libya in 2011) or sit by ineffectually (as in much of the Middle East ever since).

There needs to be a better way–the U.S. needs to be able to overtly and covertly support more moderate and secular forces in the battle over the future of countries such as Libya and Tunisia, where there is an excellent chance of a decent and democratic outcome. Instead the widespread perception is of American retreat, leaving our natural allies at the mercy of radicals.

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Arab Spring Prompts Arab-Israeli Christians to Reevaluate Israel

Today’s Israel Hayom has an important article about an Israeli Greek Orthodox priest that every Christian in the West should read. Father Gabriel Nadaf and his family are suffering harassment and even death threats from their fellow Arabs for arguing that Israeli Arab Christians should serve in the Israel Defense Forces. On Tuesday, he was even summoned to a disciplinary hearing by the local Greek Orthodox patriarch, Theophilus III, which ended with Theophilus keeping Nadaf in office but asking him to lower his profile. The account of the hearing given by one of Nadaf’s close associates, Shady Halul, is revealing:

“The patriarch told Father Nadaf that he is not an opponent of the state of Israel,” he said. “On the contrary, he is very appreciative of the security enjoyed by Christians in Israel. He did ask Nadaf to tone down his statements concerning his work with the forum so as to ensure the safety of Christians in the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states.”

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Today’s Israel Hayom has an important article about an Israeli Greek Orthodox priest that every Christian in the West should read. Father Gabriel Nadaf and his family are suffering harassment and even death threats from their fellow Arabs for arguing that Israeli Arab Christians should serve in the Israel Defense Forces. On Tuesday, he was even summoned to a disciplinary hearing by the local Greek Orthodox patriarch, Theophilus III, which ended with Theophilus keeping Nadaf in office but asking him to lower his profile. The account of the hearing given by one of Nadaf’s close associates, Shady Halul, is revealing:

“The patriarch told Father Nadaf that he is not an opponent of the state of Israel,” he said. “On the contrary, he is very appreciative of the security enjoyed by Christians in Israel. He did ask Nadaf to tone down his statements concerning his work with the forum so as to ensure the safety of Christians in the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states.”

It has become a truism among some Christian groups that Israel is primarily to blame for the suffering of Middle East Christians. In 2010, for instance, a synod of Catholic bishops from the Middle East blamed the Christian exodus from the region on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus it’s worth listening to what these Israeli Christians have to say: that Israel is actually the one place in the region where Arab Christians enjoy security; elsewhere, they are oppressed by their fellow Arab Muslims.

Even more noteworthy, however, is that since the Arab Spring erupted, the “forum” to which Halul referred in the above quote–the Forum for the Enlistment of the Christian Community, founded by a group of Christian IDF veterans–has seen a marked increase in the number of Christians seeking to enlist, though they still represent a minority of the Arab Christian community. Previously, many Arab Christians bought into pan-Arab ideology, and thus believed their interests lay with their fellow Arabs. But the Arab Spring shattered this ideology: In country after country, Arab Islamists have turned on fellow Arabs who fail to toe their religious line, and this, naturally, includes Christians. By comparison, Israel is a haven.

“We feel secure in the state of Israel,” Nadaf explained, “and we see ourselves as citizens of the state with all the attendant rights as well as obligations.”

Indeed, the shift is so marked that the forum even lobbied (successfully) to get Arab Christians integrated into Jewish units rather than into Bedouin units (Bedouin are the only Muslims who serve in the IDF in significant numbers), thereby opting to forgo the comfort of serving with other Arabic-speakers.

As I’ve written before, a similar sea change is occurring among the Druze of the Golan Heights: Since the Syrian civil war erupted, the number seeking Israeli citizenship has soared by hundreds of percent, after decades in which most preferred to retain Syrian citizenship. As one explained, “People see murdered children and refugees fleeing to Jordan and Turkey, lacking everything, and ask themselves: Where do I want to raise my children. The answer is clear–in Israel and not Syria.”

All this leaves only one question: When are those western Christian groups that reflexively view Israel as the root of all evil going to reach the same realization that Nadaf and his followers have?

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Obama’s Ominous Silence on Egypt Chaos

Egypt appears to be on the brink of chaos this week but the best advice America’s ambassador has for an embattled religious minority in the world’s most populous country is to stay home. The report about the visit of Ambassador Anne Patterson to Coptic Pope Tawadros II came from an Egyptian paper but is spreading rapidly around the Internet and being cited as an example of the tacit support the United States continues to show for the government of President Mohamed Morsi even as the country starts to fall apart. But with a mass protest scheduled for Sunday—the event Ambassador Patterson wanted Copts to stay away from—the president’s attitude toward the demonstrations that are shaking Morsi’s grip on power is more than a matter of curiosity.

This is, after all, an administration that did a lot to encourage the first round of Arab spring protests in Egypt that took down longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak and ultimately replaced him with a Muslim Brotherhood government that may be far worse than the deposed authoritarian. But with Morsi’s calling on loyal army units to be reinforced and to be prepared for what may be an effort to suppress the protests, the White House has been remarkably quiet about what’s going on in Egypt.

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Egypt appears to be on the brink of chaos this week but the best advice America’s ambassador has for an embattled religious minority in the world’s most populous country is to stay home. The report about the visit of Ambassador Anne Patterson to Coptic Pope Tawadros II came from an Egyptian paper but is spreading rapidly around the Internet and being cited as an example of the tacit support the United States continues to show for the government of President Mohamed Morsi even as the country starts to fall apart. But with a mass protest scheduled for Sunday—the event Ambassador Patterson wanted Copts to stay away from—the president’s attitude toward the demonstrations that are shaking Morsi’s grip on power is more than a matter of curiosity.

This is, after all, an administration that did a lot to encourage the first round of Arab spring protests in Egypt that took down longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak and ultimately replaced him with a Muslim Brotherhood government that may be far worse than the deposed authoritarian. But with Morsi’s calling on loyal army units to be reinforced and to be prepared for what may be an effort to suppress the protests, the White House has been remarkably quiet about what’s going on in Egypt.

The problem here is that as far as many Egyptians are concerned, they have merely swapped a secular tyrant for a theocratic one and now see that that placing the Brotherhood in power was a terrible mistake. The Brotherhood hasn’t shown much aptitude for government and its actions have given the lie to the promises its leaders made to naïve Western journalists about not wishing to impose their fanatical religious beliefs on the rest of the nation.

There was a moment when Obama could have used the limited leverage that the U.S. has over the situation due to the billions it gives Egypt every year to try and help the military keep the Islamists from taking power. But instead, Obama pressured the army to let the Brotherhood rule. Now, after having been placed under Morsi’s thumb as part of a number of measures undertaken to solidify his party’s grasp on every aspect of Egypt’s government, the Islamists are looking to the army to help keep them in control and the U.S. seems to have nothing more helpful to say about than to tell Christians to stay out of it.

As with the protests that have shaken the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—another Obama favorite—the U.S. has adopted a position of indifferent silence toward pro-democracy protesters in Cairo and other Egyptian sites where demonstrations have spread. This is very different from the outspoken position the administration took in 2010 when the Arab Spring protests spread across the region.

The question Americans ought to be asking about U.S. policy toward Egypt is why it was in the interests of the U.S. to support the Arab Spring in 2010 but not to support those Egyptians who wish to prevent their country from falling irrevocably into the hands of Islamists? The inability of the White House to provide a coherent answer to that query can be directly linked to the decline in U.S. influence in the region and the daunting prospects of even worse to come in the future.

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Why Do Academics Downplay Repression?

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)—the NGO of the Society of Friends or Quakers—won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, largely for its work with refugees, children, and prisoners of war during both World Wars I and II. The AFSC stayed neutral—a principle which it embraced strictly at the time—but by the 1970s, the AFSC had allowed leftism to trump pacifism. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the politicization of the AFSC and its moral unbearing than how it shilled for Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge—an episode discussed at length in Guenter Lewy’s Peace and Revolution, until evidence of that group’s murder of a million citizens became insurmountable. Why politics blinded AFSC officials to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge up until that group’s public exposure, however, is something that the Society of Friends has never adequately explained.

Another episode—albeit one not involving genocide—involves the many American foreign policy thinkers who were willing to give the Islamic Republic of Iran if not a pass on human rights prior to the 2009 post-election unrest than at least a blind eye. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen—who traveled to Iran and wrote many columns more critical of American policy than that of the Islamic Republic—only had his epiphany about the true rottenness of the Islamic Republic after he witnessed the 2009 unrest. Likewise, prior to 2009, anti-Iran sanctions activist Trita Parsi hardly even paid lip service to Iranians’ human rights and only after the elections did he decide he would no longer dine with Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In reality, however, there has been no substantive difference between the Islamic Republic pre-2009 and post-2009. Evin Prison might be full now, but it was not empty in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. While many liberals and progressives mark 2009 as the turning point in their assessment of Iran, there has been little introspection as to why they were willing until then to give such a repressive government the benefit of the doubt.

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The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)—the NGO of the Society of Friends or Quakers—won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, largely for its work with refugees, children, and prisoners of war during both World Wars I and II. The AFSC stayed neutral—a principle which it embraced strictly at the time—but by the 1970s, the AFSC had allowed leftism to trump pacifism. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the politicization of the AFSC and its moral unbearing than how it shilled for Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge—an episode discussed at length in Guenter Lewy’s Peace and Revolution, until evidence of that group’s murder of a million citizens became insurmountable. Why politics blinded AFSC officials to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge up until that group’s public exposure, however, is something that the Society of Friends has never adequately explained.

Another episode—albeit one not involving genocide—involves the many American foreign policy thinkers who were willing to give the Islamic Republic of Iran if not a pass on human rights prior to the 2009 post-election unrest than at least a blind eye. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen—who traveled to Iran and wrote many columns more critical of American policy than that of the Islamic Republic—only had his epiphany about the true rottenness of the Islamic Republic after he witnessed the 2009 unrest. Likewise, prior to 2009, anti-Iran sanctions activist Trita Parsi hardly even paid lip service to Iranians’ human rights and only after the elections did he decide he would no longer dine with Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In reality, however, there has been no substantive difference between the Islamic Republic pre-2009 and post-2009. Evin Prison might be full now, but it was not empty in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. While many liberals and progressives mark 2009 as the turning point in their assessment of Iran, there has been little introspection as to why they were willing until then to give such a repressive government the benefit of the doubt.

The current unrest in Turkey continues the pattern. The protests which have now spread to dozens of Turkish towns and cities have deeper roots than the destruction of a small urban park. Perhaps it’s understandable that so many former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey pooh-poohed the erosion of basic freedoms in Turkey; after all, so many used their Turkish connections as golden parachutes after their retirement from the Foreign Service or, perhaps they feel more nobly, as sources to fundraise for various think tanks or academic programs in which they now sit. Others say quite openly—in private—that the need for access or worries about family remaining in Turkey leads them to temper criticism of the AKP. Some Turks self-censor out of fear for their jobs, while others cravenly act as propagandists, providing cover for the Turkish government’s war on the press in exchange for privilege and access.

When political Islamism is added to the mix, too many are willing to dismiss the erosion of liberty in order to stay on the correct side of political correctness. Here, for example, are two Turkey analysts a week before the nationwide protests began lamenting how analysts—with special snark reserved for yours truly—might utilize news of Erdoğan’s war on beer to promote the narrative (which they believed false) that Erdoğan might be trying to impose his social will and Islamize secular Turkey. Since the protests erupted, there has not been subsequent introspection about why they were so anxious to dismiss a repression which so many Turks so clearly felt and which so many now protest against.

It is a tragedy that so many American officials and analysts equate acquiescence to the erosion of liberty with sophistication and prioritize heeling to conventional wisdom with open and honest analysis of data. Too many countries—Iran, Turkey, China, Iraqi Kurdistan and Russia—use access as leverage to temper the criticism of analysts and academics.

When it comes to Iran and Turkey, there is also the bubble factor: Many of those traveling to Tehran remain in relatively cosmopolitan northern Tehran rather than Islamshahr or the Western neighborhoods in which so many Revolutionary Guardsmen live. And when it comes to Turkey, there is nothing more corrosive to good analysis than those congressional delegations or tourists that might visit central Istanbul or Ankara, but never visit Sultanbeyli or Kayseri where few tourists venture but Islamism is on full display.

Let us hope that after Cambodia, Iran, and Turkey, those enjoying Western freedoms will understand how tenuous such freedoms are. Whether motivated by some perverse form of Communism as in Cambodia or by political Islam as in Iran or Turkey, or by some other ideology, it does not take much for politicians to grow impatient with resistance to their ideology or agenda. The Khmer Rouge made no secret of their disdain for democracy, but both Ayatollah Khomeini—in the months before his return to Iran—and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan understood how powerful the rhetoric of democracy could be when trying to achieve the opposite aim and so cultivated a coterie of useful idiots along the way.

Perhaps if there’s any lesson, therefore, the default position for analysts should be skepticism: Analysts of Turkey, Iran, Egypt, or anywhere else should always assume liberty to be under threat unless the governments’ actions prove the opposite. Nor should analysts ever acquiesce to constraints against individual freedoms in the name of religion.

Iran and, alas, Egypt may now be too far gone, but the Turkish Spring provides hope that liberals will fight for their rights. Let us hope that they will have as much support for the cause of liberty as their opponents did when they sought to roll back freedoms.

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Egypt’s Self-Defeating Scapegoating

A few days ago I blogged about an article written by a former Pakistani official, Akbar Ahmed, who attributes the growing strength of Islamist militants in his country to America’s program of drone strikes. Since then an Egypt court has convicted 43 foreign NGO workers of operating without a licensing and receiving foreign financing while they worked to promote democracy in Egypt. What’s the connection between these two events?

Both reflect the unfortunate pattern in the Muslim world of blaming outsiders–especially Westerners–for all their problems. The Egyptian authorities are widely suspected of launching their prosecution in order to deflect attention from all the terrible news since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian economy is in freefall and law and order is breaking down. Instead of confronting these problems in a serious fashion, the Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates the Egyptian government, would prefer to scapegoat foreign NGO workers for supposedly undermining Egyptian institutions. In much the same way Akbar Ahmed and many other Pakistanis would prefer to ignore the deep ills of their society–principally, as in Egypt, a corrupt, ineffective government that cannot tend to the basic needs of its people, from security to education–and instead blame outsiders, in their case the dread Americans and their high-tech drones.

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A few days ago I blogged about an article written by a former Pakistani official, Akbar Ahmed, who attributes the growing strength of Islamist militants in his country to America’s program of drone strikes. Since then an Egypt court has convicted 43 foreign NGO workers of operating without a licensing and receiving foreign financing while they worked to promote democracy in Egypt. What’s the connection between these two events?

Both reflect the unfortunate pattern in the Muslim world of blaming outsiders–especially Westerners–for all their problems. The Egyptian authorities are widely suspected of launching their prosecution in order to deflect attention from all the terrible news since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian economy is in freefall and law and order is breaking down. Instead of confronting these problems in a serious fashion, the Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates the Egyptian government, would prefer to scapegoat foreign NGO workers for supposedly undermining Egyptian institutions. In much the same way Akbar Ahmed and many other Pakistanis would prefer to ignore the deep ills of their society–principally, as in Egypt, a corrupt, ineffective government that cannot tend to the basic needs of its people, from security to education–and instead blame outsiders, in their case the dread Americans and their high-tech drones.

This is a pattern that Bernard Lewis, Fouad Ajami, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Michael Doran, and other respected scholars of the Islamic world have been writing about for years. The Arab Spring seemed to represent a welcome break from this dysfunctional habit of denial. The demonstrations in the streets were, if nothing else, a recognition by millions of Arabs that their problems begin at home, with their own governments. Israel, the United States, and other convenient scapegoats were seldom if ever mentioned by the crowds gathering in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or other locales. But this realization appears to have been temporary and fleeting, and now many in the Islamic world continue to look for scapegoats rather than confronting their own domestic ills head-on.

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Turkish Protests Expose Obama’s Hypocrisy

One of the keynotes of President Obama’s foreign policy throughout his first term has been an attempt to pay lip service to the Arab Spring protests against authoritarian regimes throughout the Muslim world. Those sentiments were not matched with strategies that were designed to enhance the efforts of those who were advocating more freedom or even to ward off the unintended consequences of the unrest, such as the rise of Islamist parties like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Yet in spite of those failures the president has never stopped trying to pose as a friend of Arab liberty even if he did nothing to help that cause. But the recent demonstrations in Turkey have exposed Obama’s policies in a way that perhaps no other development has done.

By continuing to support the Turkish ruling party, as it now becomes the subject of anger from its citizens, the administration is showing its true colors. If Obama is not prepared to criticize his friend who heads up the government in Ankara the way he has done other regimes that came under fire, then it shows that the talk about democracy was just so much hot air and that when push comes to shove, the president would rather befriend an Islamist ruler than embrace the pleas of the Turkish people for change.

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One of the keynotes of President Obama’s foreign policy throughout his first term has been an attempt to pay lip service to the Arab Spring protests against authoritarian regimes throughout the Muslim world. Those sentiments were not matched with strategies that were designed to enhance the efforts of those who were advocating more freedom or even to ward off the unintended consequences of the unrest, such as the rise of Islamist parties like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Yet in spite of those failures the president has never stopped trying to pose as a friend of Arab liberty even if he did nothing to help that cause. But the recent demonstrations in Turkey have exposed Obama’s policies in a way that perhaps no other development has done.

By continuing to support the Turkish ruling party, as it now becomes the subject of anger from its citizens, the administration is showing its true colors. If Obama is not prepared to criticize his friend who heads up the government in Ankara the way he has done other regimes that came under fire, then it shows that the talk about democracy was just so much hot air and that when push comes to shove, the president would rather befriend an Islamist ruler than embrace the pleas of the Turkish people for change.

Let’s specify that America’s attitude toward Turkey is complicated. First of all, it is a NATO ally and a nominal democracy. The United States also needs Turkey to be a responsible actor in a region where even more hostile powers, such as Iran and Russia, are creating havoc. It is also true that Turkey is key to efforts to oust the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and in any hope of preventing Iran and its Hezbollah allies from consolidating its axis of power there.

But some of the same things—at least insofar as regional stability is concerned—could have been said about the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt. But in that case the president lost no time in throwing a longtime American ally under the bus. I am not one of those who blame the president for Mubarak’s fall. The longtime dictator could not have been saved even with energetic American support and there was a good argument to be made that what the U.S. needed to do was to get out in front of the problem and support Egyptian moderates and to encourage the army to do a deal with them to bring about a peaceful transition to a new government. But instead of doing that, the U.S. encouraged the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and used its economic leverage to prevent the army from stopping the Islamists from taking power.

But in Turkey, the Islamists are already in power and have spent, as our Michael Rubin has documented many times, the last several years transforming an imperfect democracy into an authoritarian state. Yet it is the person who has been the architect of that depressing move away from freedom, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who seems to be President Obama’s favorite foreign leader. Erdoğan was recently in the U.S. for meetings in Washington and got his customary warm welcome from his pal in the Oval Office. The U.S. has worked hard to get the Turks to back away from open conflict with Israel. But even though an Israeli apology solved the flotilla controversy, the Turks continue to be ardent supporters of Hamas and therefore part of the problem rather than the solution.

Yet with the Turkish people beginning to push back against the seemingly inexorable drive of Erdoğan’s AKP to Islamicize what was once a thoroughly secular country, surely what is required from the president of the United States is more than a hug for his friend in Ankara. An American government that did not hesitate to embrace the Tunisian and Egyptian protests yet which stayed silent when demonstrators took to the streets in Istanbul—just as it did when Tehran was the scene of massive protests against another Islamist regime in 2009—has opened itself up to charges of hypocrisy as well as incompetence.

Americans cannot be guardians of the freedom of all other nations, but surely the U.S. government must be a friend to the cause of liberty if it is to keep faith with the values that have sustained our nation. No one should have any illusions as to the AKP relinquishing power simply because the Turkish people have taken to the streets. But if this episode passes without an expression of American support for those seeking reform in Turkey, then it will confirm that the Obama administration’s version of realpolitik has more to do with the president’s level of comfort with Islamist regimes than it does with American strategic interests.

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Obama’s “New Beginning” Lies in Ruin

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:

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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:

  • The U.S. is preparing plans for a possible Syrian collapse.
  • Egyptian President Morsi shuffled his government, strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood and sparking opposition complaints.
  • House Republicans plan to question State Department officials about the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

It looks to me as if Mr. Obama’s work here on earth seems to be falling rather short of what we might expect; and that the president’s New Beginning has made that part of the world less just, more violent, and more dangerous than the world he inherited.

It is disquieting to realize that in virtually every area, the gap between what Barack Obama promised and what his policies have produced is as cavernous as that of any president in modern times.

Barack Obama wanted to do the job of a president. It just turns out he wasn’t up to it.

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Trouble on the Golan: Rabin’s Prescience

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:

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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:

“No military officer would want to give this up,” Powell replied. He then surprised everyone by arguing that the only way Israel could be convinced to withdraw from the Golan Heights would be if the United States were prepared to insert a brigade of American troops–some four thousand GIs–on the Golan. Unlike the Israel-Egypt peace treaty observer force deployed in the Sinai, which contained only one battalion of American troops, he said the Golan deployment would need to be a full-fledged fighting force to signal Syria and the Arab world that if they broke the peace agreement they would have to tangle with the U.S. Army.

“It would be worth it,” the president responded.

Obviously none of this ever came to pass, but Israeli withdrawal from the Golan has been sought by Assad the younger, as well as current Secretary of State John Kerry as of just before the Arab Spring. But on this, as on many aspects of Middle East policy, the Arab Spring has changed the calculus. Rabin, however, has proven prescient. Not only was he right about the Palestinians coming to the table when they thought they might be sold out or eclipsed by the Syrians, but he also understood that if Israel were to withdraw its civilians and troops and keep them out of the Golan, the peace treaty would need real teeth.

You can see from the Powell-Clinton conversation that Rabin also understood the danger of Golan withdrawal better than they did, though Powell was quite serious about what it would take to enforce it. The problem as Rabin saw it was not the worry that Assad would break the deal–though of course that was a concern–but rather that in Assad’s absence, and the possible resulting anarchy or new regime, the agreement would essentially be nullified.

Fast forward to today, as Reuters reports just why Israel has always worried about giving up the Golan in the event of the death or overthrow of the regime with whom they would have signed the deal:

Austrian U.N. peacekeepers, fearing their safety due to fighting in Syria, will assess on a daily basis if they can stay to monitor a truce between Israel and Syria, Austria’s foreign minister said on Friday.

Israel is anxious for the peacekeepers to remain, worried that the Golan will become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by Islamist militants fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The article notes that Japan and Croatia have both said they were going to withdraw their own soldiers from the peacekeepers. Austria’s absence would leave a void: Reuters says they make up 380 of the 1,000 peacekeepers. Additionally, how feasible would it be to replace them under these conditions? Peacekeepers have been attacked and kidnapped as the civil war has progressed, and Israel has already had to respond to shelling from Syrian territory.

All this, it should be noted, is happening with Israel still controlling the Golan. The threat is therefore extant but limited. Were the Golan in Syrian hands, the situation would be a chaotic security crisis for Israel, especially when combined with the tense border standoff with Hezbollah in south Lebanon (and Gaza to the south). Had Clinton’s plan been implemented, and all else equal–though I should stress the futility of playing “what if?”–American troops might now be involved in a land war in Syria trying to tamp down an insurgency. In such a case, could American troops withstand the attempts to draw them into nearby Lebanon as well, which would certainly come at some point?

Again, it’s all speculative. But it’s also clear that when Israeli leaders stress the need for defensible borders, they usually know exactly what they are talking about. And when they say that a durable peace agreement, especially in an era of falling dictators, must have popular support–as they do when they criticize Palestinian incitement and government-sponsored anti-Semitic indoctrination–they’re right about that too.

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“I’m Right. You’re Wrong. Shut Up”

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.

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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.

Put aside the fact that Maass seems motivated more by spite than analysis, and hence undercuts his argument by cherry-picking (why not also cite Richard Haass, John Kerry, Colin Powell, Al Gore, and Chuck Hagel, all of whom were for the war before they were against it?). To support his view that the Iraq war set back democracy, Maass cites Paul Pillar, a former CIA employee whose history as a prognosticator and policy adviser is questionable at best. Still, Pillar is half right when he writes, “Rather than being inspired by what happened in Iraq after the invasion, Middle Easterners were repelled by it. If the violence, disorder, and breakdown of public services in Iraq were the birth pangs of a new Middle Eastern order, most people in the region wanted nothing of it.”

The reason why Iran and Syria, for example, supported insurgent groups was precisely because they did not want an example to exist of successful democracy taking hold in a neighbor. Maass questions Makiya’s lack of evidence—and, indeed, Makiya’s column can be faulted for being both rambling and light—but evidence does exist. The conversation did change significantly. In 2008, some colleagues and I compiled several essays by Arab scholars and activists looking at the debate regarding dissent and reform in various Arab countries. While many Arabs condemned the Iraq war as liberation turned to occupation, their condemnation was often less about “democracy” and more about what mistakes were made in Iraq, and how to correct them.

In 2005, I was in the Mosul and Sinjar area when elections occurred in Syria. One quip I heard from visiting Syrians was that Syria had had the first free elections in 50 years, but only Iraqis were allowed to participate (as they lined up at the Iraqi embassy in Damascus to vote). Five years later, I heard similar conversations in Kfar Soussa, a Baathist neighborhood in Damascus where Iraqi election posters still dotted walls and lamp posts. Only on American college campuses and perhaps in some European parlor halls do people still believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the end-all and be-all of problems in the Middle East.  

The real problem in Iraq came not with its liberation, but when the “development mafia” transformed the ouster of a horrendous dictator into endless mission creep that expended billions of dollars for little gain. Certainly George W. Bush deserves blame for allowing this to happen. One of the greatest lessons we should learn from both Iraq and Afghanistan should not be that military force against dictators and terrorists is wrong, but rather that too much multilateralism and flooding countries with assistance that do not have the capacity to develop it is.

That is not to diminish Bouazizi and the masses in Tahrir Square who demanded accountability, nor should saturation by satellite and cell phones be dismissed. Still, Paul Wolfowitz is probably right when he writes it is too soon to tell what the Iraq war’s true legacy is. Maass is welcome to his opinion, and he could contribute well to the debate if he based his argument more on evidence than on ad hominem attack. Seeking to shut opponents up for the sin of disagreement is usually a sign that the proposed censor lacks the capacity to win the argument by other means.

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State Sovereignty and Social Media

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.”

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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.”

Rice was surprised by Medvedev’s candor and the young Russians’ nonchalance about state TV propagandizing. No one in Russia, however, would have been: the rowdy Russian blogosphere has long replaced conventional media interaction, though there is some opposition engagement on radio. In the land of head-spinning bureaucracy, the Internet remained largely free and served as a valuable release valve for the Russian people.

But the Russian government has, since Medvedev’s conversation with Rice, sought to chip away at that freedom. And its efforts have increased since the Arab Spring demonstrated–even if it may have exaggerated–the power of social media and online organizing to work toward a more level playing field. Vladimir Putin’s approach to governing in Russia has been guided by the grand bargain: don’t challenge Putin in the political sphere, and you can have basic freedom in your private life. Once Putin sensed the danger the Internet posed to his authority, it went from the latter to the former, as Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write at Foreign Policy:

The Single Register, officially introduced on Nov. 1, 2012, aimed to solve this problem. Three government agencies — the Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications), the Federal Antidrug Agency, and the Federal Service for the Supervision of Consumer Rights and Public Welfare — submit data for the government’s black list of sites. Service providers are then required to block access to sites within 24 hours of their blacklisting on the Single Register.

Since November 1, hundreds of websites have been banned from the Russian Internet….

In August 2012, at a meeting organized by the Ministry of Communications, a working group of representatives of the country’s biggest telecom companies concluded that the only way to implement the law which established the Single Register was through deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which allows Internet service providers to peer into people’s Internet traffic and read, copy, or even modify e-mails and webpages. DPI also helps identify users — what is downloaded by whom, and who looked for what on the Internet. By late fall 2012, all the biggest telecoms in Russia had DPI operational on their networks.

This effort also built on earlier initiatives. Russia’s security services started buying special software from companies such as Analytic Business Solutions, SyTech, iTeco, and Medialogia for monitoring in the mid-2000s. The most famous example was in 2006, on the eve of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, when the Interior Ministry bought a “Random Information Collection System” from the Russian software company Smartware — as a precaution, it claimed, against extremism. Now dozens of Russian companies supply software to monitor the activities of opposition groups — or anyone, theoretically — in social networks.

They also report on the evidence that Russia’s foreign intelligence agency is working to develop software that would enable it to manipulate social media at home and abroad, specifically aimed at the former Soviet states in Russia’s near-abroad. At a recent international conference, Soldatov and Borogan write, the Russian delegation pushed for Internet-based “sovereignty” protections which, when combined with the attempts to control social media in nominally independent Eastern European states, would amount to a kind of digital sphere of influence–something they plan to push for again at the next meeting of the G8. Soldatov and Borogan also raise the possibility that Putin will try to force companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google (mainly for its Gmail component) to host their Russian activities on Russian soil: “If this were to happen, such services would then be subject to local legislation and forced to build in backdoors for monitoring or manipulation by the secret services.”

Putin may be overestimating his ability to control Russia’s Internet or stay one step ahead of his savvy and spirited opposition. But he certainly hasn’t misread the West, which has done everything possible in the last few years to reinforce Putin’s sense of entitlement to a sphere of influence. If he can have such leeway on land, it’s no surprise he believes he can have such border control in cyberspace. Activists the world over will no doubt be paying close attention to whether the West will fold on this too.

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The Iraq War and the Arab Spring

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.”

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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.”

Given the lack of statements from Arab Spring leaders crediting the U.S. invasion as their inspiration, what evidence is there of its wider impact? Makiya writes: “After 2003, the edifice of the Arab state system began to crack elsewhere. In 2005, thousands of Lebanese marched in the streets to boot out the occupying Syrian Army; Palestinians tasted their first real elections; American officials twisted the arm of Hosni Mubarak to allow Egyptians a slightly less rigged election in 2006; and a new kind of critical writing began to spread online and in fiction.”

The problem is that the timing does not line up. The U.S. invasion of Iraq occurred in 2003. The Arab Spring did not occur until 2011. In the meantime Iraq was devastated by deadly civil war, which was hardly an advertisement for what happens after you topple an Arab strongman. The clearest example of Iraq inspiring change elsewhere was probably in Lebanon where the short-lived Cedar Revolution took place, as Makiya notes, in 2005. But elsewhere it is hard to find much positive impact from the events in Iraq. It might have been different if the U.S. had done a better job of preparing for a post-Saddam status quo.

But while America made grievous mistakes in Iraq, the way the county has turned out is not all our fault. One of Makiya’s most powerful points is to warn against the “hubris” of thinking “that what America does or doesn’t do is all that matters. The blame for the catastrophe of post-2003 Iraq must be placed on the new Iraqi political elite.” He is right. In fact the surge in 2007-2008 bought the Iraqi political elite another chance, but my concern is that they are now blowing this opportunity, with the country regressing into the soft authoritarianism of Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite sectarian supporters.

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The Other Arab Spring?

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.

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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.

And so it is. The kingdom has a functioning parliamentary system. And in 2011, responding to the sentiments unleashed by the Arab Spring, King Mohamed VI held a referendum on the country’s constitution. The resulting document calls for greater participation of elected parties and a Moroccan prime minister. It also newly enumerates a welcome assortment of rights and freedoms. A large-scale decentralization effort is underway to transfer various responsibilities from the king to elected bodies around the country. Whether the diffusion of power will be mostly genuine or cosmetic, continuous or stalled, remains to be seen. But Morocco is certainly not Libya or Egypt or Tunisia.

Mohamed VI appears to be a sincere reformer but he is undoubtedly a savvy king. Expanding the space for consensual governance was the best way to preserve the monarchy. A quick glance around the region tells you all you need to know about rulers who swam against the spring tide. And in truth, Morocco’s previous king, the far tougher Hassan II, began a program of very modest reform in the 1990s, long before Arab tweeters celebrated their flash-mob “victory” in Tahrir Square. So today Moroccans occasionally march, in small and peaceful numbers. It is a blessing that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

But while Moroccan achievement deserves praise, it’s no guarantee of long-term stability or moderation. On this, it was my turn to impress the point upon several Moroccans. The topic came up in regard to the Justice and Development Party (PJD), the largest party in parliament and that of the Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane. PJD, you see, is Islamist. And while some Moroccans expressed concern about what PJD members would do if they came to office in future local elections, most were quick to point out that the king and the constitution simply render authentic political Islam a non-starter. Additionally, PJD is widely understood to be that ever-elusive, quasi-mythic giant squid of Middle Eastern affairs—a moderate Islamist party. 

It’s true that in my limited travels I witnessed a good deal of modern and indulgent living, and the Islamists in office cast no shadow on the day-to-day affairs of those with whom I came into contact. I saw many accomplished, uncovered women drinking alcohol and spied only a handful of dour men with fanned beards.

But “It can’t happen here” is an insufficient credo for any people anywhere. It undermines vigilance. And Morocco’s wonders notwithstanding, liberal Moroccans can’t afford to be complacent. The world has yet to see a self-described moderate Islamist party hold to its vow of moderation over the long term. Moreover, within Morocco’s diverse human mosaic reside hundreds of thousands of decidedly non-moderate Islamists. These are the members or associates of the organization Justice and Charity. Unlike PJD, Justice and Charity is non-political. But it wasn’t so long ago that we were assured the Muslim Brotherhood had no designs on the Egyptian presidency.

Historically, the appeal of political Islam owes much to the absence of other compelling political ideas. I thought of this when a Moroccan women’s rights champion explained to me that in her country “politics isn’t connected to values. Politics is about power.” When every other party’s platform is as inspiring as an NFL team playbook, the sincerity and purpose of the Islamists’ can shine in comparison.

This is all to say that King Mohamed VI is threading the eye of an unforgiving needle. He must proceed with democratic decentralization quickly and blatantly enough to satisfy a reform-minded public, but not so recklessly as to give newly empowered parties the means to undermine the largely moderate nature of Morocco.

In the context of the Arab Spring, Barack Obama has talked often about the need for democratic change to come from within a given country. He’s articulated his preference for reform over revolution and has pledged to stand by leaders who show a willingness to move forward on human rights issues. It would seem, therefore, that the president should take a special interest in Morocco.

The most compelling case for American involvement in Morocco, however, rests on national security. For the United States, conflicts in Northern Africa largely go unnoticed—before manifesting as unignorable crises. One such conflict now festers in the Western Sahara and could soon become explosive. Tens of thousands of refugees reside in bare-bones camps in the Algerian town of Tindouf. The camps are controlled by the Polisario Front, an Algerian backed leftist group opposed to Moroccan control of the Western Sahara. That the camps are reportedly run like huge cruel prisons might evoke some Western sympathy. But that they have also reportedly become a recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda-linked groups should spur the United States to action.

As it happens, the action called for is of the very type Obama favors: non-military diplomacy based on mutual compromise. In 2007, Morocco proposed an autonomy plan for the Western Sahara. Broadly speaking, if agreed to, autonomy would mean Western Saharans could govern themselves within the framework of the Moroccan constitution, and the Polisario camps would disappear. American officials have contented themselves with voicing support for the initiative. But without active diplomatic action from the United States it’s doubtful the Polisario and Algeria will take the proposal seriously.  

There’s no guarantee that the application of American diplomacy would bring the decades-old conflict to an end. But with some 50,000 nothing-to-lose desert refugees ripe for jihadist indoctrination, it’s hard to see the downside. Of course, the U.S. can always remain on the sidelines for another Mali- or Algeria-type conflagration to emerge and then watch as our allies try to put it out. Don’t assume, however, that we’ll always have Paris.

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Why the Syrian Rebels Don’t Trust Kerry

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:

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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 Syrian Opposition may boycott their first opportunity to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry, despite his efforts to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria and the Obama administration’s longtime support of a political transition away from the Assad regime.

That’s a lot of spin for one opening paragraph, giving the Obama administration credit for hoping Assad spontaneously combusts. But perhaps the reporter misses the obvious point that the rebels’ skepticism might not be despite, but rather because of, Kerry’s “efforts to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis,” which the rebels might suspect means giving up their fight for freedom in return for a superficial personnel change at the top of the regime.

Kerry certainly has done nothing to earn any credibility from the rebels in Syria or elsewhere, and so he won’t be granted it. But at the end of the day, as terrible a spokesman as Kerry is for the cause of freedom, it’s Kerry boss the rebels are speaking to by dissing Kerry. As we learned recently, Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, as well as David Petraeus and Leon Panetta, wanted to intervene in Syria on behalf of the rebels. Obama turned them down. Kerry, therefore, wasn’t selected as secretary of state to set diplomatic policy but rather because he was the perfect representative of the administration’s policy already in place.

Though the analogy is imperfect, the conflict’s trajectory has been reminiscent of another such rebellion: the insurgency sparked in Chechnya and which spread across the Caucasus, especially to Dagestan and Ingushetia. The first Chechen war was one of independence, as the Chechens were eager to exploit the breakup of the Soviet Union and claim a form of long-awaited retribution for the abuses inflicted upon them by the Russian empire–especially under Stalin–and go their own way. They defended themselves from Russia’s troops more ably than expected, and eventually incurred the wrath of Vladimir Putin, who was eager to make a name for himself with the second Chechen war.

But by that time five years later, the nature of the Chechen insurgency had had begun a dramatic change. The cause of Chechen independence would be effectively hijacked by an Islamist core that would go on to found the Caucasus Emirate and lead a band of insurgents easily able to replicate Putin’s brutality. The world could be forgiven for wondering just who they were supposed to be rooting for and turning their attention elsewhere.

The Syrian rebellion formed as part of the Arab Spring, but when the West refused to play favorites and get involved, others–notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia–did. Money and weapons started flowing ever faster to terrorist groups like the al-Nusra Front and other Islamist radicals. The West throws up its hands. And so Ricochet’s Judith Levy’s interview with the journalist Jonathan Spyer, who has reported from Syria throughout the conflict, contains this exchange:

Judith: So is it a foregone conclusion that a victorious rebellion will mean an Islamist Syria?

Jonathan: Well, I think it is more and more looking that way now. I’m not sure if that was the case right at the beginning. To some degree, what’s happened now — and I stress to some degree, I don’t want to say this is the whole picture, but to some degree what’s happening now is the result of Western policy.

It’s a Western policy that Clinton and others opposed, to no avail. And it’s a policy that John Kerry is perfectly suited to carry out, something of which the rebels seem to be well aware.

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Little Princes Survive the Arab Spring

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.

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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.

In Iran, they even have a nickname for such children: Popularly, they are referred to as Aghazadeh-ha, the sons of the nobles, a term which refers to the ability of men like Mehdi Rafsanjani or his brother Yasser to make tens of millions of dollars off the political connections of their father, former president Al Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

And the leadership of Turkey, which is far more Middle Eastern today than European, indulges in the same pattern. Behind closed doors, be it in Ankara, Moscow, Riyadh, or Washington, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not shy about telling foreign leaders or prominent businessmen that if they want pipelines or other deals to proceed, they should contract Çalik Holdings in which his son-in-law Berat Albayrak is chief executive.

[Çalik Energy, a subsidiary of Çalik Holdings, was a donor to the Atlantic Council, according to a disclosure which Atlantic Council chairman Fred Kempe made to the Wall Street Journal regarding questions surrounding former senator Chuck Hagel’s chairmanship; he might have simply said Erdoğan donated, because the laundering of cash through Çalik is standard operating procedure for the Turkish strongman].

Alas, the Arab Spring may have swept away one generation of dictators but it did not do away with the “Little Prince” phenomenon. David Schenker, perhaps Washington’s most consistently correct Arab affairs analyst, notes the pattern has now re-emerged in Cairo. According to the Associated Press:

Egypt’s aviation minister says the hiring of President Mohammed Morsi’s son to a highly-paid government job was justified, dismissing accusations of nepotism… Omar, one of the president’s five children and a recent university graduate, got the internally-advertised job in a department that usually hires with a starting monthly salary of $5,000. Such a figure is unheard of for new graduates in Egypt, where the starting salary for a government job can be as low as $75.

Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood is just as corrupt as the regime it replaced, if not more so.

It is a shame that the sons (or son-in-law, in the case of Turkey) of Middle Eastern leaders diminish themselves by seeking easy cash rather than to excel in their own fields. What a powerful symbol it might make if the son of a leader sought to excel as a doctor, engineer, or teacher. Cynics may say it’s understandable, and both realists and pessimists might point out that this is simply local culture. Regardless, perhaps there is no better metric of the seriousness of reform for diplomats to point to than the behavior of leaders’ children.

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Assassination Rocks Tunisia

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:

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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:

A prominent Tunisian opposition politician was shot dead outside his home on Wednesday, in a killing the prime minister condemned as a political assassination and a strike against the “Arab Spring” revolution. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said the identity of the killer of Shokri Belaid, a staunch secular opponent of the moderate Islamist-led government, was unknown.

Belaid, who died in the hospital after being shot in the capital Tunis, was a leading member of the opposition Popular Front party. The government has faced many protests over economic hardship. Hampered by declining trade with the crisis-hit euro zone, it has struggled to deliver the better living standards that many Tunisians had hoped for.

And it says Al Qaeda-linked militants have been accumulating weapons with the aim of creating an Islamic state. Police, who demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office last month, say they do not have the appropriate resources to deal with the threat from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and domestic Islamist militants who have easy access to weapons from neighboring Libya.

Let us hope that the Obama administration’s response to the cutting down of a prominent secular politician will not be to supply Tunisia’s Islamist rulers with F-16s or other advanced weaponry. And let us hope that the Obama administration and the State Department have a plan to prevent the Al Qaeda threat from taking root in Tunisia, and that the plan is not simply to sit on the sidelines and let the worst scenarios develop, something which has contributed to Al Qaeda’s rise in northern Mali and utter chaos in Syria.

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Why Is Obama Bragging About Egypt?

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.

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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.

Let me specify that I think many on the right give the president too much credit for what happened in Egypt. Sclerotic dictator Hosni Mubarak was going to fall no matter how much the U.S. tried to prop him up, so pinning the blame for the longtime U.S. ally’s collapse solely on Obama’s decision to cut him loose is to give that factor more importance than it deserves.

But Obama and Clinton do deserve serious blame for not continuing the Bush administration’s attempt to aid genuine Egyptian liberals prior to Mubarak’s fall. More importantly, they played a not unimportant role in helping to undermine the Egyptian military in its effort to prevent the country from sliding into the grip of the Muslim Brotherhood over the last year. Rather than back the military, the administration clearly signaled via threats of aid cutoffs that they should stand down and let the Brotherhood complete their power grab.

It would be one thing for the administration to approach the question of Egypt by saying that the creation of an Islamist government in Cairo with few, if any, checks on their power, endangering religious minorities, the peace with Israel and spouting hate wasn’t their fault. But for the president to actually brag about how his “leadership” played a key role in allowing Islamist Mohamed Morsi to achieve exactly the sort of power that we deplored when it was held by America’s friend Mubarak on the same weekend when tens of thousands of Egyptians returning to Tahrir Square this weekend to protest the Brotherhood putsch speaks volumes about his foreign policy agenda.

This is not merely an administration that doesn’t have a steady hand on the rudder, as its clueless approach to Syria demonstrates, but one that thinks having a hatemonger like Morsi and his Islamist crew achieving hegemony in Cairo is something they can brag about as a triumph for American foreign policy. It’s little wonder that Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah are so confident that they need not fear the impact of American “leadership” in the next four years.

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Have Patience with the Arab Spring

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.

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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.

France, after all, transitioned from absolute monarchy by way of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. This was followed by numerous further upheavals that Berman does not mention, including the Bourbon restoration from 1815 to 1830, the July Revolution of 1830, the Revolution of 1848, the proclamation of the Second Empire in 1851, the creation of the Third Republic in 1870, the Vichy regime from 1940 to 1944, and, finally, in 1958 the overthrow of the Fourth Republic and the birth of the Fifth Republic which has lasted to this day.

Germany, for its part, was forcibly created by Bismarck out of numerous smaller states in the decades leading up to 1871 and democracy did not emerge until after World War I—only to be snuffed out starting in 1933 by Adolf Hitler. Out of the post-war rubble emerged a West Germany that was democratic and an East Germany that was not. A unified, democratic Germany was not created until 1990.

As for Italy, it, too, did not emerge as a unified state until relatively late (1870). And it, too, saw its nascent democracy usurped by a fascist (Benito Mussolini), and it did not become a true liberal democracy until after World War II.

Nor was the process of democratization painless in the United States: It took two outright wars (the War of Independence and the Civil War) to establish self-government and another period of violent upheaval (the Civil Rights era of the 1950s-60s) to realize the potential of the Constitution.

Considering the tribulations suffered by the U.S. and Europe on the road to democracy, it is hardly surprising that the process of political reform is proving painful in the Middle East. As Berman reminds us: “Stable liberal democracy requires more than just a shift in political forms; it also involves eliminating the antidemocratic social, cultural, and economic legacies of the old regime. Such a process takes lots of time and effort, over multiple tries.”

She is right. Anyone who reads her article, “The Promise of the Arab Spring,” should gain a measure of patience and understanding for what it is currently happening in the Middle East. We cannot expect overnight miracles, but that does not mean that it is possible to cling to the rule of discredited strongmen—any more than Europe today could possibly return to the rule of absolute monarchs.

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“Tough” Israelis Understand Region Better than the New York Times

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.

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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.

At the heart of this critique is a belief that Israelis don’t care about peace. This is ridiculous since, even now, it is probable that a comfortable majority could be found for even the most far-reaching land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians if it could be reasonably asserted that such a treaty would actually end the conflict rather than merely continue on terms that are less advantageous for the Jewish state. Unfortunately, that is all the Oslo peace process turned out to be. Both the collapse of Oslo in the terror of the second intifada and the transformation of Gaza after Israel’s complete withdrawal from that territory in 2005 into a missile launching pad has convinced the overwhelming majority of Israelis that peace is not possible in the foreseeable future.

That leaves them with no choice but to hang tough until a sea change in the political culture of Palestinians enables them to produce a leadership that might dare to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn.

That angers deluded observers who cling to the idea that the only real obstacles to peace are those created by Israeli policies. But unless you believe, as one Arab academic quoted in Bronner’s piece asserts, that Israel’s creation was a “crime” that must be rectified for there to be peace, the only rational response to Hamas attacks is a periodic effort to “cut the grass” that will make it harder for the terrorists to kill more Jews.

Taken out of the context of Arab intransigence and a fanatical Islamist determination to continue the conflict until Israel is weakened and ultimately destroyed, talk of “cutting the grass” in Gaza seems cynical and hard-hearted. That depiction dovetails with a mindset that views Israelis as military aggressors and out of touch with their neighbors. But it is Bronner’s piece that is detached from reality, not the Israeli grass cutters.

Israel tried repeatedly to make peace in the last 20 years, but only a tiny minority in the country has failed to comprehend that all they accomplished was to trade land for terror and to empower Hamas in the process. The decision of Turkey to abandon its alliance with Israel in pursuit of pan-Islamic glory and the transformation of Egypt from cold peace partner to active ally of Hamas (as well as the tacit acceptance of these developments by the United States) has rendered talk of more concessions even more absurd.

Most Israelis understand the choice facing their country is not between holding onto territory or settlements and peace. It is between death and survival in a war with Palestinian Islamists that has no end in sight. That is a reality that Israel’s liberal critics at the Times and elsewhere haven’t yet come to terms with.

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Will Jordan’s Abdullah Be the Next to Fall?

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:

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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:

There are important observations regarding the decision to raise the price of fuel. First: The truth of the decision of the shadow government is a plague that is caused by Abdullah Ensour.

Second: They are implementing the recommendations of the World Bank so they can receive a $2.5
billion loan.

Third: The deficit has been in the budget for thirty years and is not something new.

Fourth: The true reason for the deficit and the high debt is the gang of corruptors who have taken
everything.

The true and legitimate solution is to return to the rightly-guided Islamic Caliphate, to apply the
rulings of Islam completely, and to destroy [the borders setup by] Sykes-Picot.

Jonathan Schanzer, Foundation for Defense of Democracies research director, has been following the story since its very beginning, and his tweets are a good place to follow it.

In October, Elliott Abrams penned an article for COMMENTARY looking at the Arab Spring entitled, “Dictators Go, Monarchs Stay.” It was an excellent piece, even if it focused more on the weakness of the dictators than on the staying power of the kings. Still, Abrams identified an important theme. “The monarchies face enormous challenges as well, or at least those not favored by heaven with the combination of tiny populations and enormous oil and gas wealth…” he wrote, adding, “Still, the surviving monarchs appear to have more tools at their disposal today than the dictators had, to resist reform slyly or to guide it slowly and carefully.”

Let us hope for the sake of U.S. national security that Abdullah has the ability to navigate these waters. The Jordanian king relies on handouts from the Persian Gulf emirates to co-opt his adversaries and has been less than serious about reform. He is a deeply flawed man—with a reputation at home and in the region far worse than in Washington—but the alternative in Jordan will make Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood appear positively moderate.

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