With tanks deployed in the streets of Cairo, following clashes that have left at least half a dozen people dead, it is obvious that the political turmoil which forced Hosni Mubarak out of office has returned. Mohamed Morsi, Mubarak’s successor, has no one to blame but himself for these street clashes. They are a direct response to what is widely seen as his extra-constitutional grab for power and his tendency to demonize his opponents in inflammatory language by claiming they are former regime stooges.
Morsi’s process of consolidating authority is set to continue in just nine days’ time if the referendum he has scheduled on a hastily cobbled together new constitution is still held. The constitution, based on the existing one that justified decades of dictatorial rule, is full of amorphous language that secularists and Coptic Christians fear could inaugurate a new tyranny by the Muslim Brotherhood. It certainly does nothing to change the military’s unaccountable position, outside of political control—something that can be good or bad depending on whether the military sees its role as shepherding in secular democracy (as in Turkey) or serving as enforcers for the Islamists in power (as in Iran).
In the third presidential debate, President Obama highlighted his administration’s policy toward Egypt to buttress his foreign policy legacy. He said: “In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.” But in fact at the time, the latter statement wasn’t true, and by now the former appears to have evaporated as well. In June, months before Obama bragged about Egyptians’ opinion of the U.S., Pew released the findings of its poll on global attitudes toward America. It found that opinion of the U.S. in the age of Obama had returned to its low point, and that Egyptians overwhelmingly, according to Pew, wanted Obama to be a one-term president.
It is unlikely that with the president’s virtual silence over Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s power grab those numbers will improve much. In the latest of several days of protesting, Egyptians chanted at Morsi: “Shave your beard, show your disgrace, you will find that you have Mubarak’s face!” Funny, yes–but it shouldn’t be disregarded as a joke. In fact, as the realist approach to the region lay in ruins around the Middle East, the Obama administration may be making the very same blunders in pursuit of the mirage of stability in the desert.
The New York Times has a hopeful but ultimately unconvincing analysis today proclaiming the rise of a more constructive Sunni “axis” in the Middle East. The theory is that Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt are challenging the hegemonic Iran and the civil war-torn Syria, and that this trio’s closer relationship to the Hamas terrorist gang running the Gaza Strip will prize diplomacy and stability over war while weakening Iran.
Of course this is what Western diplomats have hoped–and continue to hope–will one day become a reality. But at this point, not only is it premature to announce this new Middle East, but the thesis has actually taken quite a beating in the last two weeks. Here’s the Times describing the opportunity for a regional shift:
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided that Israel would finally respond to Hamas’s rocket barrage from Gaza, his knee-jerk critics issued two very silly judgments almost immediately. They said Netanyahu was ordering this counteroffensive to boost his reelection chances in January, and that his decision was an open challenge to newly reelected President Barack Obama.
Though neither of these theories made much sense from the outset, Operation Pillar of Defense conclusively debunked them once and for all. Netanyahu’s cautious, limited approach to the conflict was panned in opinion polls; Israelis wanted to see Hamas more thoroughly beaten, perhaps through a ground invasion by troops already called up for service just in case. And though more hawkish elements in his cabinet wanted either more favorable cease-fire terms for Israel or no cease-fire at all, Netanyahu sided with the Obama administration in its desire to see the end of hostilities as soon as possible. And Tzipi Livni removed all doubt about public opinion toward Pillar of Defense when announcing her new political party today in Tel Aviv:
Kirsten Powers is a thoughtful liberal who’s willing to challenge the party line. At times, though, her arguments strike me as misguided. Such is the case with her column in The Daily Beast titled, “What Evangelicals Get Wrong About Israel and the Palestinians.”
Ms. Powers quotes Todd Deatherage, co-founder of the Telos Group, an organization that “works with American evangelicals to help positively transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” According to Mr. Deatherage, “What a lot of Christians don’t understand is the importance of realizing both people [the Israelis and the Palestinians] have legitimate connections to the land.” American evangelicals, we’re told, need to “understand the Palestinian perspective.”
“Palestinians have a need for dignity and respect, and a deep attachment to the land,” according to Deatherage. As for Powers, she criticizes American evangelicals for their “blind loyalty to Israel, with little to no regard for the plight of the Palestinian people.” She then asks, in the context of the Palestinians, “Since when is dehumanizing people—God’s creation—an acceptable Christian view?”
The answer, of course, is never. But it seems to me that both Powers and Deatherage are missing some important points.
At the beginning of this year, as speculation over whether Israel was preparing to strike Iran’s nuclear program reached something of a crescendo, one of Israel’s most respected journalists sat down with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The journalist, Ronen Bergman, asked Barak about the former political and military figures who had begun to publicly argue against a strike. Barak responded with a reminder about the burden of responsibility he carries along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions,” Barak said. “But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.” Barak wasn’t trying to be dramatic; rather, he was making make a point about the historical weight that rests on nearly every major decision made by the Israeli leadership. Many in the press took this as a declaration by Barak that he would always err on the side of the hawks—why take any chances? But in reality, as we saw this week with Operation Pillar of Defense, it can often mean just the opposite. Barak Ravid reports:
Hillary Clinton announced the deal at a Cairo press conference this afternoon. Reports haven’t included all the details of the agreement just yet, but it’s supposed to take effect shortly:
Nov 21 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza had come at a crucial time for countries of the Middle East.
“This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone for regional stability and peace,” she said at a joint news conference with her Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Kamel Amr.
Though most of the news out of Turkey in recent years has been dispiriting, the once-secular nation finally seems to be paying a price for its Islamist turn. As the New York Times reports today, Turkey is learning an age-old lesson about power politics in the Middle East: in alienating Israel in a bid to win the trust of the region’s Arab population, it has marginalized itself:
After prayers last Friday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped outside a mosque on the banks of the Bosphorous here and dismissed a suggestion that Turkey should talk directly with its onetime ally, Israel, to attempt to resolve the crisis unfolding in Gaza.
“We do not have any connections in terms of dialogue with Israel,” he said.
But by Tuesday, Turkey seemed to indicate that while its strident anti-Israel posture has been popular among Arabs, it has been at its own expense, undermining its ability to play the role of regional power broker by leaving it with little leverage to intercede in the Gaza conflict. As he headed to Gaza with an Arab League delegation on Tuesday, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, suggested to reporters that back-channel discussions had been opened with Israeli authorities.
The article contrasts Turkey’s standing in the current conflict with that of Egypt. Since both Egypt’s government and the Hamas rulers of Gaza spring from the Muslim Brotherhood, and since Egypt and Gaza share a border (though not in the ignorant minds of the “flotilla” activists), Egypt has a natural advantage over Turkey as a power broker in this case. Egypt also has history on its side, and in the Middle East, history counts for a lot. So this puts Turkey at a disadvantage to begin with, which it only compounded by making a series of unforced errors.
Jonathan Tobin is absolutely correct to warn against rewarding Hamas for its attacks on Israel by granting it any sort of diplomatic concession. After all, engrained in Hamas is an absolute refusal to abide by previous diplomacy, such as the agreements the Palestinian Authority had made with Israel as a precondition to the Authority’s 1994 formation in Gaza and the West Bank.
Israeli officials, alas, can always be counted on for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Enter on cue Dan Harel, former deputy chief of the Israeli Defense Forces General Staff and a former head of its Southern Command, who quips that Israel is running out of targets.
Last week, Hamas started a war with Israel that it could not win militarily. The hundreds of missiles it has fired at Israeli villages, towns and cities have terrorized millions of civilians, but thanks to effective civil defense procedures and a generally successful use of the Iron Dome system, they have failed to kill or injure many people. On the other hand, the Israel Defense Forces have exacted a heavy price from Hamas in terms of leaders and terrorists killed and destruction of their armaments. But Hamas still thinks it can win. As in the past, by hiding their missiles and fighters among civilians, they have deliberately endangered Palestinian civilians and created a toll of casualties with which they hope to distort the world’s view of the conflict. All it takes is one errant Israeli bomb that kills (as one did yesterday) a family to create an international incident in which the terrorist-run enclave can falsely represent itself as a victim rather than a perpetrator.
But Hamas is hoping for more than just the usual media gang-tackle aimed at delegitimizing Israel’s right to defend its borders and its people. This time, Hamas is counting on the diplomatic support of Egypt and Turkey to not only force Israel to accept a cease-fire before the terrorist group’s military infrastructure is significantly damaged, but also to extract concessions from the Israelis. Hamas is using the indirect negotiations for a halt to the fighting currently going on in Cairo to pursue an agenda that would effectively render it invulnerable to future Israeli counter-attacks as well as to strengthen its hold on Gaza. It goes almost without saying that no Israeli government could possibly consider agreeing to those terms even if meant that a costly ground attack on Gaza was the only alternative.
Hamas’s confidence is based on the idea not only that Egypt and Turkey have its back but also that the United States will not support Israel’s refusal to accept its demands. That is where President Obama, who has sought to avoid direct involvement in the Gaza fighting, becomes a crucial figure in its resolution.
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.
Israel’s Defense Forces have, by all accounts, performed well during Operation Pillar of Defense. In the wake of the massive bombardment of southern Israel by Hamas, the IDF carried out a deft targeted assassination of the head of the group’s military wing and carried out a wave of pinpoint bombings of terrorist missile caches and arms factories inside Gaza. The leadership of the terrorist movement that governs Gaza with an iron fist is cowering in the bunkers. Though there have been some unfortunate civilian casualties, they have been kept to a minimum despite the fact that Hamas has tried to hide its armaments and its personnel among noncombatants.
But these achievements should not obscure the fact that although Israel’s military is doing everything it can to suppress the missile fire, the terrorists have still managed to launch hundreds in the last two days, with a few even penetrating as far as the greater Tel Aviv area. Just as troubling is the heavy-duty diplomatic support the group has received from its regional allies Egypt and Turkey in addition to Russia’s refusal to join the West in supporting Israel’s right to self-defense.
Though the group has taken a pounding from the IDF, it may well have achieved the objectives it had in mind when it decided to use the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election to escalate the conflict with Israel. Whatever else has happened in the last week, Hamas has demonstrated the irrelevance of the Palestinian Authority and made clear that it, and not PA head Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, is the face of Palestinian nationalism. By slamming hundreds of missiles in the last week into Israel it may have squandered part of the arsenal of more than 10,000 rockets it has amassed in the last four years and suffered a blow to its leadership. But it has also illustrated that the independent Palestinian state it has erected in Gaza is supported by the Arab and Muslim world and is, for all intents and purposes, invulnerable to international pressure or Israeli attacks. If that isn’t a victory for terrorism, I don’t know what else you could call it.
It’s fair to say that an underappreciated obstacle to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is Hamas’s rule of Gaza. For such an agreement to take shape, Hamas would have to either consent or not be in charge of the strip. Though a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is unlikely, even if it were to happen, it might only bring about Hamas’s conquest of the West Bank, thereby doubling, rather than solving, the problem posed by Hamas. And since Hamas won’t abide a true peace with Israel, it’s difficult to solve the conflict under current conditions.
With that in mind, those who seek to end the isolation of Hamas are strengthening the terrorist group’s hand against Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and the Palestinian Authority’s main governing structure. In this scenario, it isn’t Israel that loses nearly as much as Abbas and Salam Fayyad, in whose corner the West claims to be. So while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleads with the international community to help strengthen the PA’s balance sheet, the opponents of Palestinian reconciliation are helping Hamas, at Fatah’s expense. The latest such actor is the government of Qatar.
I can see why some influential Republicans on Capitol Hill would be reluctant to support the administration’s request to provide $450 million in emergency aid to Egypt. The recent mob attack on our embassy in Cairo, and President Mohammad Morsi’s slowness in condemning the attack, are hardly an advertisement for the new regime. But ask yourself this: Is Egypt likely to produce more or fewer terrorists if its economy collapses?
The question answers itself, and to the extent that an emergency infusion of cash from the U.S. and IMF can tide over the Egyptian economy for a while, it is likely to promote stability and deter the potential radicalization of Egyptian youth. It may even buy time for the new Muslim Brotherhood government to implement some of the free-market reforms it promised during the campaign, if it is so inclined and if it can overcome intense internal resistance from many sectors including the army. Conversely if the Egyptian debt crisis blows up, a la Greece or Iceland, the results are likely to be much more serious than in those countries, given the number of Salafist radicals already present in Egypt and given Egypt’s important strategic position as the largest Arab state.
President Obama has promised to bring the perpetrators of the Benghazi terrorist attack to justice, but over two weeks after the attack the FBI still hasn’t made it to Benghazi. According to the New York Times, it’s because the security situation in Benghazi is too unstable:
Sixteen days after the death of four Americans in an attack on a United States diplomatic mission here, fears about the near-total lack of security have kept F.B.I. agents from visiting the scene of the killings and forced them to try to piece together the complicated crime from Tripoli, more than 400 miles away.
Investigators are so worried about the tenuous security, people involved in the investigation say, that they have been unwilling to risk taking some potential Libyan witnesses into the American Embassy in Tripoli. Instead, the investigators have resorted to the awkward solution of questioning some witnesses in cars outside the embassy, which is operating under emergency staffing and was evacuated of even more diplomats on Thursday because of a heightened security alert.
For over a week, the Obama administration has tried to dodge questions on the Benghazi attack by saying it’s waiting for information to come in from the FBI. But apparently the FBI still hasn’t made it to Benghazi — at least not as of last night. Instead, CNN reports that the bureau just arrived in Tripoli, and hasn’t been to the scene of the attack that happened over two weeks ago:
More than two weeks after four Americans — including the U.S. ambassador to Libya — were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, FBI agents have not yet been granted access to investigate in the eastern Libyan city, and the crime scene has not been secured, sources said.
“They’ve gotten as far as Tripoli now, but they’ve never gotten to Benghazi,” CNN National Security Analyst Fran Townsend said Wednesday, citing senior law enforcement officials.
Last Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that an FBI team had reached Libya earlier in the week.
President Obama was expected to discuss the anti-Islam YouTube film during his UN speech today, and he didn’t disappoint. He devoted over 1,000 words to the topic, much of which had already been said repeatedly by the White House, the State Department, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and government-sponsored commercials in Pakistan:
At times, the conflicts arise along the fault lines of race or tribe, and often they arise from the difficulties of reconciling tradition and faith with the diversity and interdependence of the modern world. In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening. In every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they’re willing to tolerate freedom for others. And that is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, where a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well.
For as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and every faith. We are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We not only respect the freedom of religion, we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe.
We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them. I know there are some who ask why don’t we just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws. Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.
Considering that President Obama is running for reelection in no small part based on his foreign policy accomplishments, supposed or real, this long frontpage story by Helene Cooper and Robert Worth in the New York Times–hardly a hostile organ–paints a surprisingly mixed picture of his handling of the Arab Spring. On the one hand, it gives him credit for being ahead of some of his advisers in recognizing that Hosni Mubarak was finished by February 1, 2011, seven days after the start of demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
On the other hand, it argues that he was not especially skillful in managing the Arab Spring, especially in Bahrain, which led to tensions between the calls of human-rights advocates to back peaceful demonstrators and the demands of Gulf states to support the Bahraini monarchy, because he had not cultivated close relations with leaders in the region–or anywhere else. The article notes:
The Egyptian government is looking to scrap parts of its peace treaty with Israel, according to an advisor to President Morsi, claiming a “strategic and security need.” As Jonathan noted yesterday, Morsi has let the Sinai disintegrate into lawlessness, paving the way for incidents like last week’s terrorist attack on Israel. Now Morsi advisors appear to be using the lack of security in the Sinai as a justification for amending the treaty:
In comments published in the online Dostor newspaper, one of Egypt’s independent dailies, a Morsi adviser, Mohammed Seif el-Dawla, was quoted as saying he will soon give the president a proposal on amending the treaty between Egypt and Israel.
El-Dawla provided no details of the proposal, which he said would be drawn up by a panel of consultants. Amending the treaty, he said, was ‘‘a popular demand and a strategic and security need.’’
Anglo-Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the darling of the moment among the anti-Western intellectual set, has a New York Times op-ed today which seems to translate his wishful thinking–he desires America to leave the Middle East to its own devices–into a prediction that we will in fact do what he desires. I very much doubt that we will do so, no matter who is elected president in November–and if we do the entire region will pay a devastating price. His history is as shaky as his prognosticating.
It is hardly reassuring that Mishra compares the U.S. departure from the Middle East to our defeat in Vietnam in 1975. He seems to imagine we were evicted from South Vietnam by a spontaneous nationalist demonstration. In reality, of course, South Vietnam was conquered by a North Vietnamese armored blitzkrieg. There was never a popular uprising in South Vietnam to express preference for rule from Hanoi; indeed southerners remain resentful to this day of the northern-dominated government (as I discovered on a recent trip to Vietnam).