By Barry Rubin
There are two problems with current U.S. policy toward the Middle East: both the analysis and response are not simply wrong, but rather make the situation in the region much worse.
The White House has supported the antisemitic, anti-American Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria; insisted the Brotherhood is moderate; gave untrained, unreliable Libyans control over the U.S. ambassador’s security leading to his death; denied that revolutionary Islamists attacked the U.S. embassy and ambassador in Libya for reasons having nothing to do with a California video; apologized for the video in a way that escalated the crisis elsewhere; wrongly claimed that al-Qaida is finished when it is still strong in several countries; defined the Afghan Taliban, despite its involvement in the September 11 attacks, as a potential partner, etc.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration responds with a democracy-will-solve-everything approach that the same people ridiculed when President George W. Bush advocated it.
Now the errors are deepened and the lessons of experience once again rejected in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s latest defense of these wrong-headed policies in a speech given at my first employers, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.
Her argument is that the United States should ignore violence and extremism while helping to build democracies. The problem is that most of the violence and extremism comes from forces that the Obama Administration supports or groups basically allied with those forces. The violence and extremism are the inevitable outcome, not a declining byproduct, of this process.
Everything she says lays a basis for disaster:
–The U.S. government must not be deterred by “the violent acts of a small number of extremists.”
The problem is not a “small number” of extremists—implying al-Qaeda–but a large number of them. Extremists now rule in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Tunisia, and—despite camouflage—Turkey. They may soon be running Syria.
More than a decade after September 11, the Obama Administration is fighting the last war—the battle against al-Qaida—rather than recognizing that a small group committing periodic terrorist acts is less important than a huge organization taking over entire countries.
–”We recognize that these transitions are not America’s to manage, and certainly not ours to win or lose,”
Of course, the United States doesn’t manage these transitions but does—or can—have influence. In Egypt, the Obama Administration began with the pro-Brotherhood Cairo speech (defining Middle Eastern identity as Islamic rather than Arabic; seating Brotherhood leaders in the front row) and then used its influence to push the military out of power in 2011 and encourage the Brotherhood.
In Syria, it backed management by the pro-Brotherhood Turkish regime and the choice of a Brotherhood-dominated exile leadership. In Bahrain, if not stopped by the State Department it would have helped bring to power a new regime likely to have been an Iranian satellite. Thus, inasmuch as the U.S. government has some role it has used it on behalf of America’s enemies. As an ally, Egypt is lost.
“But we have to stand with those who are working every day to strengthen democratic institutions, defend universal rights, and drive inclusive economic growth. That will produce more capable partners and more durable security over the long term.”
Yet the Obama Administration has definitely not stood with those people! It has not channeled arms to moderates in Syria but to the Brotherhood and tolerated Saudi weapons’ supplies to Salafists. It has done nothing to protect the rights of women or Christians. Moderates in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt—as well as Turkey and Iran—know the Obama Administration has not helped them. The Turkish regime and the new governments emerging from the “Arab Spring” work every day to undermine human rights.
–”We will never prevent every act of violence or terrorism, or achieve perfect security. Our people cannot live in bunkers and do their jobs.”
Yes, perfection is hard. But what does that have to do with sending the ambassador to Libya into a lawless city with no protection?
And of course you can’t achieve even minimal security if you refuse to recognize where unrest and anti-American hatred originate. For example, the Egyptian government knew that there would be a demonstration outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo and must have known the demonstrators would storm the compound. Their security forces did nothing to protect the embassy. Why? Because they want to stir up anti-Americanism and use it to entrench themselves in power, even as the Obama Administration praises the Brotherhood’s regime and sends lots of money.
–”For the United States, supporting democratic transitions is not a matter of idealism. It is a strategic necessity.”
This is absurd. Are “democratic” regimes always better for American strategic concerns than dictatorships? That’s untrue in Egypt and many other countries in the last half-century. Moreover, that ignores the fact that the Obama Administration has supported transitions in a way strengthening the likelihood of radical, anti-American rule.
–Clinton said there has been a backlash by moderates against extremist groups in Libya and Tunisia. But the backlash is by frightened people who fear with good reason that the extremists are winning.
–”We stand with the Egyptian people in their quest for universal freedoms and protections….Egypt’s international standing does depend both on peaceful relations with its neighbors and also on the choices it makes at home and whether or not it fulfills its own promises to its own people.”
In fact, Egypt’s people voted 75 percent in parliamentary elections and about 53 percent in presidential balloting for those opposing universal freedoms and protections. And if Obama won’t get tough the Brotherhood regime knows it can repress people at home and let terrorists stage cross-border attacks against Israel without concern for its international standing.
“We have, as always, to be clear-eyed about the threat of violent extremism. A year of democratic transition was never going to drain away reservoirs of radicalism built up through decades of dictatorship.”
Drain away? This year has empowered radicals!
An Obama Administration so far from reality subverts U.S. interests and makes the Middle East a more tragic and dangerous place. It is doubling down on their errors and will no doubt continue to do so if it has four more years to continue making costly mistakes. People in the region will pay for these errors in blood and so will some Americans.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.