America is losing its grip on the Middle East. This, of course, has been apparent for a while now to those who spend their free time tracking the rise of the resistance movement or the sandy foundations of American regional policy. The rise of Hezbollah (vis-a-vis March 14) and Hamas (vis-a-vis Fatah) as well as the regimes in Iran and Syria that stubbornly refuse revolution and the slow transition of Turkey to and Islamic democracy has allowed for a viable alternative to America imposed rule via the repressive fist of dictators. The recent events in Egypt and Tunisia are demonstrating, with surprising clarity, the extent that the American policy in the Middle East is, and has been, widely failing to ensure the sustainability of American interests in the region. Moreover, the dearth of American clarity and leadership in response to these uprisings have made clear that the continued adherence to such a defunct regional policy will defy American values and ensure the rapid rise of political forces not sympathetic to American interests.
The juxtaposition of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt clearly provides the evidence needed to demonstrate America’s allergy to policy changes where American interests are involved and the potential consequences of political stasis. Though Tunisia’s exiled dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was one of the many dictators supported by the United States in the region, the Obama administration had little issue in quickly lending support to Tunisian people and disposing of the one-time ally. In Tunisia, America allowed the ideals of Justice, Freedom and Democracy to dictate policy. However, in the Egyptian case, these same American values have been scrapped in favor of ensuring the health of short-term American interests. Egyptian protesters were met with mixed signals from Washington, culminating in the support for a dictator-in-waiting. Indeed the support that vice president Omar Suleiman has received from Washington represents more than simply a betrayal of the Egyptian people and of American values, but it represents the inability of American politicians to scrap a policy that is shortsighted and slowly disintegrating.
American support for Suleiman is certainly not the first American blunder in the region and it won’t be the last. It is simply the latest in a series of political decisions that ultimately backfire. Repeatedly, the United States have shunned the popular sentiment of Middle Eastern people in an attempt to secure the American vision of the region. The last 40 years should have provided the United States with enough information regarding the folly of its policy. Starting with the overthrow of the Shah in Iran in 1979, there is an entire list of American political and military decisions that reads like a play book for the politically incompetent.
- US support for the precursors to the Taliban – the mujahideen – against the Soviet Union in the 80’s followed by an interminable war in Afghanistan;
- US support for Sadam Hussein against Iran, only to fight two subsequent wars against Iraq;
- US support for future dictators in Egypt, Libya, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, among others leading to the current round of political nausea in Washington.
More recently, US actions in the region have not only immediately backfired, but have also increased the resentment of the public in the Middle East of the United States:
- The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq merely empowered Shi’a forces to form a regime whose geostrategic interests are far closer to Iran than to the United States;
- The U.S.-encouraged Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 only strengthened the position of Hezbollah as the largest, most popular and most disciplined political-military force in the country, leading ultimately the Hezbollah-backed government now being formed.
- Israeli and U.S. threats to attack Iran, Hezbollah and Syria since 2006 brought an even more massive influx of rockets and missiles into Lebanon and Syria which now appears to deter Israeli aggressiveness toward its adversaries for the first time.
- U.S.-Israeli efforts to create a client Palestinian entity and crush Hamas through the siege of Gaza has backfired, strengthening the Hamas claim to be the only viable Palestinian entity.
- The U.S. insistence on demonstrating the effectiveness of its military power in Afghanistan has only revealed the inability of the U.S. military to master the Afghan insurgency.
If the spotty American history in the Middle East does not demonstrate that a change is needed in the American policy, the Egyptian uprising should have done the trick. The uprising gave the United States “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live up to American rhetoric about democracy, freedom, and human rights,” but the Obama administration opted for the vague, cloudy response of calling for change while concurrently pushing for the continuation of the Mubarak institution (“Mubarakism without Mubarak“). In a country where half of the population is under 24, the Obama administration has chosen a policy that will not only “undermine the secular pro-Western forces that are Egypt’s best hope,” but also betrayed the future of Egypt.
Despite assurances that a democratically elected government would neither be led by the Muslim Brotherhood or be as extreme as many western pundits and members of the Mubarak regime claim, the United States has seemingly decided to offer mere lip service to the Egyptian masses. The conventional wisdom used to explain why the American policy remains stagnant as the rider of history thunders by (to paraphrase Bismarck) is that the Brotherhood would represent a threat to American interests in the region. Instead of understanding the power of the Egyptian people, the Obama administration has held on to the antiquated American policy of propping up strongmen, thus implying American agreement with the new strongman’s view that Egypt is “not ready for democracy,” leading some to question of why “does [American] national policy seem to be that democracy is good for Americans and Israelis, yet dangerous for Egyptians?”
Ironically, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to understand the importance of this moment and the consequences of American condescension more than the United States does (my emphasis):
If America is to restore its credibility in Egypt and the Arab world, it must respect the right of the Arab peoples to choose their rulers on the basis of democracy, and it should not rely on the power of the rulers to repress the peoples.
If it wanted to guard its interests, particularly its strategic interests, then it must respond to the desire of the people to build a democratic order marked by transparency and accountability…
America will lose its allies among the Arab rulers one after the other if it doesn’t change its policy and reconsider all its strategic alliances in the region. The wave of democratic change has arrived in the Arab region and the power of the winds of change and the people is endless. The false American attempts to do nation-building in Afghanistan and to build a democratic system in Iraq both failed. But the Egyptians have proved that they are able– without any help from America– to build a better future. And if God wills it they will build a truly democratic system in Egypt that will shine its light on the region.
America is the richest and most powerful state on earth, and for long decades it has claimed to be the leader of the free world and has raised great slogans [on this matter.] So how should it act if it were to honor the right of the peoples to self-determination and to choose their own leaders, and the fundamentals of democracy; and if it were to preserve world peace and international cooperation in the fields of economy, information, and technology, so that it could become an example to humanity that would earn the friendship of the whole world…
America’s addiction to corrupt Middle Eastern rulers is slowly eroding the legitimacy of American leadership throughout the Middle East. While the United States continues to find support from the strongmen in Jordan, Yemen, and Palestine, none of the American supported governments has earned popular legitimacy. While there are demonstrations against the government in Yemen and Jordan, the release of the Palestine papers has demonstrated just how removed the US-backed Palestinian Authority is from the Palestinian people. The American regional policy of supporting dictators is a testament to a fallacy equating change with instability; the Obama administration, by supporting Mubarak, Abbas and Saleh (among others), is attempting to stop progressive change. Thus, in the words of Paul Woodward:
Like frogs that refuse to jump out of pot of hot water because its temperature is only rising slowly, those autocrats and their Western allies who now equate stability with their ability to act as a judicious brake on change, have a will to survive that is guiding them down a path of self-destruction.
The democratization of the Middle East seems nearly inevitable. Even if the United States succeeds in installing Suleiman in Egypt, the region has had its Rubicon moment, breaking the psychological barrier imposed by brutal mukhabarat and secret police. What the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak should have taught the United States is that the leader of a regime is not as important as the legitimacy the regime enjoys. A truly democratic Middle East is in the best interests of the United States or its Israeli ally.
The defining events in Tunisia and Egypt have changed the Middle East. Even if Mubarak’s regime is able to maintain power, it is clear that the region with no long be the same and will not stop to evolve. Indeed, the most important aspect of the Egyptian uprising is that it has broken the pattern of stagnation that has plagued the Middle East for decades. The people in the Middle East are determined to move forward after being held back by American sponsored dictators for too long. Unfortunately, as the region inevitably progresses, the United States has chosen the impossible task of restraining the social and political progress of an entire region.
Photo from John Boitnott