BigMo’s Blog

Politics and Economics in Israel

Cairo – ad nauseum

Over all, President Obama’s remarks on the Middle East and North Africa were a blend of idealism and pragmatism. These are two concepts that seldom are able to coincide at the same time in the same place. A full two-thirds of his speech addressed the much-heralded “Arab Spring” that has seen two authoritarian regimes swept away, and as many as a half-dozen others challenged. The president admitted that this movement was incomplete and its ultimate outcome still uncertain. Yet, as a world power, the US has no choice but to weigh in on the changes taking place. It is thus regrettable that he clothed pragmatic policies in the garb of idealism: when the emperor’s clothing is stripped away, he will be just as naked as he was before.

Let’s begin with his choice of venue for stating the supposedly new American policies. He acknowledged this rapprochement with the Arab world began nearly two years ago in Cairo. However, his remarks of 19 May came from Foggy Bottom – the US State Department in Washington, D.C. There is good reason for this: there is no Arab capital of significance that could or would host him.

Demonstrations, the threat of violence and civil war stalks the streets of Amman, Jordan. There a minority Hashemite regime rules over a population that is 70% Palestinian. Baghdad – trumpeted in his speech as a growing success – is still subject to daily terrorist violence, Iranian subversion and on-going destruction of that country’s ancient Christian community. Cairo? Cairo is where the US abruptly pulled the rug out from under an authoritarian regime. One might expect Obama to return to the site of this success, except that the most future of Egypt is most likely to put his new policies to shame before the end of the year. What about Damascus? Could the President of the US really make a speech championing “universal rights” and “democracy” to the staccato sound of machine guns cutting down unarmed civilians?

Next, Obama ticked off a series of successes: Iraq, Afghanistan and the “huge blow” dealt to al Qaeda “by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden. Let us examine these so-called successes. “Success” in Iraq has been marked by the decline of sectarian violence (among Muslims) to the point where only a couple score are killed every month instead of a couple hundred being killed every month.

Obama claimed that the Taliban’s momentum has been broken, yet just last week the Taliban launched their annual Spring Offensive – a ritual among them that started over twenty years ago when the enemy was the occupying Soviet Union. The combination of America’s distaste for long-term fighting, combined with the corruption-riddled regime installed in Kabul, will ultimately result in a Taliban victory. In that area of the world, the most committed win. Obama has already committed to withdrawal.

As for Osama bin Laden, yes, this is a victory of sorts. Justice long-delayed was finally served. Nonetheless, for many Muslims – both Arab and non-Arab – his assassination was another reminder of America’s power. For many in the region, bin Laden’s death was reminiscent of the targeted assassinations that Israel has used for years against terrorist leaders of the PLO, Hamas and Hezbollah. Make no mistake; his assassination was a legitimate act of self-defense. Unfortunately, the president chose to dress it up as part of his campaign to assure “democracy and individual rights for Muslims.” This begs the question: why does the current president of the world’s only superpower need to clothe legitimate policies in the tattered rags that a president tried so unsuccessfully to sell thirty years ago?

The idealism masks a cold stark truth: what Obama is attempting to sell is nothing more than what a predecessor attempted to sell. Democracy, universal rights, the emancipation of women, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom for minorities were all part of the Carter’s agenda. Obama believes that America’s economic and security interests will be best served if the Arab world is at least philosophically aligned with the US, as well as economically and militarily. The fly in the ointment – the same fly that George W. Bush discovered by the end of his tenure – is that such an alignment is out of the question.

Obama, like Carter before him, ignores the facts. Democracy as it is practiced from Washington east to Warsaw, and Washington west to Tokyo, developed over the course of centuries. In almost every nation in which democracy has taken roots there is a cultural heritage serving as a foundation. This cultural legacy itself dates back nearly twenty-five centuries. To expect the Arab world, and larger Muslim world, to hurdle this learning curve in a mere decade or two is completely unrealistic. As idealists usually are.

Obama expects the Arab and broader Islamic world to embrace democracy, universal rights, the emancipation of women, freedom of speech for all, freedom of assembly for all and freedom for minorities because it is in their long-term best interests. That may be so; reams of economic and sociological data may support it. However, the bottom line is that he is saying to the Arab world, ‘my political philosophy is superior to yours, so I will help you adopt it.’  This is, at best, paternalistic.

At worst, his policies are not merely paternalistic, but down right imperialist. He simply dresses them in the costume of “universal rights.” Less than a year ago there was reason to celebrate as the citizens of Lebanon elected a western-oriented coalition. However, the US and Europe failed to support that coalition. Today, Lebanon is firmly in the clutches of Hezbollah – a Shi’ite Muslim fundamentalist movement – and a satellite of Iran. Lebanon has no energy reserves, no mineral reserves and no strategic value for the US and Europe: sacrificing Lebanon was easy. On the other hand, Bahrain has petroleum reserves, Yemen sits on one end of the Red Sea and Egypt holds the Suez Canal at the other end.

Of course, it is just as well that President Obama ignored the facts. He identified the “failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people” as feeding the suspicion “that the United States pursues our interests at their expense.” Furthermore, that “a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.” Implicit in this statement is the ideological position that it is the US that is responsible for Arab (read “Muslim”) anger and hatred. This is despite the fact that Islam looks down on all other religions as subservient, and has done so for fifteen centuries – before universal rights – a product of Western philosophy – existed.

President Obama would like to have his cake and eat it too. He discards the pieces of historical fact that do not fit his ideological puzzle. “Universal rights” are the whole cloth meant to conceal America pursuit of its economic and security priorities. A clear statement that America has, and will continue, to act in accordance with its own priorities would have certainly been out-of-the-question. A superpower also bears the burden of discretion. Mr. Obama would have done much better to take a page out of President Theodore Roosevelt’s book: speak softly and carry a big stick.

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May 20, 2011 Posted by | Middle East | , , , , | Leave a comment