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.
A single fact has gone unmentioned in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s assassination. The American public is too busy pumping their fists in the air, but that is to be expected of the general public. Obsessed with ratings, America’s infotainment industry (the mainstream media) has ignored this looming issue, as well. Nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature loathes it even more. Someone will step up and take the place of Osama bin Laden.
The Shi’ite sect of Islam has Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, but he is limited by his Iranian nationality. He must also contend with Iran’s potent Shi’ite clergy and a battery of western sanctions against Iran. Hezbollah’s Sheikh Nasrallah in Lebanon is constrained by his relationship with Ahmadinejad. Hamas, while dangerous, is ridden with behind-the-scenes power struggles and is primarily focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Muqtada al Sadr of Iraq, while locally powerful, does not have the theological acumen to become a truly transnational Shi’ite leader. He also lacks a secure powerbase in Iraq. Thus, Ahmadinejad will continue to lead Shi’ite fundamentalism for the time being.
Who will become the next Sunni fundamentalist transnational leader? The bin Laden clan’s ancestral homeland was northern Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The former hosts al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP, for short. However, it is also experiencing a whiff of “Arab Spring” in the form of pro-democracy demonstrations, as well as being racked by an intermittent civil war. Yemen will continue to be unstable, but is unlikely to produce a leader capable of meeting the urban elite’s demands for greater democracy and calls for increased tribal authority, while establishing a Sunni fundamentalist regime.
Born in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden only emerged as a leader during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. There is a reason for this. The Saudi regime is just as oppressive – even more so in some respects – than the recently fallen autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt. Wahhabism – Saudi’s puritanical brand of Sunni Islam – serves the interests of the royal family first. No Wahhabi cleric will arise to challenge that hegemony. It is even less likely that one of the kingdom’s 200 royal princes will attempt to transform himself to something above the Saudi monarchy.
One bet is Egypt, the home of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the oldest of the modern fundamentalist movements. It has already stated its intention to contest up to half the seats in the country upcoming parliamentary elections. The Muslim Brotherhood is by far the most organized of the myriad political parties that have sprung up in the wake of Mubarrak’s demise. It is also the most disciplined. There is little doubt that if they were to contest all the seats, they would walk away with a working majority. However, this is something that might very well trigger a Nasserist coup by the Army.
It has watched both Shi’ite electoral success in Lebanon and Sunni success electoral success in Turkey with great interest. In both countries, fundamentalists have slowly consolidated power for years. They use the legitimacy that electoral success affords to whittle away at democracy’s institutions slowly, from the inside. In both instances, the military has been neutered and the independent judiciary subjugated to political control.
Will this be the Brotherhood’s tactic in Egypt? If successful, can they lead an impoverished nation of 80 million, while at the same time assuming a transnational leadership of the Sunni fundamentalist movement? Nasser attempted that fifty years ago and ultimately failed. However, Nasser had few roles models, operated in a world split with East and West tensions, and was subject to the demands of maintaining an aggressive stance towards Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood has a number of successful models to copy. The East-West conflict is dead (for the most part), but the West has not been successful in consolidating its victory. Currently, Egypt enjoys the fruits of a cold peace with Israel.
Thus the question is, can Egypt produce a leader of bin Laden’s stature? Does it want to?