A Field Guide to the Middle East Mess, Part I

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Shocked and confused are the two words that sum up the collective reaction of Middle East analysts to the nahkba (catastrophe) gripping the region and the broader Muslim world since news leaked out over the dastardly Innocence of Muslims video.

Trying to sort through the rampant anti-Americanism that has been unleashed when news broke of the video's content has become a psycho-errant errand into the unknown for most of us... so perhaps it is best to go back to the drawing board and try to make some sense of these events:

Was This So-Called "Arab Spring" a Misnomer?

Absolutely!  Of the 22 members of the Arab League (19 actually in the Middle East; three in Africa (Somalia, Djibouti and Comoros), there have been only four actual "top-down" revolutions: two have been bloody revolts involving military conflicts (Libya and Yemen) and two have been "soft, people power" revolts (Egypt and Tunisia). A fifth (in Syria) is proving to be the bloodiest and the most protracted with no end in sight. The existing Arab monarchs in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Bahrain are still on their thrones and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future). Those in the know no longer dare refer to these transitions as "spring-like." No one has come up with a more appropriate moniker to capture the essence of the titanic shifts that have many more acts to follow.

Are Islamist Movements Hijacking "Democratic Revolutions"?

Although political Islam is on the march in the Middle East, each Islamic party has its national identity and social restraints. Most of these Islamist parties that have gained power are offspring of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. For example, Morocco elected an the Islamist Justice and Development Party, largely modeled after the Turkish Islamist party of the same name; in Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda Party is the dominant party in a broader coalition that includes secular Tunisians. Libyans rejected a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented party for a more secular government, but are having to contend with a Muslim Mafia extremist group affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Maghreb which in all likelihood masterminded the assassination of U.S. Amb. Stevens. Of course, Egypt is ground zero for the Muslim Brothers, who would have been in control of Egypt in since 1952 but for Col. Nasser outsmarting its leaders after they collaborated to overthrow King Farouk. The dominant political opposition to Syria's Assad are members of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood movement. And Jordan is contending with a new resurgence of its own Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Based on the political dynamics at work, the Arab world is witnessing a regional resurgence of a "united states of Muslim Brothers" with enormous ramifications for the U.S. and the region.  

If Egypt, According to Obama, Is "Neither an Ally or an Enemy," Then What Is It?

Based on current U.S. policy definitions, Egypt is considered an ally.  But pull aside the curtain on Arabic websites affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist allies and you'll see that Washington's default desire to offer U.S. patronage to the new leadership of Egypt is fraught with failed expectations. It would be patently naive for Americans to delude themselves into believing that the newly elected President Mohamed Morsi is his own boss. On the contrary, Morsi is a mere figurehead who takes orders and executes his intolerant masters' instructions, rather than issues them.  

The Muslim Brotherhood's dynastic structure is virulently anti-American. Morsi, is a charismatically-challenged appendage of this Muslim Brotherhood and takes his marching orders from the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau and from Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood's Egyptian equivalent of Ayatollah Khamenei. Badie is an unadulterated Islamic extremist who uses the vocabulary of jihad freely. His Arabic rants are replete with denunciations of the United States and calls to wage a war of liberation against Israel.

Many in the west would like to seductively believe the Brothers will modify their theology and ideology now that they control most of Egypt's governing institutions and the responsibilities that accompany them. But in the competition for Egyptian hearts and minds, the Brothers are fighting for political supremacy against the unadulterated Islamic haters to their right -- the Salafists who conveniently found in the video a weapon to whip up a frenzy by a few to prove they, rather then the Brothers, are the true protectors of the faith.

In this struggle, it was not by accident that it was a Brotherhood-supported Egyptian website that egged on the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo on September 9th to "commemorate" on the 9/11 anniversary the imprisonment of their cherished blind Sheikh Rahman in U.S. jail for masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center attack. I actually take the time to read these sites regularly and what the Brotherhood states on its English websites is thin gruel to the more extremist gusto gushing out their Arabic websites on the very same subjects.

The U.S. provides Egypt with $1.3 billion in annual military aid and $250 million in economic assistance, none of which actually matter in the scheme of things to Morsi or his Brotherhood patrons, who are far more interested in the $1 billion in debt relief Morsi has negotiated with the Obama administration to provide the jobs and bread voters demand. In exchange for what, I may ask? Without firm, resolute strings attached, debt relief is money down the drain for U.S. policy aspirations in Egypt. Egypt is embarking on a mission to define a new foreign policy that represents an about-face from what we have seen in the past. Sadly, debt relief -- both American and multilateral, is the only real leverage we have over this government to reboot this transitory bilateral tie.      

When Did the U.S. State Dept. Find Out About the Inflammatory Innocent of Muslims (IOM) Video?

IOM was filmed in Los Angeles in August 2011. Nothing so far has appeared in the press indicating that senior officials of the U.S. State Department had prior knowledge of IOM before it appeared on YouTube. However, the sheer lightning speed of the video's adverse impact on the security of U.S. diplomatic installations compels an internal investigation to determine whether there was prior knowledge of the video and what actions, if any, were taken or not taken once the video's appearance sparked the protests.

U.S. State Dept. Officials Dispute Media Reports That the Attack on the Benghazi Consulate Was Premeditated

Why the State Department is trying to obfuscate the source of the attack on Amb. Stevens is a mystery to the media. The Libyan government has officially stated that the attack on Amb. Stevens began as an unruly mob of punks and Islamic extremists attacked the U.S. Consulate in a first wave, which was followed by a more concerted, premeditated attack on the Ambassador's convoy by militants from Ansar al Sharia, an appendage of Al Qaeda in the Mahgreb, which embraces Saudi Wahhabi theology and is based in Benghazi, which has previously targeted the British ambassador and other foreign diplomats in Libya.

In all likelihood, the State Department's reluctance to come forward and acknowledge the genesis of the attack is due to the fact that, by eyewitness accounts, Amb. Stevens was under-protected given the well-known danger to foreigners in Benghazi from these extremist Islamic organizations. As a former ambassador, I know that diplomatic security decisions are not an ambassador's decision alone, but the decision of the Regional Security Officer (RSO) and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Whether there was a miscalculation or not by these operations warrants investigation.  

Is the Arab World More Anti-American Under Obama than Under Bush?

In an eye-popping survey issued on June 13, 2012 the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project sadly reveals that despite President Obama's much heralded Muslim world outreach speech in Cairo in June 2009, anti-U.S. attitudes have sharply escalated in key regional nations. It was predictable (see my article in Foreign Policy "Fulfilling the Promises of Cairo" dated November 11, 2009). Fewer than one-in-five have a positive opinion about U.S. policies in Egypt (19%), Turkey (15%), and Jordan (12%). The U.S. has better scores in Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia (yet in the latter, the mobs ransacked the spanking new American Cooperative School last week that was largely educating Tunisians). And it's not only a big negative toward U.S. policies. In one of the most disturbing findings from the Pew Center, even average Americans have become decidedly disliked (Turkey 69%, Egypt 62%, and Jordan 67%).

What explains this deterioration in attitudes? Fundamental disagreements over values and policies as well as pervasive conspiracy theories and shopworn misperceptions that the U.S. still masterminds events in the region against Islam and its adherents. When the lid came off the boiling revolutionary pot, this is the stew that had been largely hidden by the region's dictators.

Ever since the first embers of revolution were ignited in Tunisia over two years ago, U.S. Middle East policy has been adrift, unable to navigate between a desire to promote responsible change, as well as unable to influence the intolerance that such change is fostering. The riots and attendant outbreak of anti-U.S. violence compels a much needed reassessment that brings into plain view what must be done to protect fundamental U.S. interests. In other words, it's time for the president's staff to make a mid-course correction and confront the sad reality that despite President Obama's Cairo visit, U.S. policies have failed to fulfill any tangible Arab expectations (except in Libya) and the consequences are real and painful to behold.

In the wake of these protests, it would be inexcusable to conclude that all is lost for the U.S. in the Arab world. The silent majority of Arabs do not condone attacks on U.S. embassies or approve of these antics according to local commentaries and bloggers. Neither are they eager to be victimized into submission by Islamic extremist ideology. They know what the ayatollahs and the Taliban are capable of doing and want no part of it. There are so many acts to follow in these regional dramas and no one has a clue where events will head. But we cannot high-tail it home and ignore how important these changes will affect us and out allies.

This latest cycle of anti-American outrage is symptomatic of a broader problem facing Arabs -- that these revolutions have brought neither jobs nor bread. Ultimately, these Islamist parties could become discredited under the weight of their own shortcomings of intolerance and a failure to deliver the goods. This cycle already happened in Jordan years ago when Jordanians voted the Islamists out of power. It could happen again, which is why we cannot give up promoting the creation of democratic institutions in this turbulent region and working hard to preserve vital American interests.  

It is a lesson that should not be lost on Washington.
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