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By Barry Rubin
In testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "We are in a competition. I just stress over and over again, we’ve got to be there. We’ve got to fight back.” A competition with whom? With Iran, though she didn't mention its long list of allies: Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, the Turkish government, the new Lebanese government, and the Iraqi insurgents.
The Obama Administration has been in office for more than two years and I've been writing about this every day of that period. I have never seen an administration official say anything like this before. And if Clinton or others are aware of this competition why didn't they "fight back"?
They didn't fight back in Lebanon, or try to overthrow the Hamas regime. They have ignored the fact that Tehran is winning the competition regarding the current Turkish government. They panicked and quickly helped overthrow (without any idea of what would come next) the staunchest anti-Iran regime in the Arab world (not Husni Mubarak as a dictator but the whole regime). They have given less support to Israel, the main (not by its own choice) enemy of Iran. And they have fallen all over themselves to reward Syria, the main ally of Iran while not diminishing the Tehran-Damascus axis in the least.
What fighting back has been going on?
Clinton made these remarks in urging Congress to support U.S. foreign aid to the Middle East. Yet what has this aid bought? Pakistan ignores U.S. interests and so does the Palestinian Authority. Aid to Lebanon goes to that country's army which is now, for all practical purposes, in the hands of America's enemies. As for aid to Egypt, isn't this now perceived as helping a discredited dictatorship?
There was, however, a hint given by Clinton as to what she meant. Iran was working, “Every single day with as many assets as they can muster, trying to take hold of this legitimate movement for democracy.” In other words, the competition seems to be in the administration's mind over who can do the most to help the anti-government upheavals in the region to succeed. Thus, the administration rushed to show that it is eager to undermine pro-U.S. regimes to "persuade" the oppositions to support Washington and not Tehran.
Good luck on that one. In the first test of this proposition, the new Egyptian government let Iran's warships use the Suez Canal for the first time in 32 years. Those ships are now based in Syria, the country the Obama Administration was supposedly going to woo away from Iran. In Lebanon, a free election has led to a Syria-Iran-Hizballah dominated government. In the Gaza Strip, U.S. pressure for letting Hamas participate (albeit under a previous president) was so successful in helping the "legitimate movement for democracy" that Hamas won.
Clinton also made another remarkable statement about how al-Jazira is the best media on the Middle East and the idea that the United States is losing the "information war." Hilary: al-Jazira isn't so popular because--as you seem to think--it is providing better news coverage but because it is inciting radical Islamism which has a welcoming audience nowadays.
No policy the U.S. government can follow and no gimmick is going to persuade people in the region to love the United States. That has a certain relationship to the fact that people think America is weak, Iran and its allies are winning, and the United States sacrifices its friends. It also implies that people friendly to you won't do well in free elections. And that's not because Obama isn't charming enough or the United States isn't distancing itself more from Israel. It's a basic fact of political culture, ideology, and the power of demagoguery, too, throughout the Middle East.
The beginning of wisdom for U.S. policy in the Middle East is the end of the strategy used by the White House for the last two years. And that certainly isn't in sight.