Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Egypt Warns: U.S. Policy Won’t Work

By Barry Rubin

If as close a U.S. ally as Egypt openly—not just privately but publicly—totally contradicts President Barack Obama, what does it say about U.S. credibility in the Middle East.

First, the background.

Credibility and deterrence are two basic foreign policy concepts missing from discussions among U.S. policymakers nowadays, perhaps replaced by popularity. The fact is that credibility and deterrence are sinking is far more dangerous than that Obama’s personal popularity may have risen.

Here’s a quick test:

You’re an Arab leader. Iran, Syria, and radical Islamist groups menace your country and regime. Do you feel secure in expecting Obama to help and protect you?

If you answered “yes” then obviously you are not an Arab leader.

As you know, Obama has said that he has Arab regimes on board to make gestures toward Israel in exchange for a freeze on construction in existing Jewish settlements on the West Bank. This is nonsense, and when the president of the United States speaks demonstrable nonsense—which everyone in the region knows—this is not a good thing for him being taken seriously.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit says that while a complete construction freeze—and whatever the United States and Israel agree on will be deemed insufficient—might make Arab states more inclined toward normalization it won't bring any actual steps in that direction:

"Certain countries will be prepared to move closer to Israel if it takes significant steps for the good of the Palestinians, and will demonstrate seriousness and willingness for serious contacts….[But] A settlement freeze in the West Bank is not of equal value to normalization, and will not bring this about alone."

Well, sure. Thirty years ago Egypt and Israel signed a full peace treaty, Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula and even today the two countries don’t really have normal relations.

Yet here are the two big Middle East policy initiatives the president will announce in the coming month:

1. Claimed success on the Arab-Israeli front based on what will probably be a temporary and partial Israeli freeze in exchange for the reopening of a couple of one-man trade offices in small Arab states. The renewal of Israel-Palestinian Authority talks which would never have stopped if Obama hadn’t raised the bar by setting the construction freeze limit. The talks will go nowhere.

2. Claimed success on higher sanctions against Iran that will probably be pretty limited and circumvented by Russia and China. The sanctions will not have any effect on Iranian behavior regarding the nuclear weapons’ drive.

Now it is one thing to say that a given U.S. policy may or may not work. But to know in advance that they are going to fail is worrisome, and that even close Arab allies publicly say so in advance is even more damaging.

Respect, credibility, and deterrence are more important than popularity in the Middle East or even than the celebration of a predictably failed policy in Washington and in the American media.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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