Monday, December 6, 2010

Washington Post: Obama Administration "looks weak" and is "pushed around by Arab strongmen"

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By Barry Rubin

The Washington Post's editorial, “Mr. Mubarak vs. Mr. Obama,” has two passages especially worthy of notice.

Among U.S. daily city newspapers, the Post has been the best generally at understanding the serious trouble created by the Obama Administration’s mistakes and misunderstandings. In this editorial, it urges the U.S government to get tougher with Egypt over human rights’ issues there, especially in regard to the parliamentary elections.

What interests me most, though, are two specific statements. Here they are:

“[Egyptian President Husni] Mubarak's rude dismissal of what have been gentle U.S. calls for change is making the Obama administration look weak in a region that can be quick to act on such perceptions….

“Most of all, Mr. Obama should make it clear that he will not be dismissed or pushed around by Arab strongmen. If Mr. Mubarak gets away with it, others will be quick to follow his example.” In fact, the Post was so upset about this that it followed up with a second, similar editorial.

I think the Post is trying to be subtle here and to put its argument in terms that the White House might heed. But, of course, these statements are also ironic. After all, what’s been happening during the last two years? Follow Mubarak's example? He's merely following everyone else's example.

“Look weak”?” “Pushed around by Arab strongmen?” To broaden the list a bit, here's what's been happening regarding U.S. policy:

--Lack of toughness with a Turkish regime that has walked all over U.S. interests. We now know from Wikileaks that U.S. diplomats reported the Islamist nature of the regime but this had no effect on policy.

--Acceptance of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip discouraging efforts (sanctions; Israel’s military offensive) that might have subverted that terrorist mini-state.

--Lack of support for Israel.

--Lack of pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA) to negotiate, fulfill its commitments, to make compromises, or even to talk with Israel at all. The administration can't even get the PA to negotiate with Israel.

--Cozying up to the Sudan regime despite its involvement in deliberate mass murder.

--Inability to get Saudi Arabia to crack down on donations made by its citizens to terrorist groups, the largest source of funding for terrorism aside from Iran.

--Continuing to engage with Syria and ignore its involvement in terrorism, including killing U.S. servicemen in Iraq. This also involves Syria's ongoing nuclear weapons' program, in partnership with Iran, and its return to control over Lebanon. Here's another Post story pointing to the failure of administration policy toward Syria. And Wikileaks also shows that Syria's leader lied to the U.S. government when he claimed not to be sending missiles to Hizballah. The Obama Administration discovered he was lying but rather than change its engagement policy merely filed a secret protest.

--Slowness and weakness in confronting Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons (though it has done a reasonable job with the sanctions). Indeed, though, this is the one area where the administration hasn't been "pushed around" since Wikileaks show that the "Arab strongmen" want tougher U.S. action against Iran.

--Failure to support moderate forces in Lebanon as the Iran-Syria-Hizballah alliance turns that country into a puppet. Here's another Wikileak item about how the U.S. government knew a lot about the virtual Iranian takeover of Lebanon yet did nothing and failed to raise the alarm.

--Readiness to make a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

--Failure to press Pakistan on its sponsorship of terrorism in India and lack of cooperation in rooting out al-Qaida. The Wikileaks reinforced our understanding of how uncooperative Pakistan has been in fighting the terrorists who attacked America on September 11.

--Refusal to confront the central issue in the region (and perhaps the world) today: the revolutionary Islamist effort to seize control of the Middle East and mount offensives against the West, of which terrorism is only one component.

No U.S. government should be expected to be tough and effective on all of these things but, equally, no U.S. government should be expected to make all of these mistakes either.

The U.S. government already looks weak and it is already being pushed around by Arab (and other) strongmen. Fortunately, for U.S. interests, the only Arab regime that really wants to push the United States around is Syria. Most of the others—even Mubarak—are horrified by what they are seeing and want America to be stronger and more determined.

A conclusion regarding Wikileaks: As I've been saying, the problem is in the White House more than in the State Department. A lot of the reporting is good and America's allies are telling it the truth. But this reality is not being reflected in top-level policy decisions and strategies.

Aluf Benn, the best analytical journalist in Israel on international affairs, says it all and I can't help quote most of his article:

“Beyond the gossip, the indiscretions and the petty lies, the cables released by WikiLeaks tell a sad story. They depict...the decline of a superpower....President Barack Obama emerges from the cables as a weak, flimsy leader, whose good intentions and lofty visions dissipate like dust in the wind in the face of the conservatism and stubbornness of his Middle Eastern counterparts.”

American diplomats: “spend their days listening wearily to their hosts' talking points, never reminding them who is the superpower and who the client state that needs military or financial aid from America…. The America of Obama and Hillary Clinton doesn't dare pound on the table and knock heads together when its friends and rivals do as they please. It takes notes, files them and moves on….

“Obama's Ankara and Cairo speeches, his moving calls for a new relationship between America and the Arab and Muslim worlds, even his quotations from the Koran, were all greeted with utter indifference….

“In its editorial ...the New York Times praised Obama and his team as outstanding diplomats who stood up to Arab and Israeli pressure on America to attack Iran....What naivete. It's hard to believe that experienced leaders...really imagined that Obama would read the cables from the Middle East and hasten to arm his stealth bombers and declare war on Iran. They knew Washington was unenthusiastic about bombing Natanz and Bushehr.

“Their pressure on the administration had a completely different goal: thwarting Obama's efforts at rapprochement with Iranian leaders Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and ensuring that America would maintain a hard line against Tehran and its rulers. And this goal was fully achieved, with some help from the Iranians, who openly thumbed their noses at the U.S. president.…

“The Arab leaders didn't ignore the Palestinians. They raised this issue over and over in their talks with American representatives. But the Egyptians and the Gulf emirates share their Israeli counterparts' view of the conflict as a nuisance that must be managed, not a problem that can be solved.

“None of them fantasized about a Palestinian state....All they wanted was to get this annoying nuisance off their backs, and they didn't care how. They viewed Obama as a pest and his envoys as bothers, not as spokesmen for the global superpower. Or perhaps that's no longer what America is.”

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). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,


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