Friday, June 7, 2013

Obama Middle East Policy: Wrong Team, Wrong Ideas

By Barry Rubin

In the Middle East, to paraphrase President Barack Obama's mentor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the dodo birds are coming home to roost.

At this moment, the administration's policy team consists of CIA director John Brennan, father of the ""moderate" Islamism-and-the-Muslim Brotherhood-are-good school; the Secretary of State John Kerry who thinks he is going to make Israel-Palestinian peace in one month;  the know-nothing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; the chilling ideologue Samantha Powers as UN ambassador; and the dupe of the Benghazi scandal Susan Rice rewarded by being made national security adviser.

Can things get any  more Alice in Wonderland? But what's really happening in the region.

In Egypt, the country is falling into anti-Americanism and tyranny, the United States is embarking on a new policy in Syria that one can see won't work. What is the solution? Simply to support moderate and anti-Islamist forces while opposing Islamists and terrorists. Except if you wait too long there will be no good forces left to help anymore.

Egypt first.  The Supreme Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, has now ruled that the January 2012 Shura Council election for the upper house of parliament was unconstitutional. The same decision was rendered for the Islamist-dominated body that wrote the new Constitution. But the chief judge said that the Constitution was not annulled.

In short, there is total confusion. Indeed, it isn’t even clear that the new election for the lower house of Parliament will be held. Egypt is in maximal mess phase. 

Meanwhile, what allegedly friendly country just sentenced the son of a U.S. cabinet official to five years in prison? Answer: Egypt, to the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Crime: Supporting democracy. Four more Americans received the same sentence.

The Egyptian Islamist regime does not fear America nor does it show gratitude for President Obama’s help in its taking and consolidation of power. Offices were closed and prison sentences of up to five years—for 27 people--were meted out. Many of those charged fled the country. Among the groups closed were the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was “deeply concerned” but of course the Egyptian government knew America wouldn’t do anything except keep shipping in tear gas and provided financial and political support.

After getting into power in part due to U.S. help, the Egyptian court called the promotion of democracy a form of “soft imperialism.” Get it? They get into power by a vote and then that’s the end of free elections.

The court’s verdict says that history shows U.S. policies believe that its “interests as best served by totalitarian dictatorships and harmed by genuine democracies….The U.S.—fearing democracy ushered in by Egypt’s popular revolt—has used funding to take the revolution off its path.”

So even as the U.S. government supports the Egyptian revolt and regime, the ruling elite claims that it opposed them. Thus the pro-Muslim Brotherhood policy doesn’t win any influence or benefits since the Brotherhood accepts the help and then declares that America is its enemy.

Thus, for friendship toward America; how about peaceful intentions toward neighbors? Here we have possibly the most embarrassing open microphone scandal in history. The televising of a meeting held by President Muhammad Morsi allowed listeners to hear plans for military attacks on Ethiopia because of a dam that country is building on the Nile in order to generate electricity. Participants didn’t know the meeting was being aired on live state television.

Egyptian leaders discussed covert operations to destroy the dam or giving covert support to rebel groups. This gives some hints of what longer-term policy toward Israel might well be. Advocates of aggressive action included moderate politicians.

How about cultural news? Well the Culture Minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz has just installed an Islamist professor of Arabic literature by firing the head of Egypt’s National Library and Archives. Also fired were the heads of the opera house, book publishing, and fine arts sections of the ministry.

The ministry’s foreign relations’ director resigned in protest, saying that the minister was seeking to Islamize Egyptian culture and put religion in place of national identity.

What other trends are visible? How about the sentencing of a Christian lawyer to one year in prison and a fine for allegedly insulting God and the Quran? This is one of many such trials. The complaint was brought by Islamist lawyers. Previously, a Christian schoolteacher had been sentenced to six years for, among other things, allegedly insulting Morsi. Last December it was the turn of a Christian who posted a short film claimed to be derogatory to Islam and who was sentenced to three years. Two Christian children, aged nine and ten years old, were put in juvenile detention for allegedly tearing up a Koran.

But perhaps the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supports “Arab Spring” type revolts elsewhere? No. Leaders asserted that the demonstrations against the Turkish Islamist government that have broken out on a grassroots’ level are in fact a war against Islam by showing that Islamist regimes have failed. It’s interesting that the Muslim Brotherhood considers the Turkish counterpart of being that kind of government while the U.S. government doesn’t.

So, opposing the spread of democracy, viewing the United States as an enemy, putting Islamist power as the highest value, oppressing Christians, and fundamentally transforming Egypt into an anti-American, anti-Christian, oppressive dictatorship. These are the hallmarks of contemporary Egypt. And there are scores of other examples that can be cited.

In Syria, reports Reuters on May 31 from Beirut, the Saudis have now clearly changed policy in line with the United States. The Saudi government is now frightened of its own support of radical Salafist Islamists in the rebel forces. They are pressuring Qatar to stop backing the hardliners though it is not clear how successful this effort is at present. Qatar has become the main backer of the Muslim Brotherhood financially.

The new policy is being influenced by military failures now that the Assad regime has more Russian, Iranian, and Hizballah backing. But it is also prompted by worries that Syria might be taken over by anti-American, anti-Saudi Islamist radicals. This concern was heightened by American observance of what was happening in rebel-held northern Syria. Another factor is the disorder in rebel ranks seen at the recent summit meeting in Turkey and the intransigence of the Muslim Brotherhood exile leadership to accept other forces into the direction of the battle.

At a critical moment when the United States and European Union were going to send arms directly, fear of the dominant Islamist forces—which also include a growing al-Qaida presence—is holding up this escalation. And without more arms the rebels cannot win.

This has led the United States to postpone handing over $63 million dollars in promised aid to the rebels' Syrian Opposition Coalition which is dominated by the Brotherhood.

U.S. policy is still in disorder but has now changed. Up to now, the Obama Administration has favored a rebel victory, disregarding the growth of Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist, and al-Qaida forces as well as worrisome signs of ethnic massacres. Amazingly enough, it backed a Muslim Brotherhood dominated group as the rebel leadership even when that organization kept out others!

Now, in theory, the Obama Administration is switching to support for moderates, the policy that this column has advocated for almost two years and had been disregarded. It is too late, however. The rebel groups have formed; they control much territory, ideological blocs have hardened; and there are relatively few moderates. Moreover, the Free Syrian Army controls few forces on the ground.

Note by the way that the domination of the rebels by the Islamists have kept Christians and Druze, as well as Alawites, on the regime’s side. That is more than 25 percent of the population. Another 15 percent, the Kurds, are in effect neutral seeking to maintain their autonomy won by their militia in the civil war. It is probably too late to change these positions

So the real alternatives of the Western states may be reduced to three:

--Withhold aid and live with a long-term civil war in which the Assad regime controls half the country while Russia, Iran, and Hizballah claim a partial victory.

--Give strong backing to rebel forces regardless of ideology and see Syria taken over by a radical Islamist government in which the Brotherhood rules, the Salafists operate freely, and al-Qaida establishes a strong base.
--Say that they are supporting moderate forces which have few soldiers and relatively little support within Syria. This policy won’t work but will look good. Meanwhile, Sunni Islamist radicals and a pro-Iran dictatorship battle for predominance.

The likely option is the last one.

Isn't it time for the U.S. government, journalists, and academics to admit that they've been getting the Middle East all wrong? That they have often reversed the good and bad guys so that they have been backing the bad guys, anti-Americans, and even terrorists?  Haven't the contradictions gotten to be so obvious that they cannot be denied any more?

American interests are with the rebels of Turkey and Iran; the moderate Muslim-Christian opposition in Lebanon, with Israel and the Kurds; with the real moderates in Egypt; with Jordan's kingdom which small amounts of money would help enormously; and, yes, often even with the Gulf Arab states (except Qatar)  if  only given the American leadership they are begging for.

Western and American interests are not with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria; not with the stealth Islamist regime in Turkey for which the Obama Administration just renewed a waiver on sanctions against Iran (!); not with the rejectionist Palestinian Authority, not with some "moderate Islamist" faction of the Iranian regime.

It is past time that this be recognized. But it is a task requiring a Churchill, not the churlish.

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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 next book, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, written with Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2014. His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, also published by Yale. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine ConflictThe Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.



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