Wednesday, February 2, 2011

US in the Middle East: The Eagle is Grounded, but the Chickens are Coming Home to Roost

One of the great things about Facebook is the friends who share links both to their own essays, and to those of other friends.  A few weeks ago I "friended" Tony Karon, an extremely astute observer of the Middle East scene who contributes on an almost daily basis to Time as well as The National. In his recent Facebook posts he links to new essays from Helena Cobban (at Salon) and Daniel Levy (at the Foreign Policy site).  Both are experienced commentators on the Middle East, and in their new essays, each of them puts the wood to the myopic, poorly informed, and much-too-Israel-focused approach that has characterized much of the last 30 years of US policy in the region.  And both of them make the point that by elevating the interests of "stability" and enabling Israel to both stiff both Palestinians and defy the international community, and thereby turning its back on the principles of human rights and promoting democracy that it has so long claimed as precious to America, the US has destroyed its credibility in the region, and has left its "ally" Israel potentially isolated and confronted by a newly invigorated and empowered Arab public.  As Cobban notes: 

Israel, in short, has been of no use whatsoever to President Obama as he has tried to figure out how to respond to this fast-moving uprising that is far and away the most significant development in the geopolitics of the Middle East since Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But Israel’s situation is now revealed as worse than that. It is not just that it is of no use to Washington. Its actions over the past 40 years, and those of its many cheerleaders inside the U.S. body politic, are now clearly revealed as having undercut our country’s ability to pursue a reasonable, peaceable and rights-based policy throughout the region.

And without having an Egyptian president who is ready and able to act as Israel's shield and spear, both Israel and the United States are now going to have to look at the whole of the remaining "Arab-Israeli question" in a completely new way.

Levy hammers the myopia of US policies, as well as a discredited peace process:

The truth is that American administrations, Democrat and Republican alike, have provided cover, support, aid, and weapons to repressive Arab regimes, and with increasingly counterproductive results. Not only did the US squander credibility with Arab publics and appear hypocritical, the support given to these regimes actually became a valuable recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.

All of these trends and more were being taken to increasingly absurd heights in the case of Egypt.  Egypt's heavy-handed security and intelligence apparatus probably created more terrorists than it intercepted. Egypt ended up being a not particularly useful ally to have in the region. So wrapped up in its own succession and repression issues did Egypt become that it simply lost the ability to influence and shape events in the broader Middle East. In recent years, when regional mediation was needed, others stepped in: for instance Qatar, as was the case in Lebanon and elsewhere; Saudi Arabia successfully (if briefly) achieved a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and unity government (Egypt has conspicuously dragged these talks out to no conclusion for years); and Turkey in facilitating Israeli-Syrian peace talks. In some ways, the entire region and Arab state system appears off-balance when faced with such a weak Egyptian role.

Mubarak's Egypt cannot lead or be a model for a pro-American axis of moderation (the very notion would have most Arabs scoffing), rather the regime has given a bad name to  being America's ally and to making peace with Israel.

It is this last point, the Egypt-US-Israel triangle that will become a most vexing factor as a policy for transition takes shape in Washington. The regional utility that Mubarak's Egypt maintained became more narrowly focused on the short-term interests of the Government of Israel. Some have described Mubarak as a cornerstone of US efforts to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict, but that is inaccurate. Mubarak's Egypt became the cornerstone of something far-less worthy: an effort to maintain a farcical peace process that sustained Israel's occupation and settlement expansion, that sustained an image of Egypt's usefulness as the indispensible peace-builder, and that allowed the US to avoid making hard choices.

As part of any transition the US should certainly strive hard to insure that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is strictly adhered to, and it is a goal that most are confident can be achieved. But it should not demand that Egypt continue to be the loyal servant of a thoroughly discredited peace process. The US should be careful not to view transition in Egypt too much through the prism of Israeli demands. . . .

As the region reconfigures itself, the US should help Israel adjust to a new reality - convincing Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories would be the best option, but just explaining to Israel that America now has to deal with an Arab politics that is in its post-dictatorship phase and will henceforth have to be more responsive to public opinion - that will be a necessity.

It won't be easy politically, but getting it right in this period of re-adjustment will have to include a less Israel-centric calibration of U.S. policy.

Both Cobban and Levy also highlight that if it is to truly represent Egypt's political society, Egypt's new government will have to include the Muslim Brotherhood.  That need not automatically lead to (as observers like Leslie Gelb and Richard Cohen bemoan) the emergence of a radical Islamist, Iran-style theocracy; there are other groups - like the Kiyafa party, as well as people supporting Muhammad el-Baradei - who bring their own ideas and needs to the political table.  But whatever role the Muslim Brotherhood assumes in a new Egyptian government (or other Islamist groups - like Ennahda in Tunisia - might assume elsewhere), as Stephen Kinzer makes plain (in an essay that Levy links to):

The U.S. has long sought to block democracy in the Arab world, fearing that it would lead to the emergence of Islamist regimes. Remarkably, however, the Tunisian revolution does not seem to be heading that way, nor have Islamist leaders tried to guide protests in Egypt. Perhaps watching the intensifying repression imposed by mullahs in Iran has led many Muslims to rethink the value of propelling clerics to power.

Even if democratic regimes in the Middle East are not fundamentalist, however, they will firmly oppose U.S. policy toward Israel. The intimate U.S.-Israel relationship guarantees that many Muslims around the world will continue to see the U.S. as an enabler of evil. Despite America’s sins in the Middle East, however, many Muslims still admire the U.S. They see its leaders as profoundly mistaken in their unconditional support of Israel, but envy what the U.S. has accomplished and want some version of American freedom and prosperity for themselves. This suggests that it is not too late for the U.S. to reset its policy toward the region in ways that would take new realities into account.

Accepting that Arabs have the right to elect their own leaders means accepting the rise of governments that do not share America’s pro-Israel militancy. This is the dilemma Washington now faces. Never has it been clearer that the U.S. needs to reassess its long-term Middle East strategy. It needs new approaches and new partners. Listening more closely to Turkey, the closest U.S. ally in the Muslim Middle East, would be a good start. A wise second step would be a reversal of policy toward Iran, from confrontation to a genuine search for compromise. Yet pathologies in American politics, fed by emotions that prevent cool assessment of national interest, continue to paralyze the U.S. diplomatic imagination. Even this month’s eruptions may not be enough to rouse Washington from its self-defeating slumber.

Among those pathologies are

  • the Israel-centric discourse that characterizes so much of what passes as balanced discussion in the US (for an example, here's Tom Friedman's latest - and yes, he really does claim that "Make no mistake: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has nothing to do with sparking the demonstrations in Egypt and Jordan").
  • the Christian Zionist insistence by so many American evangelicals that the Jewish people - and only the Jewish people - have a legitimate claim to all of Palestine because "God says so" in the Bible.  Probable Republican presidential contender - and Fox News star - Mike Huckabee only days ago tried to insist on that claim, that Arabs did not belong in the land God "promised" to the Jews and that any Palestinian state would have to be established on lands the Arabs already owned (which, in his world - and that of millions of American Christians as well as their standard-bearers in Congress, does not include the West Bank).

With any luck, what's happened in Egypt - and what will happen there and perhaps elsewhere in the Arab world in the months to come - will make the Tom Friedmans and Mike Huckabees of America irrelevant to the quest for a solution to the problem of a Palestinian state.  A newly empowered Arab public seems ready to emerge, freed from US-sustained autocrats and ready to chart a new course in relations with Israel.  Egyptian leader - and Nobel Peace Prize recipient - Muhammad el-Baradei has made it clear that a new Egyptian government will insist on erasing the shame of Mubarak's compliance with the Israeli siege of Gaza - Hamas or no Hamas.

in an interview last June with the London-based Al Quds Al-Arabi, Mr. ElBaradei called the Gaza blockade “a brand of shame on the forehead of every Arab, every Egyptian and every human being.” He called on his government, and on Israel, to end the blockade, which Israeli and Egyptian officials argue is needed to ensure security.

Egypt's new leaders may be able to take the lead in insisting on the kind of just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio that the gutless US/Israel-dominated peace process of the last two decades has never come close to truly achieving.

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