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How to Use American Influence

U.S. influence is markedly less than we – or our enemies – think it is, or ever thought it was.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mark Martin shakes hands and laughs with Mawlawi Guhlam M. Ruhaani, at the conclusion of a key leader engagement in Farah City, Afghanistan, Dec. 29.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mark Martin shakes hands and laughs with Mawlawi Guhlam M. Ruhaani, at the conclusion of a key leader engagement in Farah City, Afghanistan
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/HMC Josh Ives

Colonial powers – France, Britain, Belgium and Russia, in particular – believed there was no substitute for their own armies and officials to ensure that their colonies stayed in line. Instead of colonial occupation forces, the US takes its money, arms, training and agenda abroad. It is a specifically American conceit that people in other countries and other societies want our social and governmental blueprint as well as our money, medicine and weapons.

As the Syrian civil war expands, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry finally determined that, “The conflict has been overtly sectarian… government forces and its militias, dominated by Alawites, have been attacking Sunnis — who are “broadly (but not uniformly)” backing the armed groups opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s government. And anti-government armed groups have been targeting Alawites.”

This is not news. It has, however, prompted another spasm of the belief that US support for this side or that, this person or that, could have or would have produced in Syria a secular, moderate and tolerant revolution, led by those who would be America’s friends. The estimable Barry Rubin blames “the deliberate decisions of President Barack Obama and other Western leaders. Even if one rationalizes the Islamist takeover in Egypt as due to internal events, this one is US-made.”

It is hard to see the difference between the “internal events” in Egypt that made the Brotherhood victory “inevitable,” and “internal events” in Syria that could have produced a different outcome. In both countries, the Brotherhood had been repressed and suppressed in the most brutal ways. Hafez Assad killed an estimated 20,000 people in the Brotherhood stronghold of Hama in just a few weeks in 1982; Junior has a long way to go. In neither country did the supporters of Muslim Brotherhood go away or lose their fervor – the opposite. And in both places, lifting the lid brought the Muslim Brotherhood back from underground.

Rubin adds, “Obama and others believe that they can moderate the Muslim Brotherhood and this will tame the Salafists… This is going to be the biggest foreign policy blunder of the last century.” It may be a blunder, but it would be the same one Rubin makes in the other direction. Both believe American military, economic and political support can moderate or redirect longstanding ethnic and religious beliefs and hatreds. They both believe American “influence” can create moderate, tolerant governments in the Middle East, North Africa and Southwest Asia.

The counter-argument is the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Libya.

The Oslo Accords were predicated on the mistaken belief that international economic support would create a moderate, liberal Palestinian state living peaceably next to Israel. The US also believed that with American training and financial support, Palestinian “police” would “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.” Palestinians are the world’s largest per capita recipients of international assistance. The US has spent nearly $500 million a year on the Palestinian Authority, including $100 million each year for “security forces” under the tutelage of an American three-star General. Separately, the US is the largest single donor to UNRWA; $2.2 billion in its first 50 years (1950-1999) and $2.18 billion in the last 13 years (2000-2012). In 2012, the US contribution will be $249 million.

What have we achieved? After a Palestinian war against Israel in 2000 (with terrorists using our training) and a civil war, the PA is corrupt, bankrupt and no closer to democracy or accepting Israel as a permanent part of the region than it was before the application of our money or our “influence.” The “armed struggle” promoted by Hamas is finding ever more favor with Palestinians as PA President Mahmoud Abbas seeks “unity” with his erstwhile enemies. Abbas openly defied President Obama on negotiations, UN recognition and the internationalization of the conflict. He threatens “retaliation” against Israel if its citizens choose Netanyahu in the upcoming election. PA-Israeli security cooperation has been faltering and there are open clashes between Palestinians and the IDF.

But if the US got nothing for millions to the Palestinians, it is currently getting nothing for billions in military and economic aid to Egypt. The aid was to have ensured a pro-American military, adherence to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and security in Sinai. Since 1987, the U.S. has spent about $1.25 billion annually for arms plus about $250 million in economic support. Additional millions were spent on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) between to help Egypt create civil society organizations to provide wider space for political parties and media.

What have we achieved? A Muslim Brotherhood President; a Parliament that runs from Muslim Brotherhood to Salafist; a Sharia-heavy Constitution and a military establishment that seems perfectly fine with it all. Joshua Stacher writes in Foreign Affairs that that the military supports Morsi because it believes the Brotherhood will continue to win elections, and that the Brotherhood “incorporated many of its core demands…directly into the draft constitution.”

The military is siding with what it perceives as the long-term winner – and that is not us. It is unlikely that we will use our military assistance as leverage. If Mubarak considered it “compensation,” the Brotherhood considers it “reparations” for U.S. support of the Mubarak dictatorship.

Afghanistan is the recipient of buckets of money – nearly $3 billion annually in health, education, economic infrastructure and governance for the past six years, plus billions more for military training and equipment. More than 2,000 Americans have lost their lives in an effort to bring tolerant, representative government to the Afghan people and rout the Taliban “radicals.”

Again, what have we achieved? The Afghan government and military remain corrupt and ineffectual; more than 63 “insider” attacks killed 25 Western soldiers in 2012 as President Hamid Karzai decried the lack of American cultural sensitivity. The new US Army field manual agrees: “Better situational awareness/understanding of Afghan culture will help…to avoid cultural conflict that can lead toward green-on-blue violence.” Judicial Watch notes that a draft of the manual “leaked to the newspaper offers a list of ‘taboo conversation topics’ that soldiers should avoid, including ‘making derogatory comments about the Taliban,’ ‘advocating women’s rights,’ ‘any criticism of pedophilia,’ ‘directing any criticism towards Afghans,’ ‘mentioning homosexuality and homosexual conduct’ or ‘anything related to Islam.’”

In other words, after a dozen years of our lives and treasure, American troops should adopt the cultural norms of seventh-century Afghans, rather than expecting the Afghans to show some 21st century tolerance for women and homosexuals, or aversion to pedophilia.

Pakistan received $3 billion in FY 2012; $1.6 billion in security assistance and $1.4 billion for economic development. Since 2001, more than $20 billion, including $9 billion in reimbursement for expenses supporting US military operations.

Libya? What we achieved in Libya hardly bears asking the question.

Rubin thinks, “The alternatives have been ignored; and the real moderates are being betrayed.”

It is more likely that the “real moderates” – by definition people less willing to kill or coerce – are unlikely to be winners in a region that does not presently value “moderation.” It is also true that the US has chosen some allies as well as it could, and chosen other allies badly. But regardless of the application of money, troops, training, education, infrastructure, and lessons in governance, elections and transparency, U.S. influence is markedly less than we – or our enemies – think it is, or ever thought it was.

If that sounds insufficient, it harks back to Cold War understandings. The U.S. and its allies could not, similarly, overthrow the Soviet Union or liberate its colonies. But we did not pretend they were our friends, and we surely did not give them aid or political support. The best of the Cold Warriors – think John F. Kennedy, Henry M. Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ronald Reagan – spurred the United States staunchly to defend its political beliefs as “better;” defend its friends militarily through NATO, COCOM and other joint efforts; guard as much as possible against communist expansion into free countries; and let the “captive nations” know through Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty that we were on their side.

That would translate today into unequivocal support for human rights, civil rights, minority rights and capitalism; support for Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Iraq (because we are responsible for it now), the Central Asian “Stans,” Tunisia (still) and Turkey (maybe); guarding against al Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood expansion in Africa – including loudly denouncing attacks on Christians in Nigeria, Kenya and Mali; and expanded use of social networks to provide real information and hope for the future to those many people who want to be on our side, with America.

Originally published at the Gatestone Institute.

About the Author: Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center. She was previously Senior Director of JINSA and author of JINSA Reports form 1995-2011.


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