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Posts Tagged ‘Arab Spring’

Democracy is Not the Answer

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

To understand how we got to the point that spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support a government run by people who have been at war with us for almost a century is a policy that most foreign policy experts endorse, it helps to take a brief trip back in time.

In the last century, our big three wars, the two we fought and the one we didn’t, were against enemies who were seen as being distinguished by a lack of democracy, with the Kaiser, the Fuhrer and the Commissar embodying the antithesis of the American system.

The Democratic Party, which stood at the helm during both hot wars, was able to link its brand to the wars by defining them as struggles for democracy. The process of de-nationalizing war from a conflict between nations and ethnic groups was only partly realized in WWI, where invective against the “Huns” still simmered, but was largely achieved in WWII; with some exceptions made for Japan.

This idealization of war made post-war reconstruction and alliance easier. National and ethnic grudges were set aside and replaced by ideological platforms. If the trouble was a lack of democracy, then all we needed to do was defeat the tyrant’s armies, inject democracy and stand back. Focusing on democracy made it possible to rebuild Germany and Japan as quasi-pacifist entities expressing their grievances toward the Allies from the pacifistic stance of the moral high ground, rather than  through  military rearmament and revenge.

The United States had traded Hitler for Gunter Grass and while both hated the United States, Gunter Grass would write nasty essays about it, instead of declaring war on it.

And democracy made it easier to turn liberals against the Soviet Union, which had tossed aside every pretense of being a bottom-up system for what was clearly a top-down tyranny. The liberals who had believed in a war for democracy in Europe had difficulty tossing it aside after the war was over. And that emphasis on democracy helped make a national defense coalition between conservatives and liberals possible. Both might have fundamental disagreements, but they agreed that democracy was better than tyranny. And if that was true, then America was better than the USSR.

This strategy was effective enough against existing totalitarian systems. It however had a major weakness. It could not account for keeping a totalitarian ideology from taking power through the ballot box.

The assumption that because the Nazis and the Communists rejected open elections that they could not win open elections was wrong. Democracy of that kind is populism and totalitarian movements can be quite popular. The Nazis did fairly well in the 1932 elections and the radical left gobbled up much of the Russian First Duma. The modern Russian Communist Party is the second largest party in the Duma today.

Democratic elections do not necessarily lead to democratic outcomes, but the linkage of democracy to progress made that hard to see. The assumption that democracy is progressive and leads to more progress had been adopted even by many conservatives. That fixed notion of history led to trouble in Latin America and Asia. And it led to total disaster in the Arab Spring.

Cold War America knew better than to endorse universal democracy. Open elections everywhere would have given the Soviet Union more allies than the United States. The left attacked Eisenhower and Kennedy as hypocrites, but both men were correct in understanding that there was no virtue in overthrowing an authoritarian government only to replace it with an even more authoritarian government; whether through violence or the ballot box.

As time went on, Americans were assailed with two interrelated arguments. The left warned that the denial of democracy was fueling Third World rage against the United States. By supporting tyrants, we were conducting an occupation by proxy. And on the right we heard that tyranny was warping Third World societies into malignant forms. The left’s version of the argument directed more blame at America, but both versions of the argument treated democracy as a cure for hostility.

September 11 appeared to confirm one or both of the arguments as policymakers and pundits found themselves confronted with an unexpected wave of hostility from countries that they had not spent much time thinking about.

The Secret Document that Set Obama’s Mideast Policy

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Originally published at Rubin Reports.

“We have to confront violent extremism in all of its forms.… America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security — because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as president to protect the American people.” –President Barack Obama, Cairo, June 2009.

“The United States is now experiencing the beginning of its end, and is heading towards its demise….Resistance is the only solution. [Today the United States] is withdrawing from Iraq, defeated and wounded, and it is also on the verge of withdrawing from Afghanistan. [All] its warplanes, missiles and modern military technology were defeated by the will of the peoples, as long as [these peoples] insisted on resistance.” –Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad al-Badi, Cairo, September 2010.

WHAT DID THE PRESIDENT know and when did he know it? That’s a question made classical by the Watergate scandal. Now it is possible to trace precisely what Obama knew and when he knew it. And it proves that the installment of the Muslim Brotherhood into power was a conscious and deliberate strategy of the Obama Administration developed before the “Arab Spring” began.

In February 2011 the New York Times ran an extremely complimentary article on President Obama by Mark Landler, who some observers say is the biggest apologist for Obama on the newspaper. That’s quite an achievement. Landler praised Obama for having tremendous foresight, in effect, predicting the “Arab Spring.”

According to Landler,

President Obama ordered his advisers last August [2010] to produce a secret report on unrest in the Arab world, which concluded that without sweeping political changes, countries from Bahrain to Yemen were ripe for popular revolt, administration officials said Wednesday.

Which advisors? The then counter-terrorism advisor and now designated CIA chief, John Brennan? National Security Council senior staffer Samantha Power? If it was done by Obama’s own staff, rather than State and Defense staff, it’s likely that these people or at least one of them was the key author.

So should U.S. policy help allies avoid such sweeping change by standing firm or by helping them make adjustments? No, explained the report, it should get on the side of history and wield a broom to do the sweeping.

Lander’s article continued:

Mr. Obama’s order, known as a Presidential Study Directive, identified likely flashpoints, most notably Egypt, and solicited proposals for how the administration could push for political change in countries with autocratic rulers who are also valuable allies of the United States, [emphasis added] these officials said.

The 18-page classified report, they said, grapples with a problem that has bedeviled the White House’s approach toward Egypt and other countries in recent days: how to balance American strategic interests and the desire to avert broader instability against the democratic demands of the protesters.

As I noted, the article was quite explicitly complimentary (and that’s an understatement) about how Obama knew what was likely to happen and was well prepared for it.

But that’s precisely the problem. It wasn’t trying to deal with change but was pushing for it; it wasn’t asserting U.S. interests, but balancing them off against other factors. In the process, U.S. interests were forgotten.

If Landler was right then Obama did have a sense of what was going to happen and prepared for it. It cannot be said that he was caught unawares. This view would suggest, then, that he thought American strategic interests could be protected and broader instability avoided by overthrowing U.S. allies as fast as possible and by showing the oppositions that he was on their side. Presumably the paper pointed out the strength of Islamist forces and the Muslim Brotherhood factor and then discounted any dangers from this quarter.

One could have imagined how other U.S. governments would have dealt with this situation: by helping friendly governments retain control, encourage them to make reforms, and if they fall, work  to ensure the triumph of moderate, pro-democratic forces that would be able to prevent the formation of radical Islamist dictatorships.

Such an approach would have been easy and in line with historic U.S. policy. We have every reason to believe that the State Department and the Defense Department favored such an approach.

Cleric to Saudi Government: Start Reforms, Or Else…

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, a leading Saudi cleric, who was imprisoned in the 1990s for speaking in favor of change, and whose Twitter is accessed by 2.4 million believers, published an open letter on the social media site, with a warning to the government of Saudi Arabia—which isn’t accustomed to receiving public criticism—that it would be facing “the spark of violence” if it didn’t act quickly on burning issues like detained dissidents, bad public services and corruption, Reuters reported.

In reaction to the “Arab Spring” of the past two years, the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, pledged $110 billion in social spending, in return for a religious ban on protests.

But according to the conservative Sheikh, nothing significant has changed so far. He described a stagnation, caused by a lack of housing, unemployment, poverty, corruption, bad health and education services, the suffering of political prisoners and the fact that Saudis see no hope for political reform.

“If revolutions are suppressed they turn into armed action, and if they are ignored they expand and spread. The solution is in wise decisions and in being timely to avert any spark of violence,” al-Awdah wrote.

Dissidents have been detained as political prisoners in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. The issue of the detainees has united some Saudi Islamists and liberals against what they see as a punitive state security apparatus.

As of 2012, estimates are that as many as 30 thousand dissidents are sitting in Saudi prisons. They included tribal leader Mukhlif al-Shammari, who was charged with “annoying others” for his op-eds, assistant professor of law Muhammad al-Abdul Karim who published an article on “The crisis of conflict amongst the governing wings in Saudi Arabia,” in 2010.

A week ago, two prominent human rights activists were jailed, having campaigned for years on behalf of detainees. Most demonstrations in support of detainees involve only a few dozen Saudis, but now and then, such as in a late February rally in Bureidah in the central Qassim Province, many more show up. In that instance, 161 protesters were arrested.

Sheikh al-Awdah wrote that his Saudi countrymen “like people around the world” aren’t always going to remain ” silent about forfeiting all or part” of their rights, adding that “when someone loses hope, you should expect anything from him.”

The Saudi authorities do not tolerate public dissent, this is, most likely, because signs of public rage are being closely monitored by the world’s oil industry experts, who make their futures purchases with said dissents in mind.

Unanswered Questions About Susan Rice

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

President Obama reportedly has decided to appoint U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as his next national security adviser. Since the national security adviser is a member of the president’s executive staff, Ambassador Rice would not need to be confirmed by the Senate, as would a nominee for a cabinet-level office such as secretary of state. (It will be recalled that worries over her prospects at being confirmed by the Senate derailed her widely expected nomination as secretary of state).

Given that the national security adviser has the ear of the president and in most administrations is an enormously significant member of the foreign policy team, salient parts of Ambassador Rice’s record warrant scrutiny.

There still are serious, unanswered questions concerning Ms. Rice’s role in the aftermath of last year’s terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. Since that time it has been learned that the administration knew almost at the outset that the attack was a well-planned operation of Islamist terrorists. Yet officials initially claimed the attack was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video. Indeed, Ambassador Rice touted the notion of a spontaneous mob action for several days after the event despite the evidence to the contrary.

On what basis did Ms. Rice promote the false storyline? Did she knowingly mislead the public or was she duped? These are important questions about someone who would advise the leader of the free world on a daily basis.

In terms of Israel, we continue to be dismayed by her performance at the U.N. Security Council in February 2011, when she cast the U.S. veto of an Arab-initiated resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion. President Obama had said early on that the U.S. would not go along with it and if necessary, block the measure by voting against it. (Because the U.S. is a permanent member of the Security Council, this meant the measure could not pass no matter how many affirmative votes were cast by others.)

A video of that Security Council session shows a visibly upset Ambassador Rice as she cast the negative vote. Her body language and facial expressions strongly suggest she was doing something she really didn’t want to. And most of her speech was characterized by a lambasting of Israel for its settlement activity.

One excerpt:

[W]e reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace….

While we agree with our fellow Council members – and indeed, with the wider world – about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, we think it unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians. We therefore regrettably have opposed this draft resolution.

And then there were the instances when she snubbed Israel. She skipped Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the U.N. in September 2012. She was not present during the UN debate over the Goldstone Report and left it to her deputy to read a statement from the Obama administration opposing it. She was also absent from the UN Security Council in 2011 when the U.S. opposed Palestinian efforts to declare statehood at the United Nations, again relying on a deputy to read an administration statement.

To be sure, Ambassador Rice has her defenders in the pro-Israel community who cite her many efforts defending Israel against the institutionalized demonization that is part of everyday life at the U.N. But that doesn’t quite alleviate our concern over her apparent embrace of the Palestinian narrative on the core issues of the Arab-Israel conflict – even when the president seems to be leaning the other way.

The Arab Street is Still Angry

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Much like Festivus, American diplomacy in the Middle East usually begins with an airing of grievances. These are not the American grievances over decades of terrorism and acts of violent hatred. These are the grievances that are supposedly infuriating the Arab Street. The list begins with Israel, continues on to the “Arab Dictators” supported by America and concludes with warnings to respect Mohammed by not making any cartoons or movies about him.

During his first term, Obama kept his distance from Israel, locked up a Christian who made a movie about Mohammed and withdrew his support from the Arab Dictators. The street should have been happy, but now it’s angrier than ever. And much of that anger is directed at America.

Mohamed El Baradei, once the administration’s choice to take over Egypt, has refused to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry. Joining him in this boycott is much of Egypt’s liberal opposition.

When Mubarak was in power, the “Arab Street” of Islamists and Egyptian leftists was angry at America for supporting him. Now the “Arab Street” of Egyptian leftists, Mubarak supporters and some Anti-Brotherhood Islamists is angry at America for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The American foreign policy error was to assume that the political grievances of the Arab Street could be appeased with democracy. They can’t be. The various factions are not truly interested in open elections. What they want is for America to elevate their faction and only their faction to power. When that doesn’t happen, they denounce the government as an American puppet and warn of the great and terrible anger of the Arab Street if America doesn’t make them its puppet instead.

Democracy is no solution, because none of the factions really wanted democracy for its own sake. They wanted it only as a tool to help them win. Now that the tool has failed most of them, they don’t care for it anymore. And the Islamists who benefited from democracy have no enduring commitment to it. Like all the other factions, they see it as a tool. A means, not an end.

While the West views democracy as an end, the East sees it as only a means. The West believes in a system of populist power rotation. The East however is caught between a variety of totalitarian ideologies, including Islamists and local flavors of the left, who have no interest in power rotation except as a temporary strategy for total victory.

There is no actual solution to the Arab Street that will please all sides and keep their hatred of America down to a dull roar. Whichever side the United States of America backs will leave the others full of fury. If the United States doesn’t back a side but maintains good relations with the government, it will still be accused of backing that government.

The only way to disprove that accusation is for the winning side to demonstrate its hostility to the United States. Accordingly even governments that are in theory friendly to the United States must demonstrate their unfriendliness as a defense against accusations that they are puppets of the infidels. And as a result, no matter whom the United States supports, all the factions, including those we support, will continue to engage in ritual displays of hostility against us.

Trying to appease the fictional construct of an Arab Street that has clear and simple demands is a hopeless scenario. It’s a Catch 22 mess where every move is ultimately a losing move, no matter how promising it initially appears to be.

There is no Arab Street. The real Arab Street is the overcrowded cities full of angry men with no jobs and lots of bigotry. Their hostility to the United States has nothing to do with the sordid politics that experts insist on bringing up to prove that the Muslim world hates us with good reason. Even if this history did not exist, the United States would be just as hated. The best evidence of that is that most of the accusations that enjoy popularity on the Arab Street are entirely imaginary.

Demagogues can lead the street from bread riots to toppling governments, but what they cannot do is fix the underlying problems, let alone change the bigotry of people who blame all their problems on the foreigners, rather than on themselves. Each faction promises that the anger will subside and stability will return when it comes to power, but the anger will never go away because it’s too convenient to blame America for everything. As long as America is around, no one in the Muslim world ever has to take responsibility for anything.

Why the CIA Director is Wrong: Islamism Scarier than Al Qaeda

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Originally published at Rubin Reports.

It’s time, a dozen years after September 11 and following Islamist coups in the Gaza Strip; Islamist electoral revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Turkey; and a probable Islamist victory during the next year in Syria–to rethink completely our view of Al Qaeda.

First, Al Qaeda wasn’t involved in any of these events or in several more big developments we could list. Second, Al Qaeda hasn’t disappeared, contrary to the Obama Administration’s claims. And third, the American homeland is now demonstrably well-protected from terrorist attacks so consequently while success on this front remains important it need not be the top U.S. strategic priority.

So let me propose a new way of looking at things:

Aside from being a problem of counter-terrorism—that is, of law enforcement—Al Qaeda is no longer important. It certainly isn’t strategically important nor is it important for the biggest and most essential U.S. national interests. That doesn’t mean Al Qaeda should be ignored. Yet combating it is relatively manageable.

This alternative view is especially significant at a moment when the new CIA director is the father—and the president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense the avid fans—of a theory that places Al Qaeda at the center of the world stage. Basically their theory goes like this:

Al Qaeda is terribly evil and a threat to America. It must be fought. But all Islamism—except for Al Qaeda—can be moderated and won over by a sympathetic U.S. policy. The Islamists are the best people to handle and defeat Al Qaeda and by giving the people what they want–Islam running the society–their desire to commit terrorism or attack America will subside. After all, if the United States shows itself to be Islamism’s best friend, why should Islamists be angry at it? This strategy began with Obama’s Cairo speech which was a profoundly pro-Islamist statement, and that’s why he invited Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders to sit in the front row.

In other words, put your enemies in power and they are no longer your enemies. Moreover, once Islamists get into power they will get entangled in party politics, paving roads, running schools, and doing all the other things that governments do. They will lose their radicalism and certainly stop using violence.

Now there’s a lot to say against this theory. It either hasn’t worked historically on other radical ideologies—Nazism, fascism, Communism—or at least only after a very long time in power (including millions of victims) often mixed in with military debacles. It can be said to have worked with radical Arab nationalism but only after 50 years and multiple military defeats. This was also the precise theory that underpinned the 1990s’ Oslo peace process and assumptions about Yasir Arafat settling down to become a great and practical statesman. And that didn’t work either.

Moreover, it ignores the fundamental extremism, anti-Americanism, antisemitism, anti-Christian, and anti-women tenets of Islamist philosophy, which are rooted in reasonable (but not the only possible) interpretations of Islam. And it also leaves out the power gained once radicals take over institutions. Sure they’ll be running the schools but that doesn’t mean they will become entangled in planning curricula so much as to persuade people they should grow up to be radical Islamists and jihad warriors.

Finally, all Islamists want Islamist rule and the application of Sharia as the law. Some will talk and do nothing; others will talk and organize; others will use violence, and among those who organize there are those who can seize state power—in Muslim majority countries—and those that will fail. The Muslim Brotherhood is brilliant tactically; Al Qaeda has only one note in its orchestra, endless struggle and terrorism rather than political maneuvering and building a mass base.

Usually, as you can see, when I talk about this issue I stress the non-Al Qaeda side of the equation. But it’s time to reanalyze Al Qaeda also.

The importance of Al Qaeda in the history of Islamism is actually more marginal than it might seem from the massive study and headlines it generated. Al Qaeda had three innovations of importance:

First, that the movement be international, fighting simultaneously on all fronts. While the Muslim Brotherhood had been an international group it had a limited number of branches, only four of real significance. However, this only succeeded because Al Qaeda’s organization—especially after the U.S. destruction of the center in Afghanistan and long before Osama bin Ladin’s assassination—was so loose. Basically, local groups could simply affiliate with Al Qaeda without being its actual creation. Being active everywhere and not concentrating one’s forces is a formula for survival but also a recipe for ultimate defeat.

Who Will Morsi Heed: Allah or Tom Friedman?

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Originally published at Rubin Reports.

Sigh. Forgive me. I really don’t want to write this article but it is too good a case study of the contemporary Western foreign policy reporting, debate, and elite attitudes toward international affairs. And doing a better job is vital because this task involves the fate of millions of people; matters of war and peace; the most basic interests of the United States; and the decency of intellectual discourse.

I refer of course to Thomas L. Friedman’s latest effort, “The Belly Dancing Barometer,” (New York Times, February 19, 2013). Hey, tens of millions of lives are at stake so that’s worth a flippant title and a goofy concept, right?

Friedman writes:

Since the start of the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square, every time the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood faced a choice of whether to behave in an inclusive way or grab more power, true to its Bolshevik tendencies it grabbed more power and sacrificed inclusion. [President] Morsi’s power grab will haunt him.

The Brotherhood needs to understand that its version of political Islam – which is resistant to women’s empowerment and religious and political pluralism – might be sustainable if you are Iran or Saudi Arabia, and you have huge reserves of oil and gas to buy off all the contradictions between your ideology and economic growth. But if you are Egypt, you need to be as open to the world and modernity as possible to unleash all of the potential for growth. So let me get this straight. Friedman is saying that you cannot trust the Brotherhood, it seeks total power and is antidemocratic. Hmm, What’s he been saying the last two years? He’s been an apologist for the Brotherhood, a cheerleader for the course taken by the “Arab Spring,” and has constantly insisted that the democratic revolution is going well.

Indeed, in January 2012, I wrote an analysis of Friedman’s coverage entitled, “Friedman Cheers as Egyptians are Enslaved.” Now that it’s too late he is supposedly outraged to see what’s going on there.

Now he concludes that the Egyptian regime is not democratic at all but then draws no conclusion about how U.S. policy should change to adjust for his discovery?  Does Friedman now favor, as he hints in the article, using real pressure on Egypt if the regime continues to be repressive at home? Will he criticize Obama for not doing so?

But if Morsi has “Bolshevik tendencies” might that not also lead to his doing something nasty to U.S. interests?

It’s like identifying a mass murderer and then saying, “Do you really think you can get away with this without a vast criminal organization behind you?” rather than yelling, “Help, police! There’s a mass murderer over there!”

And then on top of that he uses the “needs to understand” phrase so beloved of newspaper editorialists but totally absurd in dealing with dictators. Well, what if they don’t understand?  How about saying:

Herr Hitler needs to understand that he cannot conquer the whole world. Germany lacks the economic base to do so.

And do we now believe in economic determinism? Was the USSR sustainable? Can you imagine someone writing this in 1917 to the Bolsheviks?

Mr. Lenin needs to understand that the Soviet Union [yes, I know it wasn't founded until several years later but I'm trying to make a point here] should abandon its Bolshevik tendencies because it will never work out.

Sure the Soviet Union failed but it took almost 75 years and there were tens of millions dead as a result.

And since when did a Middle Eastern radical dictatorship (even one that was elected) put economic pragmatism ahead of seeking its goals: the PLO or Palestinian Authority, Saddam Hussein? Gamal Abdel Nasser? I  don’t remember the Iranian government dropping the nuclear weapons program because of economic sanctions.

Arguably, one such leader did bow to economic necessity to moderate. His name was Anwar al-Sadat and now his regime–under Sadat’s successor, Mubarak–is the villain for America and the West.

Note that Friedman never says: President Obama needs to understand that he cannot trust this Muslim Brotherhood regime, should see it as a threat to U.S. interests, and must work to undermine it.

Moreover, is Friedman correct and Morsi wrong? Is the world really going to cut off the money to Egypt if it keeps getting more Islamist? Will the U.S. insist that the IMF stop aiding the Egyptian regime or even stop sending it free weapons?

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/analysis/rubin-reports/who-will-morsi-heed-allah-or-tom-friedman/2013/02/27/

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