Egyptian activist to Obama: at least have the decency to stop voicing support for Morsi

A striking open letter to President Obama by veteran Egyptian human rights activist Baheieddin Hassan:

Mr President, when I spoke with you in 2010, I asked why the US administration condemns repressive practices in Iran while remaining silent when Arab regimes engage in the same violations. Over recent months, statements by your administration have similarly failed to address violations and have even blamed protesters and victims for violence committed in the context of demonstrations. Indeed, the stances of your administration have given political cover to the current authoritarian regime in Egypt and allowed it to fearlessly implement undemocratic policies and commit numerous acts of repression.

Statements that “Egypt is witnessing a genuine and broad-based process of democratisation” have covered over and indeed legitimised the undemocratic processes by which the Constituent Assembly passed the new constitution, an issue which has in turn led to greatly heightened instability in the country. Calls for “the opposition [to] remain non-violent” and for “the government and security forces [to] exercise self-restraint in the face of protester violence” have allowed the police and the current Egyptian administration to shirk their responsibilities to secure demonstrations and to respond to the demands of the Egyptian people, and have allowed them to place the blame for violence and instability on protesters themselves. Urging “the opposition [to] engage in a national dialogue without preconditions” undermines the ability of the opposition to play a real role in the decision-making processes of the country, as these “dialogues” seldom result in anything more concrete than a photo-op with the president. Is it a coincidence that the statements issued by your administration reflect the same political rhetoric used by the new authoritarian regime in Egypt? But when these statements come from the world’s superpower — the one most able to have a positive or negative impact on policies in Egypt and the region, not to mention the biggest donor and material supporter of the Egyptian regime for the past 35 years — they become lethal ammunition, offering political protection to perpetrators of murder, torture, brutality and rape.

I do not write you today to ask you to condemn the repressive policies of the current regime, or to ask you to urge President Mohamed Morsi to “cease” using excessive force and violence against Egyptians, even as your administration was so eager to achieve a ceasefire with Hamas to stop hostilities in Gaza. I write you not to ask for troops to protect political protesters in Egypt, or to suspend, freeze, or reduce military or economic aid to my country, or even to impose conditions on that aid. My request is quite modest: that spokespeople and officials in your administration stop commenting on developments in Egypt. This will no doubt spare your administration much time and effort, but more importantly, it may spare more bloodshed in Egypt, as the current regime will no longer enjoy the political cover that the US administration now offers them. Certainly, Egypt has seen enough bloodshed over the last two years, and Egyptians are tired of being punished for their uprising.

Read the whole thing. 

The Obama administration has the same problem it had with Mubarak: it suffers from acute clientitis, has an ambassador whose embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood has been way too much too fast and is incautious with her praise, it fails to appreciate the seriousness of the current situation and thinks things will just blow over, and has a department of defense whose interest in the status quo consistently overrides other elements of the foreign policy machine. We are back to the Mubarak era where the main concern of the embassy, and large elements of the departments of State and Defense, is how they are going to protect Egypt (whether the generals or the Morsi administration) from Congress. It's a sad state of affairs.

The not-so-secret secret base and the not-so-wet-towel towels

The Washington Post, among “several” other unnamed news outlets, have reportedly known of a US airstrip in Saudi Arabia that, aside from the apparent distinction of being the first new US base opened on Saudi soil since the 2003 troop withdrawals, was the airstrip that participated in the 2011 raid(s) that killed Anwar al-Awlaki.

According to the Post, it and those outlets have sat on the information for a year at the administration’s request for fear it would jeopardize the base’s security and the secrecy of US combat operations in Yemen, which are also supported by the Saudi Air Force. It is also notable that the US has set up this while still retaining its heaviest aerial assets (which are reserved for contingencies against the Islamic Republic of Iran) in the region in Qatar, so this is solely an anti-AQAP program that’s been set up.

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Obama eggs Israel on

Just like 2006 and 2009, when George W. Bush was encouraging Israel to prolong attacks that were resulting in vast numbers of civilian deaths and destroyed civilian infrastructure, Barak Obama is openly encouraging the Israelis to do whatever they want:

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE–The White House said Saturday that it would leave it to Israel to decide whether it is appropriate to invade Gaza to try to stop rocket attacks into the country but that it remains focused on working behind the scenes to deescalate tensions.

“The Israelis are going to make decisions about their own military tactics and operations,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling on Air Force One to Asia. “There’s a broad preference for deescalation if it can be achieved in a way that ends that threat to Israeli citizens.”

Mr. Rhodes said President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have spoken by phone nearly every day since the situation with Gaza erupted, including discussing ways to deescalate the situation. In addition, Mr. Obama has spoken twice with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and once with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to urge them to use their influence with Hamas.

“They have ability to play a constructive role in engaging Hamas and encouraging a process of deescalation,” Mr. Rhodes said.

Pressed as to whether a ground invasion would escalate tensions, Mr. Rhodes said, “We believe Israel has a right to defend itself, and they’ll make their own decisions about the tactics that they use in that regard.”

The Obama administration is asking regional powers to help restrain Hamas but they won't restrain Israel. It claims to be for de-escalation but will not urge it. De-escalation might work if on one side the Arabs and Turkey use their influence on Hamas to end the rocket fire, and on the other the Europeans and Americans use their influence in Israel to end its missile, bomb and aircraft attacks and urge them not to carry out ground operations that would make this even more deadly. 

It's not even a question of changing their position towards Hamas. It's a question of making it clear that a ground invasion will lead to the same catastrophic results as during Cast Lead and will further sour the regional scene the interests of all concerned. 

But this ever-more-disappointing president can't even bring himself or his advisors to say they would oppose such a development or urge Israel to forego ground operations. 

Pathetic — and a signal to the Egyptians, Turks and others that there is no business to be done with this administration.

(h/t Paul Mutter at Mondoweiss.)

✚ The Middle East greets Barack Obama's re-election with a shrug

The Middle East greets Barack Obama's re-election with a shrug

My article for The Guardian on the Middle East and Obama's re-election.The basic take: no one should be expecting to Obama to offer solutions to Arab problems, and many in the Arab world simply no longer care about who's in charge in Washington as they once did. And that's a good thing.

Obama's new Syrian opposition council

Obama's  new Syrian opposition council

This really sounds like a legitimate body — an opposition council that has to be put together by the State Dept? Josh Rogin for The Cable:

Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground, The Cable has learned.

The State Department has been heavily involved in crafting the new council as part of its effort oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and build a more viable and unified opposition. In September, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian activists who were flown in to New York for a high-level meeting that has not been reported until now.

The weirdest thing about this is that it doesn't even have Turkish support. Who if not Turkey needs to be behind this for it to even have half a chance to work?

Also look at the qualifiers used by this State Dept. source:

"There's a rising presence of Islamist extremists. So we need to help these [military council leaders], the majority of them are secular, relatively moderate, and not pursuing an overly vicious agenda," the official said.

Sounds reassuring.

Notes on the US presidential debate

I just caught up with last night’s US presidential debate — arguably the one that would be the most interesting for this audience, especially as the first segment was devoted to the Middle East. The one thing that struck me most is how limited the debate was, how frequently the bromides came, how few exciting ideas either of the candidates had to offer in what has to be one of the most exciting times in recent Middle Eastern history.

The differences between the candidates was on the surface mostly slim, largely due to Mitt Romney’s “pivot to the center” ending up being a “I agree with Barack Obama but can implement his policies better” line. Of course, as Obama pointed out again and again rather effectively, Romney changes his take all the time. (Juan Cole has a list of Middle East-related flip-flops or Etch-a-Sketch moments here

I think Obama clearly did better in this debate on substance, in part because of some Romney unforced errors:

  • Iran does not need Syria for access to the sea
  • Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some kind of council that organized the Syrian opposition? This is probably the biggest indictment to date of the failure of the, erm, Syrian National Council.
  • Romney wants to arrest Mahmoud Ahmedinejad for genocide. He said in the debate: “I would make sure that Ahmadinejad would be indicted for genocide. His words amount to genocide.” And then his campaign spokesman doubles down and suggests the UN can arrest Ahmedinejad. For something he has not done.

According to Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, successfully indicting Ahmadinejad would be more than just a symbolic victory.

“I think it would remove probably one of the most anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, pro-genocide members of that regime in Tehran,” he told TPM after the debate. As to whether he would actually be arrested: “I’m hoping that he would be indicted and that action would unfold following that indictment. Absolutely.”

Others in the Romney camp seemed a little unsure of how the indictment would play out. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, told TPM after the debate that the hypothetical charges wouldn’t even be about Israel, but about the violent repression of his own people.

“No, no, I thought he meant in terms of what’s going on internally in Iran,” Sununu said. “I think that’s what the reference was to.”

So Ahmedinejad is guilty of pre-cog genocide in Israel and genocide against his own people. Wow.

Other aspects of the debate were grimly familiar, notably he unprompted, almost incongruous, pledges of loyalty and undying love to Israel from Obama. But there was little of substance new or frankly interesting. The debate on Syria was surreal on the Romney side, and cautious on the Obama side (although I thought he made a good case for a cautious approach and the difficulty of finding “good Syrians” to back. ) Most striking was that both candidates reject direct US military intervention and Romney rejects a no-fly zone enforced by US planes.

On Egypt, Obama’s intervention was telling of the malaise in US policy circles over Egypt, which is perhaps deeper than that of Libya (although the Libyan intervention’s monstrous lovechild, the disintegration of Mali, made a front-row appearance). Romney raised Egypt having a “Muslim Brotherhood president” as a problem in itself. Obama talked tough about the points on which Egypt policy is focused:

  1. The rights of women and religious minorities;
  2. Cooperation on counter-terrorism;
  3. The “red line” of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty;
  4. Economic development.

Aside from the last point he kept talking of Egypt in terms of US applying pressure to obtain the results it wants. It definitely frames Egypt as a “problem” more than anything else.

Reading the tea leaves of the Libya congressional hearings

Remarks from witnesses called for the Congressional hearing over the Benghazi attacks last month seem to indicate that there was no mass protest against “Innocence of Muslims” concurrent with the attacks. In the NYT:

[T]he new account provided by the State Department made no mention of a protest. In this account, Mr. Stevens met with a Turkish diplomat during the day of the attack and then escorted him to the main gate of the mission around 8:30 p.m. At that time, there were no demonstrations and the situation appeared calm.

Congressional Republicans quickly seized on the fact that the State Department downgraded security in Benghazi despite the ratcheting up of warnings about the security threat to US nationals in the country ahead of 9/11/12 (Democrats struck back that it was Congressional Republicans who cut funding for such security in the first place).

Beyond these Beltway-minded hearings, though, that will focus on (and politicize) these failures, the Libyan response to the attacks gives me more hope, rather than less, that the country is at the very least capable of confronting the militias in the long run. What is still of great concern is where the country will go next now that tensions over the militias are back to the fore, and the US enters an election year with a bone to pick over the North African nation.

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On Obama's foreign policy

Via Andrew Sullivan, some interesting posts on judging Obama’s foreign policy by Conor Friedersdorf and Daniel Larison. The latter writes:

Among post-WWII Presidents, Obama’s foreign policy record has been competent enough that it shouldn’t be ranked anywhere near the real failures (e.g., LBJ, Bush II, Kennedy, etc.), but it shouldn’t be confused with one of the very best records, either. It’s true that Obama’s record seems much better than it is when compared with George W. Bush’s, but then that is the relevant comparison for political purposes. Even when Obama blunders, he doesn’t suffer as much political damage because we still remember how badly Bush performed and we are regularly reminded of what the terrifying practical alternative to Obama was every time McCain sounds off on an international crisis. Judged by those admittedly low standards, Obama’s record looks a lot better than if we assessed his overall record simply on the merits. Bush’s foreign policy failures helped make Obama President, and they continue to make his own record look better by comparison, and I’m not sure that it’s possible for people who lived through the Bush years to avoid making that comparison when judging Obama’s record.

It all depends on the standards you apply. By GWB standards he’s fantastic. By US post-WW2 standards he’s alright — especially, he is cautious and pragmatic. By mainstream human rights standards he’s pretty awful, mostly because of the continued use of rendition, Guantanamo Bay, assassinations and drones — in which he continues GWB policies. One of the more recurrent criticism of Obama is his lack of overarching doctrine, precisely because of his pragmatic case-by-case approach. The bottom line, compared with most other presidents, he’s OK and performed well in some instances, such as the Libyan intervention (in the sense that he did it in a manner that minimized possibility for US overreach, which was the stated goal), and pretty embarrassingly in other cases (Israel).

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Stacher and Brownlee on Democracy Prevention

In connection with our previous post excerpting Josh Stacher's book Adaptable Autocrats, here's Josh interviewing (fellow Egypt expert) Jason Brownlee about his forthcoming book, Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance. Look out for their conversation starting at 06:50 on how the Obama administration did not embrace the Egyptian uprising and encouraged as much continuity as possible with the Mubarak regime — "they were trying to minimize the extent of change" says Brownlee.

Dennis Ross's hotline to Obama

Haaretz's Barak David asks, Why did the White House install a secure phone in Dennis Ross’ office in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy?

Apparently, a short while after Ross left his position in the Obama administration, the White House made an unusual request to install a secure phone line in Ross' office at the Washington Institute. The secure line is known in Israel as a "red phone", which could be used to discuss confidential information without the risk of wiretapping.

In America, the term “red telephone” brings back memories of the Cold War and apocalyptic films such as of Dr. Strangelove. Guarded telephones in the U.S. Department of State as well as those in the White House are mostly white or gray. One of them sits in Dennis Ross’ office in his research institute, through which Ross receives updates regarding classified government information connected to his profession. There aren’t many independent researchers that receive such privileges.

I'm glad to provide an answer: because Dennis Ross is the Obama administration's chief interlocutor with the Israel lobby and Israel officials. Name me another country that has such power in the United States, or another (kind-of-former) official that has such influence despite having publicly adopted positions that are the opposite of those of the administration that he advises (on Iran, on settlements, on Jerusalem). That's because Ross is not the Obama administration's advisor on Middle East policy – he's one of the main conduits for the Israel lobby's to the administration.

That "unbreakable bond with Israel"

Barack and Bibi, at one the usual ritual humiliation meetings

… that America — against all common sense, national interest, and morality — is stuck with:

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, described the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, as a "liar" in a private exchange with Barack Obama at last week's G20 summit in Cannes that was inadvertently broadcast to journalists.

"I cannot stand him. He's a liar," Sarkozy told Obama. The US president responded by saying: "You're fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day."

Michele Bachmann: Obama caused the Arab Spring

That's right: a Republican is giving Obama more credit than even his own party will for influencing the "Arab Spring." MSNBC broke the story, capturing footage of Michele Bachmann, GOP presidential hopeful saying that:

"Just like Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s [who] didn’t have the back of the Shah of Iran, we saw the Shah fall and the rise of the Ayatollah. And we saw the rise and the beginnings of radical jihad which have changed this world and changed this nation."

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Obama and the Gaza war, revisited

Report: Documents expose U.S. wiretaps of Israeli officials in Washington - Haaretz:

the Israeli Embassy in the United States provided “regular written briefings” on Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza intended for "President Obama in the weeks between his election and inauguration."

Remember, back then when Obama was studiously ignoring the Gaza war and refusing to comment on it because "there is only one president at a time." Even though he commented on other things.

Out of Arabia

I have a piece in this week's roundtable in Bitterlemons International, on US foreign policy in the Middle East after the Arab spring. In it I make a radical argument (at least within foreign policy circles, outside of Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich anyway) that America needs to end its imperial posture in the Middle East, that the Arab spring provided an opportunity to articulate this and that Obama failed to do so clearly in his speech.

I call this argument "Out of Arabia" and the piece is here. The other contributions are by Dan Kurtzer, Joel Beinin and Chuck Freilich, and all but Kurtzer's are fairly critical of the Obama administration. Kurtzer's piece argues that Obama introduced a new idea of individual self-determination in his recent speech, with possible far-reaching consequences. All are worth a gander.

David Bromwich on Obama

Last post on Obama's speech last week on the Middle East, I promise. I followed the speech on Twitter, then read it, and was invited soon after to comment on it by the BBC (I happened to be in London, next to their studio at the time.) I had also written a column previewing the speech as I disappointment (it wasn't exactly clairvoyance). But then work, traveling and seeing friends took my attention and I spent no further time on it. This piece by David Bromwich is a careful and thoughtful look at Obama's speech, which picks up on many things that struck me but then quickly faded as I read it:

In many of his public comments on the Arab Spring, during February, March, and April, Obama wielded a peculiar grammar of imperative commandment whose precise authority was unclear. He worked himself into a corner—-and appeared to render inevitable a military intervention—-when he said several times that “Qaddafi must go.” Of course, he had said something akin to that, more gently and vaguely, when he spoke about the “transition” Hosni Mubarak was expected to lead in Egypt, which “must be peaceful” and “must begin now.” He may have believed that the simplicity of his command was a cause of Mubarak’s eventual abdication.

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Obama's AIPAC speech

It's interesting that a lot of people who follow Israel lobby issues think that Obama's speech to AIPAC was actually a tough one, once you strip away the usual "unbreakable bond" stuff. I'm less excited about this because I think in their enthusiasm that Obama is making it clear to the Lobby that they are imperiling Israel's future (and America's ability to guarantee it) they oversee the fact that the Lobby is winning the tactical fight — even if it may be at the cost of longer-term strategy. Netanyahu will once again get away with running circles around an American president. People might be growing increasingly bitter about this, but American politics is structured in such a way that it resets frequently. A new PM in Israel or a new president in the White House and we might be back, for all intents and purposes, to zero while we wait for the long game of delegitimizing AIPAC and the lobby more generally. 

Anyway, here are some of these takes.

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The NYT on Dennis Ross

When George Mitchell resigned last week, a PA official suggested it might have been because he had been elbowed out of his role as US envoy for the Middle East peace process by senior White House advisor Dennis Ross, the longtime peace-processor of the Bush I and Clinton administrations. Some were skeptical when it came from a Palestinian, but the NYT runs a rare story basically confirming this take on Ross' role in the White House as an advocate for Israel. In a sense it might be seen as a positive step that the NYT is talking about this: Ross is a major figure pro-Israel figure of the Democratic establishment with strong ties as a "centrist" or "moderate" in the Israel lobby.

One thing that's signicant in the article is that Jordan's King Abdullah chimes in on the criticism of Ross:

From the State Department, “we get good responses,” the Jordanian king said, according to several people who were in the room. And from the Pentagon, too. “But not from the White House, and we know the reason why is because of Dennis Ross” — President Obama’s chief Middle East adviser.

Mr. Ross, King Abdullah concluded, “is giving wrong advice to the White House.”

By almost all accounts, Dennis B. Ross — Middle East envoy to three presidents, well-known architect of incremental and painstaking diplomacy in the Middle East that eschews game-changing plays — is Israel’s friend in the Obama White House and one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in town.

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What Obama did say

Below is prepared speech Obama just delivered. I think the most politically significant thing is in the first paragraph: "I count on Hillary every day, and I believe that she will go down as of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history."

As with previous speeches, it's well written and was well delivered. There is a certain consistency with the Cairo speech, as Obama highlights. There is an endorsement of the idea of freedom and democratization (not that any US president has ever delivered a speech in praise of dictatorship — it's an easy score.) There was an admission of US interests in the region that would have otherwise made this speech simply too hypocritical (it's going to be attacked for that anyway). I'm just not sure why those interests should include concern for one state's security (Israel's) and not others. Nor why self-determination in the pursuit of liberty is something that doesn't apply for Palestinians. But here we tread old ground.

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What Obama will not say

My new column in al-Masri al-Youm, on Obama's forthcoming speech, is here. I make the safe bet that Obama's speech won't blow anyone's socks off. An excerpt:

To be sure, Obama's speech will include an homage to the Tunisians and Egyptians and Libyans and Syrians and others who rose up or are still rising up against their dictators. It will include a pious call for a return to negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It will promise American support for democracy in the region. But I doubt it will include a frank apology for having been part of the problem of the Arab world's enduring autocracy.

It will not acknowledge that America's Middle Eastern empire, with its ensuing focus on stability (with the occasional dash of creative destruction), is one important reason for regional dysfunction. The US cannot and should not be expected to intervene in every one of the region's uprisings, but Obama will not pledge to at least do no evil. He will not announce plans for the withdrawal of the US Navy Fifth Fleet from Bahrain, whose al-Khalifa dynasty now make for an embarrassing ally. Instead, he will probably choose to concentrate on Syria, a more convenient example of bloody repression. He will not recognize that America's closest Arab ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, now seeks to put out the flame of revolution he will no doubt praise.

Obama will certainly not acknowledge that, in the absence of any viable peace process, the best course would be to at least respect international law and the legitimacy of the principle of national self-determination. But that would mean backing the Palestinian Authority's efforts at the United Nations to gain recognition of its right to sovereignty. It might also mean beginning to ask what, if the two-state solution is unattainable, the alternative might be.