Rami Khouri on Rodham-Clinton

Rami Khouri — whom I consider one the most thoughtful and analytically incisive Arab commentators around — gives Hillary Clinton a well-deserved putdown. Here's his very articulate take:

Two Clinton statements during her Gulf trip this week were particularly revealing of why Washington continues to fail in its missions in our region. The first was her expression of concern that Iran is turning into a military dictatorship: “We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament, is being supplanted, and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship,” Clinton said.

Half a century of American foreign policy flatly contradicts this sentiment (which is why Clinton heard soft chuckles and a few muffled guffaws as she spoke). The US has adored military dictatorships in the Arab world, and has long supported states dominated by the shadowy world of intelligence services. This became even more obvious after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Washington intensified cooperation with Arab intelligence services in the fight against Al-Qaeda and other terror groups. 

Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East are military and police states where men with guns rule, and where citizens are confined to shopping, buying cellular telephones, and watching soap operas on satellite television. Countries like Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Libya, as well as the entire Gulf region and other states are devoted first and foremost to maintaining domestic order and regime incumbency through efficient, multiple security agencies, for which they earn American friendship and cooperation. When citizens in these and other countries agitate for more democratic and human rights, the US is peculiarly inactive and quiet. 

If Iran is indeed becoming a military dictatorship, this probably qualifies it for American hugs and aid rather than sanctions and threats. Clinton badly needs some more credible talking points than opposing military dictatorships. (Extra credit question for hard-core foreign policy analysts: Why is it that when Turkey slipped out of military rule into civilian democratic governance, it became more critical of the US and Israel?) 

The second intriguing statement during Clinton’s Gulf visit was about Iran’s neighbors having three options for dealing with the “threat” from Iran: “They can just give in to the threat; or they can seek their own capabilities, including nuclear; or they ally themselves with a country like the United States that is willing to help defend them. I think the third is by far the preferable option.”

This sounds reasonable, but it is not an accurate description of the actual options that the Arab Gulf states have. It is mostly a description of how American and Israeli strategic concerns and slightly hysterical biases are projected onto the Gulf states’ worldviews. These states in fact have a fourth option, which is to negotiate seriously a modus vivendi with Iran that removes the “threat” from their perceptions of Iran by affirming the core rights and strategic needs of both sides, thus removing mutual threat perceptions. 

Middle Easterners don't need more regional Cold Wars and US backing of dictators, we need a reasonable American disengagement from force-projection in the region and a regional security system that is not imposed by an outside player. Americans need it too, considering how much of their budget they blow on Middle Eastern adventurism, aid for regimes that don't deserve it, subsidies for the defense industry — and of course the ill-will the last two decades' policies have generated.