The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Obama
The Obama Doctrine

In Thomas Friedman's interesting sit-down with Obama about the Iran deal, this tidbit on US policy towards Arab countries:

Regarding America’s Sunni Arab allies, Obama reiterated that while he is prepared to help increase their military capabilities they also need to increase their willingness to commit their ground troops to solving regional problems.
“The conversations I want to have with the Gulf countries is, first and foremost, how do they build more effective defense capabilities,” the president said. “I think when you look at what happens in Syria, for example, there’s been a great desire for the United States to get in there and do something. But the question is: Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done? I also think that I can send a message to them about the U.S.’s commitments to work with them and ensure that they are not invaded from the outside, and that perhaps will ease some of their concerns and allow them to have a more fruitful conversation with the Iranians. What I can’t do, though, is commit to dealing with some of these internal issues that they have without them making some changes that are more responsive to their people.”
One way to think about it, Obama continued, “is [that] when it comes to external aggression, I think we’re going to be there for our [Arab] friends — and I want to see how we can formalize that a little bit more than we currently have, and also help build their capacity so that they feel more confident about their ability to protect themselves from external aggression.” But, he repeated, “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. Now disentangling that from real terrorist activity inside their country, how we sort that out, how we engage in the counterterrorism cooperation that’s been so important to our own security — without automatically legitimizing or validating whatever repressive tactics they may employ — I think that’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”

Let me translate that for you: our priority in the Arab world is selling them weapons and making sure that the regimes are stable enough so that they will keep buying our weapons, and don't act too embarrassingly either in terms of human rights and so on because it might make selling them weapons more difficult. Also, we would like to formalize as much as we can how we will sell them weapons.

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.

One of the outlets - not the Post - was going to break the self-observed gag order on the basing details, so the details have begun to emerge, which for presumptive DCIA John Brennan is hardly pleasant news since his Senate confirmation hearings have begun and there is much talk of him throwing a wet towel on the campaign. However, as Matt Appuzo points out, this is not the first we’ve heard of this base. “In addition to Seychelles and Ethiopia, the senior U.S. military official said the United States got permission to fly armed drones from Djibouti, and confirmed the construction of a new airstrip in Saudi Arabia” was what Fox News reported in 2011, citing a Washington Post report on the expansion of drone efforts worldwide, though the remarks quoted above came from Fox’s own source. 

Considering how contentious US basing in the Kingdom was when it began in the 1990s (and, we thought, largely came to an end in the 2000s except for the two military training/modernization programs run for the Saudi military and National Guard), one really has to marvel at how this White House earned the accolade of “transparency” in its first term with actions such as these. It’s worth noting that while detailed explanations — but not material evidence or witnesses — have been offered for targeting him as an active AQAP member, there have been no such specifics with regards to the death of his 16-year old son, Abdulrahman, who was killed in an operation against another target few days later — though unlike his father, he had not been deliberately targeted (the operation was targeting an Egyptian national). Bad parenting has even been offered as an explanation - well, justification - by one official for the son’s death once it became clear he was a minor and therefore not subject to the “signature strikes” that treat all adult males in the targeted areas as militant until proven innocent (NB: Brennan convinced Obama to maintain this policy and have the CIA “tighten its targeting standards,” according to the Daily Beast). 

But if we are talking in terms of leaks, then yes, this has been a very “Sunshine Week” for the Administration. Since I’m on the subject of drones - though as Gregory D. Johnson points out drones are not the only weapons the US deploys in the Yemeni and Pakistani highlands - there have been some important new stories out about the US’s national counterterrorism strategy here in the Middle East:

  1. The black sites legacy of the Bush Administration detailed in a new OSI report, though as OSI itself notes, “it appears that the Obama administration did not end extraordinary rendition,” though it has been much-scaled back. Both Eli Lake and Jeremy Scahill have been to Somalia in the past two years to report on these alleged CIA black sites and the local prisons that feed into them. However, it is clear that the administration has shied away from the sites in favor of drone operations.

  2. Not a leak, but Micah Zenko’s discussion of outgoing SecDef Leon Panetta’s recent remarks on drones is still illuminating into the debate that goes on at these levels.

  3. A leaked white paper released by NBC’s Michael Isikoff - perhaps from a White House source not happy with John Brennan (finally) moving (back) to the CIA in Obama’s second term? - that providers more detail on the speeches given by Brennan and others about the criteria for putting people, including US citizens, in the sights. Again, this isn’t the official policy document, but as a white paper signed off on by lawyers within the Administration, it is as good as we are going to get bar the Times or the Post releasing audiotape of a “Terror Tuesday” briefing. Glenn Greenwald details the implications in greater detail here.

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.)

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.

A more detailed (and official) presentation of the events of that day has now emerged from testimony delivered by Charlene Lamb, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs, Bureau of Diplomatic Security:

The attack began at approximately 9:40 pm local time. Diplomatic Security agents inside the compound heard loud voices outside the walls, followed by gunfire and an explosion. Dozens of attackers then launched a full-scale assault that was unprecedented in its size and intensity. They forced their way through the pedestrian gate, and used diesel fuel to set fire to the Libyan 17th February Brigade members’ barracks, and then proceeded towards the main building.

At the same time, attackers swept across the compound …. At 11pm, members of the Libyan 17th February Brigade advised they could no longer hold the area around the main building and insisted on evacuating the site.

…. They took heavy fire as they pulled away from the main building and on the street outside the compound.

…. In the early morning, an additional security team arrived from Tripoli and proceeded to the annex. Shortly after they arrived, the annex started taking mortar fire, with as many as three direct hits on the compound. It was during this mortar attack that Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed and a Diplomatic Security agent and an annex quick reaction security team member were critically wounded.

A large number of Libyan government security officers subsequently arrived in more than 50 vehicles and escorted the remaining Americans to the airport. While still at the airport, we were able to confirm reports that the Ambassador’s body was at the Benghazi General Hospital.

Witnesses also told Congress that they had felt in the months prior to the attack that the new Libyan government did not have the capability to protect the consulate or confront the “al Qaeda” presence in the country.

The biggest headache for the White House has been that contradictory remarks made by Obama Administration officials and the US intelligence community last month about the nature of the attacks have yet to be fully resolved. Arch-neoconservative John Podhoretz implied that the Foreign Service and intelligence community are falling on their swords to protect the White House, which is surely a stretch given the reality of the Administration’s simple unpreparedness in light of a disaster like this goes a long way in explaining the muddled responses. But given the way in which information has been leaked/obtained by other news outlets about intelligence community assessments about the attack, it’s hard to not come to that conclusion Podhoretz does. Former DCIA (and current Romney advisor) Michael Hayden certainly feels this way as well, taking a defensive tone in a CNN editorial criticizing the White House.

I think what we will end up seeing, though, is that Obama Administration just failed to gauge the warnings it was receiving. Libya simply does not seem to have been prioritized despite the warnings; it was the success story, things were under control, the peripheral MENA theater compared to Syria or Egypt, and even Yemen.

Anti-interventionists in Congress reiterated their opposition to the whole Libyan issue by noting that NATO intervention gave Islamists breathing room. One such Islamist is Abd al Hakim Bilhaj, who has an instructive interview on his countrymen’s views of the attacks circulating in the UK Arabic press.

Before his rise to prominence in the Tripolitanian Military Council as a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was a person of interest to US intelligence because of his anti-Qadhafi AfPak excursions (arrested and extradited to Libya in 2004, he was pardoned by the regime in 2010). Bilhaj, who Al-Watan Party was creamed in the summer elections, recently granted an interview to the UK’s Arabic press in which he condemned the attacks specifically, and al Qaeda in general, though ever politic, he did not blame any particular group.

Bilhaj, whose position has weakened greatly the 2012 elections and probably hopes to regain some influence in the new, “tense” atmosphere, is no fool. His reading of the mood in Libya — simmering anger at the militias, limited confidence in the government, an unwillingness to handover weapons “just in case” — shows that while Libya is not coming apart at the seams, it has weathered some truly trying tests better than others since 2011. Some of them have not gone so well, as we’ve seen with the highly symbolic airport siege, but other tests, such as the summer elections, did not end badly at all (and as Issandr has noted, when we talk about Libyan Islamists were are not generally talking about Salafists, though such men are represented among the militias and new political parties).

The attacks are indeed troubling because they illustrate how organized and professionally competent these Islamist organizations are — and how they have likely infiltrated the government.

But, for starters, the Libyan military did not abandon its posts when asked to defend American lives and property.

And if there were no crowds railing against that stupid Muslim-trolling con-artist film in Benghazi, there certainly were crowds protesting the attacks after the fact. Bear in mind that even in, say, Yemen, where protestors did storm embassy compounds and the US is deeply unpopular for its involvement in the government’s counterinsurgency campaign, the anti-American turnout was at most a few hundred people — perhaps a hundred times that number turned out to protest the attacks in Libya in a “Friday of Outrage”. The attacks were a final straw for many Libyans already tired of the militias’ gunslinging (as was the case in Yemen, and elsewhere).

Perhaps the aftermath of the attacks will serve as a wake-up call for the new Libyan government, which is still reporting clashes in the stronghold of Bani Walid and hasn’t gotten the worst of the militias to cease their “polity within a polity” behavior. Problems with the judiciary and police are not going away anytime soon, either. Obviously, Libyans will have a long road to walk, as Borzou Daragahi notes in his latest dispatch for The Financial Times, with the grim subheading of “[o]ptimism born of the July elections has been replaced by uncertainty and fear.” It’s worth noting that the protests turned violent in some cases and demonstrators clashed with fighters:

The result [of the “Friday of Outrage”] the has been political and economic deadlock in Tripoli as the various political forces battle for control of the direction of the new Libya. No camp wants any other to achieve success. Laws to clarify the role of civil society and private investment have been stuffed into drawers.

…. Islamist militias and their political allies now seethe with anger, feeling betrayed by the nation they defended during the revolution. They are openly mistrustful of the former exiles now dominating the government. They whisper of dark conspiracies by Gaddafi loyalists teaming up with liberal politicians and western powers.

But they are walking it, no one can deny that … except for Fox News, apparently.

While I’ve been critical of the Libyan government’s response to the militias, I’ve also been critical of the US for thinking that intervention could be carried out from 30,000 feet and everyone goes home in time for happy hour (Libyans not included).

They claimed interventionism, now they’d better act the postwar part of helping the government handle such difficult matters as setting up a judiciary, training a police force and securing loose arms, and that doesn’t mean putting dead Navy SEALs in a talking points memo or dispatching a fleet to show that all of a sudden “we mean business.”

Whether a less muscle-bound policy in Libya would have somehow prevented this all is going to be debated for years to come. Our track record in the region suggests, though, that more of such policies now, directed at Libya out of a desire to “avenge” our loss of life and face there, are not going to help anyone — except the armed Islamist spoilers Libyans are demonstrating their disdain for.

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).

But where Obama fails more generally is that, at a moment when the policies of GWB meant that American foreign policy needed a radical overhaul and conceptual rethink — most notably a withdrawal from the Middle East — Obama shied away from that. You might argue he tried somewhat on Israel/Palestine, but I do not believe that attempt was genuine. More generally, in the Middle East at least, policy has been more of the same and continued support, post-Arab uprisings, for the traditional dictators/allies of the region: pro-Saudi and pro-Khalifa in Bahrain, pro-SCAF in Egypt, a massive surge in spending to protect the Jordanian monarchy (or more accurately, King Abdallah’s current power structure), pro-status quo in Morocco, etc. I will concede a good reaction on Tunisia, although we don’t know the details there yet.

This is disputed. Jeremy Pressman has a good post about this at The Monkey Cage, taking (within American academia) the positions of Marc Lynch (Obama went against Mubarak) versus those of Jason Brownlee[1] (Obama supported the military backbone of the regime) as two sides in the debate. Jeremy agrees with Marc, I agree with Jason. After the disbursement of US military aid (by the administration exercising its waiver) in 2012, the lack of strong reaction to the Egyptian military killing over 150 protestors and imprisoning thousands more during 2011–2012, and the lack of strong reaction to the complete perversion of the transition process (especially in the last week), I don’t think you can say the Obama administration has taken a pro-democracy position on Egypt. It’s taken a pro-status quo one.

You have to look at what Washington does, not what it says. As long as that military aid money continues to flow (no matter whether it is for domestic reasons or not), you can’t say the US is NOT “maintaining Arab authoritarianism” as Jeremy argues. But of course this is only one aspect of US foreign policy in the Middle East, and cannot be used to assess the conduct of Obama’s foreign policy overall. Overall, I’m relieved not to see an adventurist president. But in the specifics in the region I care about, I don’t see much success aside from the handling of the Libyan intervention, which I did not support in any case.


  1. Jason has a forthcoming book in which he makes that case, see this post.  ↩

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."

“So too, under Barack Obama, we saw him put a lot of daylight between our relationship with our ally Israel. And when he called on Israel to retreat to its indefensible 1967 borders, don’t think that message wasn’t lost on Israel’s 26 hostile neighbors."

“You want to know why we have an Arab Spring? Barack Obama has laid the table for an Arab Spring by demonstrating weakness from the United States of America."

There are just so many things worth commenting on in this speech, like the strawman of Obama calling Israel "to retreat to its 1967 indefensible borders," and the total historical amnesia surrounding the Iranian Revolution (Khomeini was a dictator, but then, what was the Shah? Oh yes, a dictator, just like the Arab ones Bachmann now bemoans the loss of.). These statements aren't anything we have not heard from Israeli or American officials and pundits before, though. Or the fact that Obama's casus belli "1967 borders" speech postdated the start of popular uprisings in the Arab world.

My favorite parts in this tirade against Obama are the parts where she is sorta-kinda right.

American imperial overreach has indeed helped revolutionaries in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but it is not Obama's creation.Decades of support for military dictatorships and monarchies that began in the 1940s are now coming back to bite the U.S. in the ass. And the greatest geopolitical upsets in the region over the past decade —Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and Hama's victory thereafter, Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, the U.S.-led regime change in Iraq, Operation Cast Lead — all occurred on George W. Bush's watch.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the U.S. resigned itself to the overthrow of Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak when it became clear that those countries' security apparatuses — whose equipment and paychecks have long depended on U.S. largesse — were positioning themselves to take charge of the countries, not unlike how the Soviets lost big time when their supposedly indomitable Warsaw Pact colleagues made a similar choice in 1989. Without a USSR or Saddam to jockey against, the U.S. and its ruling elite allies in the Arab world have become increasingly hard-pressed to hold together their special relationships. 

One form of "Arab Spring" assistance Obama can credibly claim to have rendered is the decision to launch NATO strikes in support for Libya's NTC (which Bachmann opposed).   

Bachmann's most glaring omission in discussing Obama's role in Arab Spring is quite partisan, and really unfair to Obama: she overlooks his sterling record over the past year in joining hands with the Saudis to assist the Bahraini and Yemeni authorities clamp down on dissent in the name of containing both Iran and al Qaeda. Give the man some credit, Michele: he's no "dhimmi" (as Islamophobes sometimes call him) when it comes to the Persian Gulf. He, or rather, our riot gear and munitions, are standing up for our interests there.

My other favorite part is how she says that Obama "put a lot of daylight between our relationship with our ally Israel." Tsk tsk, look how his attempt to give Netanyahu a tongue-lashing over the settlements emboldened those perfidious Arabs. Fortunately, Israel's friends in the U.S. have put the president back on the straight and narrow

"Daylight," i.e., Obama actually attempting public criticism of Israeli policies that have led to increased settlement construction? Or the unremarkable speech he gave a few months ago largely echoing previous administrations' positions on a two-state solution? Criticism that prompted such a furious response from Netanyahu and Congressional Republicans that even former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lost his temper and called Israel "an ungrateful ally." 

"Daylight" is indeed the last thing any American alliance in the Middle East can withstand. Bachmann has hit the nail on the head, though it was probably unintentional (especially when her foreign policy aide, neocon Frank Gaffney, is such a committeddemocratizer).

I have to admit, her refusal to even pay lip service to the whole "America wants democracy in the Middle East" meme is refreshingly honest. She sees democratization in the region quite accurately — as a threat to U.S. hegemony. And regarding the Shah, she also correctly surmises that if the U.S. gives even an inch over its client states undemocratic behavior, the people of those states will seize a mile from us and our cronies

 

 

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.