Friday, May 13, 2011

The Middle East "Reset" That Wasn't

Remember when the Obama Administration wanted to "reset" ties with Russia so it sent Hillary Clinton to present a gift-wrapped "reset" button to FM Lavrov with an incorrect Russian translation? Yea, well, hopefully its Arabic translators are better than the Russian, because the Times is reporting a new Obama "reset" effort--this time with the Arab world.

Really, though, we don't need the NYT to spell this out for us. The argument has been made ad nauseam since the death of Bin Ladin: the "Arab Spring" represents the triumph of democratic aspirations over the ideological alternative of Islamic extremism, which, like its figurehead sponsor, is now dead. Now it's time for the United States to reaffirm its longstanding commitment to democracy in the Arab world and to attempt to do again what Obama tried but failed to do in his Cairo Speech soon after taking over the presidency: to show that there is no ideological conflict between the United States and the Muslim world.

Yet the main purpose of the effort seems to be to throw out a bit of revisionist history. The article notes, for example,
"Even before the Bin Laden raid, officials said, Mr. Obama was casting about for ways to tie together events in the Middle East. White House officials had weighed a speech in which the president would link the upheaval to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations."
Tunisia's uprising linked to the failed peace process? Sounds good to me. While we're at it, why not link Mubarak's ouster in Egypt to global warming?

In similar disingenuous fashion, the article tells that "Mr. Obama’s advisers say he decided to push for President Hosni Mubarak’s exit early on," which is odd since the leaders of Egypt's pro-democracy movement seem to have felt otherwise, having refused to meet with Hillary Clinton when she traveled to Cairo in March specifically for what they interpreted as a purposeful delay in U.S. support.

And what of Yemen, where millions have been braving live ammunition in the streets for three months with little or no backing from the U.S. for fears of al-Qa'ida? What was that again about the death of Bin Ladin?

And, even more obviously, what of Bahrain? There is a congressional hearing today in Washington about post-February 14 human rights abuses in Bahrain, yet the two State Department officials invited to take part--William Burns and Jeffrey Feltman--have declined to participate. They must be too busy prepping Obama on his speech about U.S. support for democracy and human rights in the Arab world to actually show support for human rights and democracy in the Arab world.

Indeed, the most revealing paragraph of the Times article is the one that tries to deal with the two U.S. embarrassments that are Yemen and Bahrain:
"But other senior officials note that the Middle East remains a complicated place: the death of Al Qaeda’s leader does not erase the terrorist threat in Yemen, while countries like Bahrain are convulsed by sectarian rivalries that never had much to do with Bin Laden’s radical message. The White House said it was still working through the policy implications country by country."
Which is to say: "Sure, the U.S. generally supports democracy across the Arab world, but you can't expect us to back democrats we don't like or trust!" (Hamas, anyone?) Or, in other words: the U.S. will continue to do what it's done throughout these Arab uprisings in a strategy that has been understood very clearly by citizens of the region, namely that of acting the good pragmatist. Does it seem like Mubarak can hold on? Let's stand behind him. Oops, it looks like he's on his way out. Long live democracy! Is 'Ali Abdullah Salih looking weak? Let's tell him to leave. Strong? Let's shut up about Yemen.

“Bin Laden is the past, what's happening in the region is the future.” This, according to one of Obama's national security advisers, is the theme of the upcoming "reset" speech. From here we see that an obvious part of the problem is that the administration is simply painting "the region" in strokes that are far too broad. There are at least four distinct regions involved in the transformations of the past months: North Africa, the Levant, Yemen, and the Arab Gulf, each with its own dynamics. And it makes little sense to attempt to formulate a grand strategy that ties them together.

Moreover, it seems that of these four sub-regions the Arab Gulf is conspicuously out of place. It certainly does not fit the "Bin Ladin's gone, here comes democracy" narrative. In the first place al-Qa'ida-inspired terrorism has never been a big problem INSIDE the Arab Gulf, though Gulf Arabs have always disproportionately (by population) formed the ranks of the organization. (The courrier that led the U.S. to Bin Ladin was called Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.) And, even more obviously, democracy is nowhere on the march among the GCC states; on the contrary, these countries have done all they can over the previous months, including military intervention and overt attempts at political buy-off, to make sure it stays that way.

So, if "what's happening today in the region"-- at least in the Arab Gulf region--is "the future," then the whole purpose of this entire U.S.-Middle East "reset" will have been in vain, for eloquent words from Obama will not be enough to mask the obvious hypocrisy in American policy toward places like Bahrain and Yemen, where new generations of disaffected youth will grow up resenting U.S. support for their dictatorships.

We've killed one Bin Ladin, yes, but until we stop creating more what's the point? What the U.S. needs is a not a nebulous "reset" of its relationship with "the Middle East" but a reboot of its larger strategic thinking. And in the meantime, to quote a recent Washington Post editorial, "it's time to start looking for a new home for the 5th fleet."

Unrelated Update: I don't want to devote a whole new post to this drivel, but if you can read this entire piece in the Huffington Post without smashing your face against your keyboard, you win. An Iran-scaremongering article on Bahrain by a former Israeli intelligence officer-turned-international lawyer--who would have guessed?


  1. Man I like reading your articles and want to say thank you, informative and intellectually stimulating with great links..

    most of all I like you, the emotion in your humour is indispensable for the subject matter, keep it up..

  2. I'll second that. I was going to send you an email to tell you to keep up the good work, but I couldn't find it in your profile page, so I'll just say it here. We desperately need more U.S. scholars and policymakers to concentrate on Bahrain because the GCC intervention might be the most important political event in the Gulf since 2003, maybe even 1991. Anyways, I'm glad you're on the case. Anyone who uses Underpants Gnomes flow charts is worth reading in my book.


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