The Region: The West gets an F

Assumption: If US proves itself to be on ‘right’ side of uprising, people will be grateful. Mideast politics don't work this way.

By BARRY RUBIN
March 13, 2011 22:57
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Muammar Gaddafi 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

There is a very simple answer to an apparent disagreement about the current “Arab revolt.” Whether it is positive or negative depends on the specific country involved.

First, let’s look at a silly myth that has developed about these events. So far, only two revolutions have succeeded – in Tunisia and Egypt. In both cases (without taking anything away from the courage of individual citizens), the opposition movements won because the nation’s armies supported them. The officers refused to defend these regimes because of their own grievances against them.

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But why should people expect that other governments are going to fall if their armed forces – including special ideological units closely tied to the regime – fight to defeat the opposition? No reason at all.

Let’s take a look at each separate situation:

Clearly, the resurgence of active opposition in Iran is a good thing. And there are real chances for the Tunisia democratization effort to succeed.

In Libya, we know little about the opposition, but – and I hope I don’t regret having written this – it’s hard to see the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi leading to something worse (though a radical Islamist state allied to the Iran-led bloc would indeed be worse for the region). Yemen is, as always, complex, with so many competing factors that one suspects even a seemingly dramatic change would merely be more of the same.

Bahrain is very worrisome, but it appears that a compromise will be worked out to combine reform with stability. With Iran backing the hardline opposition and some groups wanting a total revolution and a Shi’ite-dominated Islamist state, there will surely be dissent to any reasonable deal.

Finally in this survey of developments, there has been a serious weakening of US credibility due to Washington’s flip-flops, eagerness to dump a veteran ally, ignorance about the issues and naiveté in pushing for change without any idea of where it might lead. And that’s a short list.

We have seen how President Barack Obama disregarded the more reasoned advice of his State and Defense departments while favoring highly ideological, totally inexperienced junior White House staffers and a CIA which for some reason seems to think promoting radical Islamism, even indirectly, is a great idea.

So if we look at the totality of events there is both positive and negative, including the hope that various factors have led to the birth of an important Arab democracy movement.

MY CONCERN is not about the revolts as a whole, but overwhelmingly about Egypt as a specific case. The West’s absolute refusal to deal with the obvious fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is a profoundly radical, well-organized, anti-Western, anti-Semitic group that wants to install an Islamist dictatorship does not bode well.

In every Arabic-speaking state there is a competition between Arab nationalism, Islamism and pragmatic, moderate democratization. Every country has a different balance of forces.

The overthrow of the Islamist regime in Iran, the dictatorships in Syria and Tunisia and that in Libya would be good things in the strategic picture.

The overthrow of the regime in Egypt contains great potential dangers.

The overthrow of the Palestinian Authority by Hamas, the Jordanian monarchy by the Muslim Brotherhood or the Saudi monarchy by people who like Osama bin Laden would be a disaster.

Meanwhile, everyone seems to have forgotten one of the most important developments of 2011: the takeover of Lebanon by Hezbollah, and that country’s subsequent joining to the Iran- Syria bloc. And there is a lot of eyeclosing about another disaster: the growing foreign-policy extremism of the Turkish regime, which is also aligned with the Iran-Syria bloc.

One would assume that a sophisticated approach would be taken by opinion-making and policy-making circles. More typical, however, is unbridled enthusiasm, as in this Washington Post editorial: “The direction of events means that, more than ever, the American interest lies in encouraging more rather than less freedom and in reaching out to those Arabs who seek genuine democracy. If that means straining ties with autocratic allies, then that is preferable to appearing to back the wrong side.”

Let’s consider that last sentence. Does the US want to abandon its relationship with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco – the three key remaining friendly countries – in order not to back the “wrong side”? That phrase about supporting “those Arabs who seek genuine democracy” sounds good, but we are being told that this category includes the Muslim Brotherhood, anti-American leftists and radical Arab nationalists.

So what makes someone the “right” side? Presumably they will push for change that meets the following qualifications:

• It will bring more freedom and better living standards to the people. Do we know this to be true?

• It will be more favorable to US interests. Do we know this to be true?

• It will oppose terrorism, violence and war in the region. Do we know this to be true?

Didn’t communism present itself as the “right” side of history for decades? Doesn’t Islamism do so now? One must make case-by-case distinctions based on serious analysis, not wishful thinking.

Moreover, there is an unspoken assumption that if the US proves itself to be on the “right” side, then the people will be grateful. This is not how Middle East politics works, as shown by US efforts to be on the “right” side in Iran in 1978-1979, with the Palestinians since the 1990s, and so on.

The US should also be discovering the limits of gratitude in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

What is definitely wrong has been the tendency to be most supportive of upheaval in relatively moderate states friendly to the West and least supportive of it in radical states hostile to the West.

Down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad! Down with Bashar Assad! Down with Muammar Gaddafi! Down with the Hezbollah-Iran-Syrian puppet regime in Lebanon! Down with the Islamist government in Turkey! Down with the repressive, terrorist Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip! That should be enough to keep Western policy busy for a while.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal and Turkish Studies. He blogs at www.rubinreports.blogspot.com


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