For a comprehensive statement of current US Middle East policy you can’t do better than Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns’s March 17 testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. It’s a policy of unqualified enthusiasm for Arab political upheavals.
There’s barely a whisper of Islamist threat, or Iranian strategic threat, much less the Syrian regime’s radicalism or that of Hamas and Hezbollah. Instead, we get rhetoric about these “spontaneous” revolutions by those who want “better governance and more economic opportunities...
intent upon erasing the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled.”
And what is the worldview of this “peaceful, homegrown, non-ideological movement”? Simply, “the universal values that the president spoke about two years ago in Cairo – the right of peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and the right to determine one’s own destiny.”
There is, of course, much truth in this assessment. But it’s only part of the picture.
Burns adds that this movement “offers a powerful repudiation of al- Qaida’s false narrative that violence and extremism are the only ways to effect change.”
Yet it offers a powerful confirmation of the narrative of the Egyptian
and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhoods, as well as the political strategies
of Hamas, Hezbollah and Turkey’s Islamist regime: that mass organization
and elections can affect change toward Islamist dictatorships.
After all, at this very moment, Hamas runs Gaza, Hezbollah and its
allies run Lebanon, and a stealth Islamist regime rules Turkey based on
such tactics. In Egypt, nationalists and democrats have been panicking,
claiming proposed election rules would produce a Muslim Brotherhood
The new policy goes even further, announcing that fears of radical
Islamism were just phony rationales used by regimes friendly to the
West: “The long-held conceit of many Arab leaders was that there were
really only two political choices – the autocrats you know or the
Islamic extremists you fear. That provided a convenient rationale for
blocking real political outlets or broadened participation, and it
ultimately produced the spontaneous combustion of Tahrir Square.”
Actually we don’t know yet if those Arab leaders were wrong, do we? But
note the key phrase: Unless the political systems are opened up, US
policy argues, all the non-Islamist regimes will be overthrown anyway.
So the US better push to transform them.
Imagine you’re a Saudi or Jordanian leader, reading this. You’d say: You
think “Islamic extremists” are a mirage? You think Iran’s threat is a
conceit? You’re throwing us under the bus! Let’s get real: The
revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded not because of Facebook but
because the armies supported them. They failed in Iran, Syria, Jordan,
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere because the security forces
supported the regime. In other words, those who ignore American advice
and are most ruthless will stay in power. Radical anti-American regimes
have the fewest worries.
HERE’S THE administration’s new philosophy: “Political systems and
leaderships that fail to respond to the legitimate aspirations of their
people become more brittle, not more stable. Popular pressures to
realize universal values will take different shapes in different
societies, but no society is immune from them. Political systems are a
little like bicycles – unless they’re pedaled forward, they tend to fall
In other words, a basic change in Arab politics is an absolute
necessity. Either US policy helps transform these regimes or the
“people” will do so. Thus, the Obama administration must tear down
existing governments, believing that the result will be an improvement.
Or, in the words of Burns’s testimony: “It is in our long-term interest
to support the emergence of more transparent and more responsive
governments, who will ultimately make stronger and more stable
Yet while he admits that “the shortterm is likely to be pretty
complicated and unsettling” Burns is basically saying that nothing can
In other words, the region can go “back” to a Mubarak-style regime.
How about not “retrenchment” but something new, you know, like in Iran
in 1979. A bold new authoritarianism? He does mention how “predatory
extremists” might take advantage of the situation, as if Islamists are
burglars rather than movements with a powerful ideology and mass base.
Burns points to “economic stagnation,” and failure to improve people’s
lives as factors which might allow these unnamed extremists to take
Burns makes solving these problems sound easy. I think doing so is
impossible, and the Obama administration’s programs for helping make
poor Arab countries rich are a joke. For example, he states: “We can
help produce private-sector jobs desperately needed to keep pace with
demography and expectations.”
Really? They can’t even do that in America.
So what’s the administration’s worst-case scenario? “Popularly elected
governments sometimes taking sharper issue with American policies than
their autocratic predecessors did, and elections sometimes producing
You mean like Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon? Might
“uncomfortable results” include throwing out US bases, sponsoring
terrorism, fomenting wars, promoting hysterical anti-Americanism?
Finally and worst of all, there’s no mention of supporting democratic
movements against the Syrian, Iranian and Hamas regimes.
So here we have the Obama administration’s policy: overthrow or
significantly weaken relatively moderate Arab regimes through “serious
political reform” and dialogue with opposition leaders. Does this mean
pushing Jordan’s king to talk with the Muslim Brotherhood and US support
for PA concessions to Hamas? Meanwhile, the administration sees no
contradiction between this strategy and continued engagement with Syria,
the most repressive Arab dictatorship of all, and bowing to its
near-takeover of Lebanon.
Equally, it sees no contradiction in largely ignoring the most
democratic forces of all: the oppositions in Iran, Turkey and Lebanon.
A lot of observers have missed the key point: The Obama administration
is not abandoning Israel or pressing it toward suicidal concessions.
Rather, it’s now treating the shrinking list of relatively moderate,
anti-Islamist, anti-Iranian states like it has treated Israel.
In the very last paragraph of the speech, as an afterthought, Burns
mentions such things as “strengthening ties to the GCC states...
fighting terrorism... [and] preventing Iran from developing nuclear
weapons and setting off a catastrophic regional arms race.”
No wonder Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is quitting.The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (www.gloria-center.org) and editor of
Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal and Turkish Studies.