“There is always the possibility that the United States will awake in the morning and see its way clear of ideology to its regional and strategic interests. But failing that, whoever replaces America in this volatile region will find alliance with Israel, a stable democracy with a powerful military, important as its ‘forward line of defense.’”
President Obama exuded confidence when he had his press secretary suggest that President Mubarak leave “immediately, and that means yesterday!” He was confident when he decided that democratic elections whose outcome would be fair and achieve stability was possible “even before” the constitutional date for elections in September. And he is confident in suggesting the possible inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in a democratic government, even though anti-American, anti-Israel, because it has relatively little support at the polls. Very likely Jimmy Carter was equally confident in 1979 in his support of the student protesters in the streets of Teheran. That president also turned his back on its hapless ally of that day, the shah. Carter was likely also confident that the Islamists could be included in a democratic government because, as in 2011, they were believed too electorally weak in 1979 to affect events on the ground.
George W. Bush was always confident, as when he chose to replace Sadam’s tyranny with a democracy to be the model for the region. Today his Shiite-controlled democracy is increasingly under the sway of its Shiite neighbor to the east, Iran, an alliance that threatens America’s strategic interests in the Arabian Peninsula and the Sunni Arab world, a region where little threat existed before the American intervention.
Even following that debacle Bush set out three years later to introduce democracy in Palestine. Dismissing warnings by President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert that including the still armed, anti-government Hamas in those elections would likely result in their victory, Bush insisted that “democratic” elections had to include the Islamists. Hamas won. Bush responded by a Fateh coup to overthrow the democratically-elected Hamas government, but that also failed.
And today President Obama confidently welcomes the prospect of a democratic Egypt in which the Muslim Brotherhood “cannot” create possibly a theocracy because, like the ayatollahs of Iran in ‘79, they don’t have majority support at the polls!
American crisis management over the past weeks of Egyptian protests raises questions not only regarding judgment by the present administration, but of American policy in the Middle East. Setting aside the blow to Egyptian prestige resulting from America “ordering” the president of Egypt to step down, how understand a policy thrust that not only abandons a long-time and trusted ally, but sides with those calling for his downfall? Do the administration and its “expert” advisers not understand the implications of their actions?
The US response to the Cairo protesters can partly be laid at the feet of our inexperienced and over-confidant president. But that is only part of the problem. The parallel between the American response to Cairo and Teheran, separated by more that thirty years, suggests an long-standing national policy. In Egypt, as in Iran, sympathy towards the street took precedence over strategic regional considerations. And in both instances, and actions in between, the result was opposite that hoped for.
1978-9, Iran: Within months of the revolution the “democratic aspirations” of the students were replaced by a theocratic counter revolution by Islamists previously considered by American policy makers to be friendly towards the United States, and electorally marginal. And those students who overthrew America’s previous ally, the shah, were themselves eliminated by the new regime.
2003, Iraq: President Bush ignored the warnings of the CIA and Israeli and Saudi intelligence that attacking Iraq would create a military vacuum that would leave the Arab world at risk from Iran. But, according to the president, "[i]t is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Bush chose to set Iraq free, to replace tyranny with democracy. Good intentions, but again, lousy outcome.
2008, Palestine: Once again Bush chose to ignore the warnings of leaders on the ground and insisted on full and fair elections, including Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Hamas. “After failing to anticipate Hamas’s victory over Fatah… the White House… backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan… leaving Hamas stronger than ever.”
2008, Washington, DC: Several days into the protests working themselves out on the streets of Cairo today, the London Daily Telegraph disclosed that in 2008 the Bush Administration recruited an Egyptian student leader with the intention of deposing President Mubarak (see State Department memo). With or without awareness of the Bush Administration’s provocateur-in-place, three years later the Obama White House sought the same outcome.
So there is a clear American policy stream at work today on the streets of Egypt. The question is not whether ideology (the spread of democracy) or morality (siding with those perceived to be oppressed) should or not play a part in American foreign policy, it should; the real question is whether ideology should trump other, strategic interests. Obama’s expressed disloyalty, his disrespect of the Egyptian president may or not have won points with Egyptian students camped out in Tahrir Square; it certainly would not have reassured other regional heads of state.
If 1979 did not represent the beginning of the end for America’s Middle East “century” then 2003 had to be the tipping point. And 2011 likely is the beginning of the end.
In mid-20th century the United States and Russia were locked in struggle for supremacy in the Middle East. Israel was a key participant in that struggle, a distraction to Russia-backed Egyptian and Syrian ambitions in the oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. Since the fall of the Soviet Union Russia has made a quiet comeback in the region. As supporter of Iran, if and when the US finally retreats Russia will be present to take its place, to finally achieve its centuries-long ambition of a “warm water port” in the Mediterranean. And when that happens not only will the US have lost the strategic Middle East with its oil, the Suez Canal, land bridge dividing north/south and east/west, but it will also lose its European allies as well. Because a Europe flanked south and north by a resurgent Russia will not be long in accepting reality.
2011, Israel: The eight years between Iraq and Egypt have been traumatic for the region; America’s distraction by two lost wars, its declining influence grows increasingly obvious daily. Israel could likely prevail over Iran and her allies in war today. But for how long could Israel depend on the United States, constantly for military and diplomatic support; how long would the increasingly isolationist giant even need a “forward line of defense” to protect its diminishing national interests?
There are indications that Israeli leaders are coming to terms with the problem. Israel is reaching out to regional and outside emerging states, to India and China (the next generation “superpower”).
More locally, Turkey early recognized the American decline, and is several years ahead of Israel in coming to terms with that reality: her shift from west to east, her distancing from the US and Israel is evidence of this. Israel partially replaced the loss by aligning with Greece. But Greece is a doorway to Europe, not Arabia, and the west was always, at best, an iffy ally.
To the south of Egypt southern Sudan recently voted secession; and press reports describe Israel as critical in providing the military and logistical support that made the election possible. That emerging country’s leadership are expressing gratitude and fraternity with Israel, the possibility of an alliance south of Egypt, across the waterway from the Arabian Peninsula.
But Israel’s main priority is, must be, a replacement global partner for the declining America-Israel “special relationship.” If Russia succeeds the United States as regional power Israel would likely represent the same advantages to the new superpower as for the old; a strategic counter-balance to radical and destabilizing regional actors.
Of course there is always the possibility that the United States will awake in the morning and see its way clear of ideology to its regional strategic interests. But failing that, whoever replaces America in this volatile region will find alliance with Israel, a stable democracy with a powerful military, important as its “forward line of defense.”Other of my writings on this and related topics may be accessed at my other blog sites, Antisemitism and Jewish Survival and Antisemitism in Art.