The Region: Empowering the Middle East’s radicals

There are two problems with US policy toward the Middle East: both the analysis and response aren’t just wrong, they make things much worse.

People protest in Tahrir Square against Suleiman R 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
People protest in Tahrir Square against Suleiman R 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There are two problems with US policy toward the Middle East: both the analysis and response aren’t just wrong, they make things much worse.
The White House has supported the anti-Semitic, anti-American Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria; insisted the Brotherhood is moderate; gave untrained, unreliable Libyans control over the US ambassador’s security leading to his death; denied revolutionary Islamists attacked the US embassy and ambassador in Libya for reasons having nothing to do with a California video; apologized for the video in a way that escalated the crisis elsewhere; wrongly claimed al-Qaida is finished, etc.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration responds with a democracy- will-solve-everything approach which the same people ridiculed when President George W. Bush advocated it. The errors are deepened in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s latest defense of these wrong-headed policies in a speech given at my first employers, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Her argument is that the United States should ignore violence and extremism and help build democracies.
The problem is that most of the violence and extremism comes from forces that the Obama administration supports or groups basically allied with those forces.
Everything she says lays a basis for disaster:
  • The US government must not be deterred by “the violent acts of a small number of extremists.”The problem is not a “small number” of extremists – implying al-Qaida – but a large number of them. Extremists now rule in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Tunisia, and – despite camouflage – Turkey. They may soon be running Syria.More than a decade after September 11, the Obama administration is fighting the last war – the battle against al-Qaida – rather than recognizing that a small group committing periodic terrorist acts is less important than a huge organization taking over entire countries.
  • “We recognize that these transitions are not America’s to manage, and certainly not ours to win or lose.”Of course the United States doesn’t manage these transitions, but does – or can – have influence. In Egypt, the Obama administration used its influence to push the military out of power and encourage the Brotherhood. In Syria, it backed management by the pro- Brotherhood Turkish regime and the choice of a Brotherhood-dominated exile leadership. In Bahrain, if not stopped by the State Department it would have helped bring to power a new regime likely to have been an Iranian satellite.
  • “But we have to stand with those who are working every day to strengthen democratic institutions, defend universal rights, and drive inclusive economic growth. That will produce more capable partners and more durable security over the long term.”Yet the Obama administration has definitely not stood with those people! It has not channeled arms to moderates in Syria, but rather to the Brotherhood, and tolerated Saudi Arabia supplying arms to Salafis. It has done nothing to protect the rights of women or Christians.Moderates in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt – as well as Turkey and Iran – know the Obama administration has not helped them.
  • “We will never prevent every act of violence or terrorism, or achieve perfect security. Our people cannot live in bunkers and do their jobs.”Yes, perfection is hard. But what does that have to do with sending the ambassador to Libya into a lawless city with no protection? And of course you can’t achieve even minimal security if you refuse to recognize where unrest and anti-American hatred originate.For example, the Egyptian government knew that there would be a demonstration outside the US embassy in Cairo and must have known the demonstrators would storm the compound. Their security forces did nothing to protect the embassy. Why? Because they want to stir up anti-Americanism and use it to entrench themselves in power, even as the Obama administration praises the Brotherhood’s regime and sends lots of money.
  • “For the United States, supporting democratic transitions is not a matter of idealism. It is a strategic necessity.” This is absurd. Are “democratic” regimes always better for American strategic concerns than dictatorships? That’s untrue in Egypt and many other countries in the past half-century.Clinton said there has been a backlash against extremist groups in Libya and Tunisia. But the backlash is by frightened people who fear, with good reason, that the extremists are winning.
  • “We stand with the Egyptian people in their quest for universal freedoms and protections.... Egypt’s international standing does depend both on peaceful relations with its neighbors and also on the choices it makes at home and whether or not it fulfills its own promises to its own people.”In fact, Egypt’s people voted – 75 percent in parliamentary elections and about 53 percent in presidential balloting – for those opposing universal freedoms and protections.And if Obama won’t get tough, the Brotherhood regime knows it can repress people at home and let terrorists stage cross-border attacks against Israel without concern for its international standing.
  • “We have, as always, to be clear-eyed about the threat of violent extremism. A year of democratic transition was never going to drain away reservoirs of radicalism built up through decades of dictatorship.”Drain away? This year has empowered radicals! An Obama administration so far from reality subverts US interests and makes the Middle East a far more tragic and dangerous place.They are doubling down on their errors and will no doubt continue to do so if they have four more years to continue making costly mistakes.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). GLORIA Center is at