Washington and the Middle East: What in the world is the US playing at?

America is disengaging itself from the Middle East while seemingly encouraging extremist forces. It is a well-known fact that nature abhors a vacuum. What happens next is anybody’s guess.

US President Barack Obama. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An unidentified source at the US State Department recently told the Kuwaiti daily Al Rai that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t constitute a danger to the United States, adding that no one has asked Washington to put it on the list of terrorist organizations. The last part of this statement is probably true, but was it the right moment for such a public declaration when that same organization is engaged in a terrorist war against Egypt – Washington’s long-standing Arab ally in the Middle East? When Cairo has declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization? This statement looks more like a political gesture than an innocuous piece of information. The Muslim brothers certainly interpreted it as a mark of continued support for their cause. The fact it that since the demonstrations started against Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 Washington has been unfailingly supporting the Brotherhood, and went as far as suspending most of its military assistance to Egypt after the ousting of Mohammed Morsi.
One may well ask what the rationale is behind this policy. Not so long ago the Obama administration was bragging it had killed Osama bin-Laden, America’s archenemy and a devoted follower of such dedicated Muslim Brothers as Abdulla Azzam and Mahmud Qutb. The first, a Palestinian member of the Egyptian MB, was bin-Laden’s teacher and mentor and among the founders of al-Qaida; the second, brother of Sayyed Qutb, taught bin-Laden at King Abd Al Aziz University in Jeddah. Sayyed Qutb’s teachings are considered the fount of ideology that gave rise to radical Islam in the 20th century, with disastrous consequences for the whole world. Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik who masterminded the first attack on the world trade center 1993 and is now serving a life sentence in a US prison, was the leader of the Gama’a al-Islamia, an offshoot of the Brotherhood responsible for the Sadat assassination in 1981, and a friend of bin-Laden from their shared fight in Afghanistan. One could go on and on.
For the past 85 years the Brotherhood and the groups it spawned have been spreading terror and mayhem both against fellow Muslims and against the West. Yet the American administration does not hesitate to say publicly that the Brotherhood is not a threat. There are rumors about a number of Arab Americans connected to the Brotherhood allegedly in the White House, the State Department and even the Counter Terrorism Bureau. Lists of names are circulating, but one is loath to believe it could be true.
Egypt is the most conspicuous victim of this bizarre policy. It is in urgent need of some of the military equipment withheld by American administration – such as Apache helicopters and sophisticated monitoring devices – in its fight against the Brotherhood and jihadist terror. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahami said lately that the US is even delaying the return of a number of Apache helicopters sent for periodical revision.
German customs authorities also recently seized recently a perfectly legitimate shipment of weapons from Poland destined to Egypt consecutive to the embargo on weapons imposed by the European Union. In other words the US and the EU are jointly ostracizing Egypt, the largest Arab country fighting radical Islam. Left with no other option, Egypt turned to Russia for closer cooperation; a major arms deal is being processed. And under the pressure of the war against terrorism Egypt now asks the Russians to hasten the shipment of the Russian combat helicopters.
AMERICAN POLICY has also brought a rift with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, which already feel they have been betrayed after learning that Washington had negotiated behind their back with Iran, their declared enemy, on a compromise regarding its nuclear plans. Challenging Washington, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Kuwait let it be known that they would finance the Egyptian- Russian weapons deal. President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to the kingdom in mid-March for some fence-mending was canceled or at least postponed because of sharp differences with the Gulf countries.
The relations between Saudi Arabia and the US have never been the same since 9/11 when it was discovered that 16 out of the 18 terrorists involved were Saudis. Riyadh tried to make up for it by banning the Brotherhood from the kingdom. Saudi imams have even issued a fatwa forbidding terrorism, including attacks against third countries. This explains why Saudi Arabia applauded the ouster of Morsi; it is also at the heart of its feud with Qatar, a staunch supporter of the Brotherhood. Indeed Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain lately recalled their ambassadors from Doha and warned the emir to change its policy.
The Middle East has never been a stable region. Its short history since World War I is replete with wars, military coups and massacres. The countries of that region never fully developed their economies in spite of their vast natural resources, and were always leaning on the great powers of England, France, the US or the Soviet Union. The disappearance of England and France as colonial powers and the disintegration of the Soviet Union left America the sole ally of the pragmatic Arab countries facing Iran and al-Qaida. Now even that is fast disappearing. The failed Arab spring made the situation worse and the Middle East is now in shambles. Somalia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen are fast dislocating. Lebanon is tottering on the brink; so is Sudan. Egypt is in crisis.
Only the traditional kingdoms – Gulf countries, Jordan and Morocco – have kept their stability but, for how long? The disintegration of Libya is a disaster since its huge stockpiles of sophisticated weapons have been looted and are now fueling terror in Egypt and other Arab countries. The all-important alliance in the region which kept Iran at bay is no more. Traditional allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries cannot rely any more on America. Extremism and fanaticism are on the rise and the Middle East has become a ticking time-bomb.
It is hard to fathom US policy in the Middle East. However what is beyond dispute is that America is disengaging itself from the Middle East while seemingly encouraging extremist forces. It is a well-known fact that nature abhors a vacuum. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
The author is a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.