Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Limited Options for the U.S. in the Face
of Turmoil Throughout the Middle East
By James Zogby
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, January 31, 2011
Across the Middle East dramatic events have been unfolding in
rapid-fire succession, confounding U.S. policy makers.
Tunisia erupted in mass protest leading to the abdication of that
country's President and the dissolution of its ruling party. While
developments there were fermenting and still unresolved, attention was
diverted to al Jazeera's much hyped release of leaked notes recording
conversations between Palestinian negotiators and their American and
Israeli counterparts. As revelations go, the "Palestine Papers", as they
were marketed, didn't amount to much. However, as an effectively
orchestrated and well-timed political attack designed for maximum impact,
they proved quite devastating.
That manufactured story was all
the rage for a few days last week, only to be eclipsed by the upheavals in
Egypt which upended most everything else in the news. Dramatic scenes of
mass mobilizations calling on President Mubarak to step down, clashes with
riot police, and burning government buildings, proved too enticing to the
world's media. As a result, other major unfolding stories across the
region were either pushed to back page coverage or completely off the
page. Thus during the past few days there has been scant mention of: the
inauguration of a new Hizbullah-backed government in Lebanon, raising
fears of new sectarian tensions; anti-government demonstrations across
Yemen and Jordan challenging the rule of two other U.S. allies; and a
still unsettled situation in Iraq with the formation of a "new" government
being compromised by continued violence and sectarian and factional
The pace, the extent, and the consequences of all these
events have confronted U.S. policy makers with a difficult set of
challenges. While America remains, at least rhetorically, committed to
human rights and political freedom, the imperative to protect national
security interests often trumps other concerns. This is especially
problematic in the current unrest since all of the countries boiling over
are led by governments that have been close allies of successive U.S.
administrations or are viewed as important to regional stability or
broader national security objectives. As a result, in almost every
instance, the U.S. has very little leverage (or even contact) with the
opposition groups in question and/or little ability to impact the outcome
of the ferment. Furthermore, at this point, with the exception of Lebanon
and Palestine, much of the dissent rocking the region has nothing to do
with the U.S. Despite the fact that we are closely identified with the
governments in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen, protesters in those countries
have, for the time being, ignored the U.S., since they have bigger fish to
This has complicated the policy-makers' dilemma. There is
concern that too much of an embrace of the protesting movements would
appear unseemly or even risk being rejected. On the other hand, it is
impossible and equally unseemly to ignore the unrest, the social, economic
and political conditions that created it, and the horrible repression with
which it was met. At the same time, about all that full throated support
for the protests would do is pull the plug on regional allies - opening
the door to the unknown.
This is not Eastern Europe, where the
Soviet occupation regime was our enemy and the democracy movements were
our allies. In Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq, the hostility of opposition
groups to the US is known. In the other states in question, too little is
known about the forces driving the protests and even less is clear how any
post-regime scenarios would evolve.
What has been unnerving during
this entire period has been the contradictory and in some instances
hypocritical way some in the U.S. have seized upon these rapid-fire
developments. In Congress and the media, new champions of Arab democracy
have been born overnight. In too many instances, however, I suspect this
celebration of the "Arab street" is born more of an anti-Arab animus, than
of a real commitment to Arab democracy.
Those, for example, who
call on President Obama to break with the Egyptian government and suspend
U.S. assistance to Egypt's military, would recoil in horror, should a new
Egyptian government emerge and, following the will of the people, cancel
the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel and/or open ties with Hamas in
Gaza. And what would the reaction be were the new Tunisian government to
suspend anti-terror cooperation with the U.S?
Evidence that this
support for revolution is based more on what these folks don't know mixed
in with a dash anti-Arab sentiment can be seen in how they deal with the
democratically elected Arab leaders or governing groups they do know.
There is no cheering, for example, from Congress or the Washington Post
editorial pages for the new Hizbullah-backed government in Lebanon, the
Hamas-led Gaza Strip or the emergent Sadrist bloc currently at the center
of the Iraqi government. In the case of Lebanon and Gaza there is a taboo
placed on any engagement with these groups and calls to suspend all
American assistance programs - all of which appears to undercut the
professed commitment to democracy.
One final observation on the
Palestine Papers" - since discussion of the full impact of their release
was aborted by the all-consuming story from Cairo. It is not so much that
there is anything new in the leaked documents - despite al Jazeera's hype.
Most of the compromises offered, or the behaviors or attitudes manifested,
have been known for years. Nor does the release of these inter-office
Palestinian memos represent "the final nail in the coffin of the peace
process", as some have suggested. That nail was driven in months ago. What
these documents do shine a light on, however, is the belief that the
Palestinian leadership is "out of touch" with their constituency and a bit
too desperate in their dealings with the U.S. and Israel. They also
make clear the degree to which the U.S. has been insensitive to
Palestinian needs and impotent in the face of Israeli intransigence.
The bottom line here is that the complexities of these multiple challenges
and the uncertainties associated with each of them have placed a real
burden on an already weakened Obama Administration. Two years ago they
came into office generating high expectations throughout the Middle East.
But during the past two years U.S. policies vis-a-vis a range of regional
issues (Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, etc) have appeared more a continuation
of the failed past than hoped for change. As a result, today the
Administration appears exhausted, distracted and flat, creating a massive
let-down across the Arab World.
Recognizing this is important since it establishes the reality
that the U.S. has diminished credibility, capacity, and few good options.
Critics, both liberals and conservatives, who are demanding “bold
leadership” from the President, ought to remember their earlier support
for “deposing the Iraqi dictator”. Not understanding the consequences of
that move or the factors driving Iraqi society in the post-Saddam era and
having little ability to control the disasters that followed (despite
having 150,000 troops on the ground), should give these pundits pause.
Therefore, it is advisable for policy makers to dismiss the critics and
proceed, as they have, with carefully calibrated messages that affirm both
principles and interests.