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U.S. Middle East Policy In Crisis…Tunisia, Egypt, Who’s Next?

January 28, 2011

Denver, Colorado - Martin Luther King Day `Marade' - Tunisian Community Delegation. photo credit: Mourad Ksouri

It is not just the governments of different Arab countries that are in crisis, as the media would have us believe. U.S. and European Middle East Policy is also suffering from the events. For Washington, London, Paris and Berlin, the current upsurge of regionwide protests in the Middle East is something between a setback and a debacle, the extent of which remains to be seen.

And right now the Obama Administration is scrambling to scratch together a policy to keep up with events that change daily.

Protests that began in Tunisia with the immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a university graduate reduced to selling fruit and vegetables in Tunisia’s interior city of Sidi Bouzid, have now spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East.

As I write:

• demonstrations are taking place for the third consecutive Friday in Jordan demanding the prime minister, Samir Rafai, to step down; a slogan emerging from the street is `Rafai go away; prices are on fire and so are the Jordanians.’

• in Yemen’s capitol, Sana’a,  for the second time in a week thousands are protesting against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, demanding an end to his rule of three decades

• and in Egypt, the government of Hosni Mubarek has called out the army to quell angry demonstrations that the NY Times describes in a headline as `a fury that has smoldered beneath the surface for decades.’ Building on the unprecedented Tunisian protest movement, Egyptians are calling for Mubarek’s removal from power; they are also opposed to his son taking over the presidency in his stead. Some news reports suggest that already thousands of people have been arrested

• In Algeria and Libya protests erupted targeting socio-economic conditions – promises the government made and never fulfilled for public housing

• There were even protests in Saudi Arabia against the presence of deposed Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi

Obama rides…and tries to shape …the democratic wave

In the past few days, U.S. President Barack Obama has made several statements praising the Tunisian democratic upsurge, including a few sentences in his state of the union message, giving the impression that the protests are in line with calls for greater democratization throughout the region made over the past ten years from different U.S. administrations.

Tonight (Friday, January 28), he continued along these lines making remarks suggesting that the U.S. supports the democratic wave and making mild criticisms of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarek.

But one senses an American malaise and the mood in Washington is far from joyous as this `democratic wave’ extends throughout the region. Whatever Obama’s public pronouncements, under the surface it is not just Middle Eastern geriatric authoritarian regional leaders who are nervous, – nay, beside themselves – but policy makers in Washington DC as well.

Tunisia, Egypt, a setback for U.S. foreign policy

While many here in the United States greeted Obama’s blessing of the Tunisian events as evidence of the administration’s backing for democratic change, actually, the Tunisian protests represent nothing short of a set back for U.S. foreign security and economic policy. Once again,as in Iran in 1979, U.S. policy makers have been caught off guard, completely unaware of how this crisis developed, or how to address it. It is both an intelligence and policy failure of the greatest magnitude.

His Tunisia remarks could be interpreted as little more than Obama’s Mayaguez speech, a form of  `damage control’, his attempt to spin economic and political rejection of U.S. policies into some kind of victory. Facing defeat, declare victory and move on as fast as possible. Blame it on our geriatric Middle East allies rather than on policies that emanate from Washington. One notes, to date, very little sense of self criticism of Washington’s partial responsibility for the current mess.

What is it in U.S. foreign policy that is being rejected from Tunis to San’aa?

  • Economically, the whole region is rejecting the results of nearly 30 years of U.S. supported World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs that have not produced growth but social polarization, growing impoverishment, bankruptcy of domestic economic enterprises and now higher prices for basic goods. It was rather amusing and pathetic to see both Ben Ali in Tunisia and now Mubarek in Egypt offering their people `reverse structural adjustment policies’ (re-instituting subsidies on basic foods, government jobs programs) in an effort to retain power
  • While singing democracy’s song, U.S. policy in the Middle East has in fact supported authoritarian regimes, autocracy and has done so consistently since World War II. It is only changing gears now, ever so gingerly, due to unprecedented mass pressure from below, which it has always essentially ignored or downplayed.
  • The United States has long opposed all manifestations of Arab Nationalism, which it first mistakenly interpreted as “pro-Communist” and now confuses with radical Islamic fundamentalism
  • Because its analysis of the crisis in the region is off base – exaggerating the breadth of Islamic fundamentalism, the United States did not see or appreciate either the scope or nature of the crisis until Washington got hit square in the face with it
  • The United States anticipated an Islamic fundamentalist led uprising that would call for the institution of shari’a. This Washington was preparing to crush with the aid of the same local allies it is now criticizing and abandoning left and right. Instead, it is facing essentially secular movements against high unemployment, inflation, corruption and repression.
  • The United States has ignored, almost completely, or written off as irrelevant those few critical voices here in the United States and elsewhere who `saw what was coming’ and now Washington is paying the price.

Real Change or Make Up On A Corpse?

Obama’s support for the democratic upsurge cannot wipe away with yet another fine speech that has no teeth 65 years of a policy that went in the opposite direction and contributed greatly to the crisis that has exploded in its face.

The path now taken appears to one of damage control. Obama has decided

Denver, Colorado. Tunisian Community Participates in MLK Jr. Day `Marade'. photo credit: Mourad Ksouri

simply to face reality – to ride the democratic wave sweeping the region but at the same time try to maintain U.S. strategic and economic interests in the region to the degree possible. Change might be in the offing, but perhaps the changes can be tailored to suit U.S. policy? That appears to be the approach taken in Tunisia, and it seems also now in Egypt.

But is it supporting the kind of deep-going needed changes that can lead to both greater development and more democracy…or rather is simply an exercise of putting make up on the corpse of U.S. post World War II foreign policy?

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Useful Links:

This piece has also appeared on Foreign Policy In FocusZNET, Portside

Tunisia: Mass Protests To Deepen Revolution – looks at the deepening internal struggles in Tunisia over the direction of the new government

Dead-enders on the Potomac – from MERIP (Middle East Research and Information Project) Reports. Best analysis I have so far read. Of course the Egyptian events have far from played themselves out. still, it deals with strategic questions that most commentators seem to avoid

Remarks of Asst. Secretary of State For Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, Gordon Gray. January 26, 2011; U.S. Embassy Tunis. Feltman is Hillary Clinton’s point man in the Middle East. She is rather dependent upon his take of things throughout the region

Congressional Resarch Service Report on Tunisia – most recent report on Tunisia (from January 18, 2011) since the overthrow of Ben Ali. Typically dry, but with some useful information

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final note: apparently this blog entry has been translated into French and Persian

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Juliet Wittman permalink
    January 28, 2011 10:23 pm

    Excellent, Rob.

  2. January 29, 2011 11:01 am

    This from a person I refer to as my mutant Denver developer friend (meaning that he is an honest soul)… rjp

    ” Rob
    You raise more questions then answers. Do you have on the ground compatriots in each country providing unfiltered insights.

    Nothing I’ve read to date pins the outcry on Israel and it’s policies. Even the highly educated Egyptians without jobs are revolting. The initial issues deal with failing economic policy, human rights issues and high cost of food. Mubarak has been following an out if sight out of mind aristocratic fiefdom which, through technological social interaction, has been exposed to reach a boiling point of all citizens.

    Perhaps Obama’s Cairo speech was an early catalyst. However, is or was there clandestine involvement by Iran and Al Queada choreographing a master plan. Perhaps Erik Prince of Blackwater and his cohorts are waiting in the wings to overthrow the govt.

    One more comment. Mubarak’s designated VP replacement was head of the CIA equivalent with a possible Medvedev Putin regime equivalent beginning. Has CNN or Fox called you for an interview?

    The basic question is, does anyone know what’s going on? What would former US Ambassador Bolton do?”

  3. January 29, 2011 8:20 pm

    Rob-
    A thoughtful and incisive analysis. Forgive me for pointing to the 500 lb gorilla in the middle of the living room. The dishonest & unbalanced US role in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict continues to provoke hatred, distrust and terrorism throughout the region. This blind and uncritical support of Israeli policies destroys the hope of a decent future for the Palestinian people and jeopardizes the security of Israel as well.
    Let also us beware of an Israeli nuclear attack against Iran in the midst of all the present furor.
    Peace,
    Paul

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