Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Short Guide to the Benghazi Issue: What is it Really All About?

A Short Guide to the Benghazi Issue: What is it Really All About?

By Barry Rubin

"Where do They come from, those whom we so much dread, 
As on our dearest location falls the chill 
Of their crooked wing...."  --W.H. Auden, "Crisis," (1940)

The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the murder of four Americans there has become a huge issue. There are many stories and rumors that are still being debated and more information is coming out. What I’m going to try to do here is to analyze the enduring themes raised by these tragic events.

Why Do They Hate Us?

There is a debate over the causes of terrorism and anti-Americanism in the world. One possible view is that the principal problem is that of genuine conflict. The adversaries hold certain ideological ideas—say, revolutionary Islamism—to which American society and policies are antithetical. The collision (as with Communism, Nazism, and aggressive Japanese militarism in earlier decades) is inevitable. The United States is inconveniencing the totalitarians both because of what it does (policies) and because of what it represents (freedom, democracy, capitalism).

The other view currently dominates many Western academic “experts,” politicians, mass media, and even governments. That concept is that the hatred is our own fault. We have done things in the past—which require apologies—and are doing things in the present that makes people angry at America who otherwise would be friendly.

An exception is made for a “tiny minority of extremists,” mainly a code word for al-Qaida, but the more sophisticated argument is that such people would have no following if America handled things properly.
Thus, in this case, if American facilities are attacked in Cairo and Benghazi it must have been something America did wrong, to wit, an insulting video made by an immigrant from the Middle East about Islam.

Diagnosing the problem tells one what the cure is: sensitivity; respect; tightening rules against such insults; bowing and scraping; refusing to identify radicals and terrorists with Islam in any way; giving large amounts of money; helping the Muslim Brotherhood so it will be grateful later; telling the NASA director to make up stuff about Muslim contributions to space travel, etc.

That is the path the Obama Administration, with major support from the intellectual-cultural establishment, has followed.

Why Do Some of Us Hate Ourselves?

The answer to this question follows from the first answer. If “we” are responsible for the hatred and conflict, then we have done evil and must repent. We are the problem or, as one much-feted American intellectual put it, the United States is the cancer of the world.

In the Benghazi case, however, it is hard to come up with more than a video, according to the dominant view. After all, didn’t the United States “liberate” Libya from a terrible dictator? Of course, the problem is that from the standpoint of the radicals, the United States merely became Libya’s new master, blocking the revolutionary Islamist, Sharia state they wanted, producing a “puppet” (who cares if it was elected?) government.

America is thus the prime enemy not because it did something evil but because it did something which the U.S. government regarded as good. If they hate us in Libya for sinful policies, then President Barack Obama, not the Egyptian-born video producer, is the chief sinner.
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Is America a Bully or a Leader?

As noted above, the establishment view today is that America has been a bully in the past, acting unilaterally and not respecting the views of others. Obama has said this directly when speaking to foreign—including Middle Eastern—audiences.

But how does one stop being a bully? By showing that one isn’t tough, doesn’t protect one’s interests fiercely. Thus, in the Benghazi case, the U.S. government didn’t send the ambassador to Benghazi with Americans to guard him, nor did the consulate have Americans to provide security. To do so would be to show disrespect for the Libyans, to act in a way that might be perceived of as imperialistic.

Similarly, the president would not call in an airstrike against the attackers or send an armed rescue team to the consulate because to do so would have signaled an arrogance and aggressiveness, putting Americans first and not acting as a citizen of the world.

Who is the Enemy?

If the enemy is defined as solely al-Qaida this allows a policy of treating all other Islamists—even the Afghan Taliban!—as a potential friend. Both Vice-President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, explained that leading elements of the Taliban, a group complicit in the September 11 attacks, could be won over. Certainly, the Muslim Brotherhood—the world’s largest and most powerful international anti-American organization—was helped and treated as a potential ally.

Al-Qaida, however, is a relatively weak organization, capable of staging only sporadic terror attacks, with the exception perhaps of remote Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan. It cannot take over whole countries. The fact that Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Turkey, and perhaps soon Syria are governed by Islamists is a far greater strategic threat.

Then why couldn’t the Obama Administration have said that the consulate was attacked by evil al-Qaida for no reason other than its lust to murder Americans, with the perfect symbolism of the attack having been staged on September 11?

There was a dual problem. First, the group involved was one the U.S. government had worked with during the Libyan civil war so it could not admit they were close to al-Qaida. Second, the official line was that al-Qaida had been defeated so it could not still be a threat. Therefore, an alternative narrative and a cover-up were needed.

Competence and Courage

Once upon a time a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination warned that if Obama was elected president he would not be reliable in a crisis, answering a 3 AM phone call requiring instant response.  That claim, of course, came from Hillary Clinton. Benghazi was that phone call.

That conclusion is reinforced by the killing of al-Qaida leader Usama bin Ladin. Notice something of huge importance that has been neglected. Obama and his supporters bragged about his indecision on the no-brainer of getting the architect of the September 11 attacks. If he would hesitate on an obvious call like that one, how would he deal with a consulate under attack in Benghazi?

There is, or should be, a sacred trust between the U.S. government and those who put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of America. Everything should be done to protect and save them. In this case, however, the country’s leaders let those people down both before and during the crisis.

Note, too, how unintentionally revealingly Obama responded to this issue in the presidential debate. Once the crisis was over, Obama said, he swung into action, securing those who still survived, investigating who was responsible, and promising to punish them.

What about before and during the multi-hour assault? Silence. The details--for example, whether or not there was a drone overhead--obscure the fact that no proper preparations were made for the ambassador and consulate being unprotected and that passivity prevailed during the battle.

If the U.S. government didn’t trust the Libyans wouldn’t that show that America thought itself superior and its interests to override those of others? And isn’t that racist?

One could say that the Obama Administration’s failure to act denotes incompetence, and there is truth there. But the larger picture is that it was a failure due to its concept of America and the world. The real danger is not from totalitarian enemies grown bolder in the fact of American weakness and a loss of self-confidence. No, according to the prevailing view, it was rather excessive American self-confidence and strength in the past.

The effort to change those bad old ways, to open a new era with completely different behavior, the failure to perceive the real enemies and to understand America’s rights and duties were the causes of the incident in Benghazi, and many other setbacks as well.

The chickens have come back to roost and have roosted in the White House. And the vultures are gathering.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include 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). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The West's Deaf Ears for the Real Arab Moderates

By Barry Rubin

One of my most fun professional memories was when I walked endlessly,  circling round and round and round that hall in Algeria in November 1988 with a burly, no-nonsense, and brilliant newspaper correspondent named Youssef Ibrahim, who was then working for the New York Times.

Friendly, funny, sarcastic, and with absolutely no illusions or romanticism about the absurdities of Arab politics and the idiocies of Arab political ideology, Ibrahim’s only shortcoming is that there are not one thousand more exactly like him. If he was the kind of person leading Arab countries and people they would be far more prosperous, peaceful, happier and democratic.

But, alas, the Ibrahims are the rarity, men given too little honor in their own old societies and  far too little in the West. The genuine moderates accept no excuses but comprehend precisely why the West has succeeded and the Middle East has not. Often seen as sell-outs, they are the most noble and courageous of people, far more concerned about their own people’s welfare than are the dictators, demagogues, and bloodthirsty academics.

These thoughts are prompted by an article he once wrote, presented below. I include the text because I want you to read every word. It is all completely sensible. Many will find it encouraging. It makes me want to cry.

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First, because it all could have been written 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, indeed it is pretty much what he told me as we circled endlessly around the convention center way out on an isolated Algerian beach (there’s Arafat, surrounded by his coterie; there’s that moronic American Jewish Peace Now guy who is explaining to the PLO gunmen thugs why they really really want to make peace with Israel but just don’t know it; here come the sycophantic journalists…)

And it was published in 2006 and in six years and a half years there has been no advance on one single word of its text. Of course, the spread of revolutionary Islamism has revived the unwillingness to listen to Ibrahim, though the fate of Syria--the one Arab country he said still took the conflict seriously--should give pause to radical regimes who think this gambit solves all of their problems.

Second, because nobody in the Arab world listens to Ibrahim or to brilliant scholars like Fouad Ajami, which is their tragedy for preferring the demagogues.

Third, because it was published—of course—not in an Arabic publication (who would dare?) but in an American Jewish one, a group that includes all too many who think the fault is on their own side and don’t get what Youssef is saying.

Fourth, because if I were to have written these truths I would have been denounced with a hundred different insults.

Fifth, because if anything things are worse today than back then. (Can you imagine this essay of his being presented and discussed in a university course on the Middle East?)

And sixth because it’s now 2012 and we still have to be saying things like this! No, it's worse: in 2012 the Middle East is starting a whole new round of the old madness. The Islamists tell the masses that the only reason their predecessors didn't win total victory is that they failed to hit their head against the stone wall long and hard enough!

Here’s his open letter:

To my Arab brothers: The War with Israel Is Over — and they won. Now let's finally move forward.
 By Youssef M. Ibrahim
Jewish World Review, July 12, 2006
Dear Palestinian Arab brethren:
The war with Israel is over.
You have lost. Surrender and negotiate to secure a future for your children.
We, your Arab brothers, may say until we are blue in the face that we stand by you, but the wise among you and most of us know that we are moving on, away from the tired old idea of the Palestinian Arab cause and the "eternal struggle" with Israel.
Dear friends, you and your leaders have wasted three generations trying to fight for Palestine, but the truth is the Palestine you could have had in 1948 is much bigger than the one you could have had in 1967, which in turn is much bigger than what you may have to settle for now or in another 10 years. Struggle means less land and more misery and utter loneliness.
At the moment, brothers, you would be lucky to secure a semblance of a state in that Gaza Strip into which you have all crowded, and a small part of the West Bank of the Jordan. It isn't going to get better. Time is running out even for this much land, so here are some facts, figures, and sound advice, friends.
You hold keys, which you drag out for television interviews, to houses that do not exist or are inhabited by Israelis who have no intention of leaving Jaffa, Haifa, Tel Aviv, or West Jerusalem.
You shoot old guns at modern Israeli tanks and American-made fighter jets, doing virtually no harm to Israel while bringing the wrath of its mighty army down upon you.
You fire ridiculously inept Kassam rockets that cause little destruction and delude yourselves into thinking this is a war of liberation. Your government, your social institutions, your schools, and your economy are all in ruins.
Your young people are growing up illiterate, ill, and bent on rites of death and suicide, while you, in effect, are living on the kindness of foreigners, including America and the United Nations.
Every day your officials must beg for your daily bread, dependent on relief trucks that carry food and medicine into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, while your criminal Muslim fundamentalist Hamas government continues to fan the flames of a war it can neither fight nor hope to win.
In other words, brothers, you are down, out, and alone in a burnt-out landscape that is shrinking by the day.
What kind of struggle is this? Is it worth waging at all? More important, what kind of miserable future does it portend for your children, the fourth or fifth generation of the Arab world's have-nots?
We, your Arab brothers, have moved on.
Those of us who have oil money are busy accumulating wealth and building housing, luxury developments, state-of-the-art universities and schools, and new highways and byways. Those of us who share borders with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan, have signed a peace treaty with it and are not going to war for you any time soon.
Those of us who are far away, in places like North Africa and Iraq, frankly could not care less about what happens to you.
Only Syria continues to feed your fantasies that someday it will join you in liberating Palestine , even though a huge chunk of its territory, the entire Golan Heights, was taken by Israel in 1967 and annexed. The Syrians, my friends, will gladly fight down to the last Palestinian Arab.
Before you got stuck with this Hamas crowd, another cheating, conniving, leader of yours, Yasser Arafat, sold you a rotten bill of goods — more pain, greater corruption, and millions stolen by his relatives — while your children played in the sewers of Gaza .
The war is over. Why not let a new future begin?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include 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). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Why Economic Development As a Panacea for Middle East Problems is a Myth

This article is published on PJMedia

By Barry Rubin

A reader asks:

“I agree that democracy and economic development are not panaceas for the Middle East, just as they are not for any other location on the planet.  But aren't they a start?  And since it is possible to chew gum and walk at the same time, does it hurt to at least pay lip service to doing things to bring the rest of the Middle East into the 21st century? And what would those things be in your opinion?”

As you noted, both candidates in the presidential election spoke of economic development as a top priority in their Middle East policy. This sounds good to voters but is pretty meaningless.

A typical example of this meme is given by Obama in his June 4, 2009 Cairo speech:

"We...know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  That's why we plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who've been displaced.  That's why we are providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend on."

But almost four years later none of this massive expenditure has either changed the situation in those countries or even brought much benefit to their people.

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A Western viewer might accept Obama’s claim that people just want good jobs, nice housing, and higher living standards for themselves and their children. Yet the appeals of radical ideology overcome material considerations. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini dismissively referred to this theory shortly after he took power in Iran by remarking that the West seemed to think the Iranian Islamist revolution was about the price of watermelons but that wasn't true of all.

It does make sense to the Western mind that material conditions will determine the political beliefs and loyalties of Arabs and Iranians. Yet over the span of the last century things have simply not turned out that way in practice. This was partly due to the fact that nobody  delivered major increases in living standards except in the Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia and in those places it was a highly traditional and religious way of life being reinforced.

Elsewhere governments mustered loyalty not by making the pie bigger but by controlling who got what. So if you had the option material well-being for the urban middle class and certain ethnic segments meant supporting the dictatorship and getting some reward. That will also apply if the dictatorship is an Islamist one, which can offer spiritual exaltation as well. And at least for some years many voters--where people have the opportunity to choose--will believe that Islamism is the best chance for a stable, just, and relatively prosperous society.

There are lots of people who would like their children to grow up to be suicide bombers or prefer piety to prosperity. Even though many don’t think that way, they might be persuaded that radicalism is the best route to better lives. And finally, when people and rulers see no real way to achieve prosperity, both the governments and the masses will turn to demagoguery, scapegoating, and foreign adventures.

Countries are not prepared for progress due to ideology, worldview, institutions, political culture, and many other factors. In particular, the presence of such large and powerful radical forces—willing, even eager, to use violence—is a huge problem. Demagoguery is potent. Such factors can override the kind of materialistic orientation and enlightened self-interest that Westerners expect and that underpin the belief that democracy can provide stable polities and ensure moderation.

It should be stressed that every country is different. In general, though, the problem with economic development is that it does not trump politics. The countries of the region can be divided into those that have oil wealth and those that don’t. The wealthy countries don’t need American programs to engage in economic development. In some cases, radicalism and instability keep getting in the way. In others—think of Iran or Iraq under Saddam--economic development is managed within the framework of an extremist regime and ideology.

It is true that the wealth of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have made them more cautious and—often in practice but not in rhetoric or domestic policy—more pragmatic. But one must be cautious here. Saudi Arabia’s wealth and the high living standards of many citizens has not made the country a paragon of democratic values at home and moderation abroad.

Saudi money has been used to spread Islamism and back radical Islamists, most notably in contemporary Syria and in Iraq a few years ago. Qatar has aligned itself with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, engaging in mischief as far afield as Libya. Iraq and Algeria need stability but the problem is not economic development as such but merely pumping more oil and doing something about bureaucracy and corruption.
Certainly, though, these countries do not need Western governments to promote economic development.

Radical regimes, like Libya under Muammar al-Qadhafi, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or Islamist Iran use some of their wealth for development and much of it for projects like building nuclear weapons and subverting their neighbors.

So regarding the wealthy countries there isn’t much for the West to do in promoting economic development. What about the non-oil states? Let’s look at the specific cases. Lebanon, famous for its merchants, had a self-made multi-millionaire as prime minister who focused on economic development. But he was forced out and assassinated. Internal conflict, ideology, and engagement in foreign adventures wrecked the chance for economic development.

The same applies even more to the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, which is more interested in fighting Israel than in raising living standards. How can the West help when the local impetus is lacking?
This brings us to Egypt. The truth is that Egypt has a lot of people but few resources and a terrible structural and cultural situation regarding work. Here’s one example. A leading British supermarket chain opened stores in Egypt. Traditionalists, radicals, and competitors (the owners of small stores) spread rumors that the supermarket company backed Israel and was anti-Muslim. Despite the store’s efforts at denial and appeasement, the pressure became so great that it had to close and leave the country.

In a Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt, with Salafists engaging in anarchic violence, is U.S.-backed economic development going to make any differences. As for the Palestinian Authority, vast amounts of aid money have flowed in and despite some apparent successes—a lot of luxury apartments have been built and people kept employed in the government bureaucracy—no lasting progress has been made. A lot of the money has ended up in the political leaders’ foreign bank accounts. At any time, Hamas could take over or the Fatah-led regime turn back to a war against Israel.

Economic development sounds good but in practice it is more a way to keep Western citizens happy than to make a real difference in the Middle East. For example, when discussing his economic development policy in the foreign policy presidential debate, Obama cited his government’s “organizing entrepreneurship conferences.” And in reality a lot of the money is simply a pay-off to local regimes or a way to shore them up. It has nothing to do with real development.

The story of the battle of factions and corrupt leaders in the Palestinian Authority over awarding a mobile phone contract; how EU-financed public housing turned into luxury apartments to reward regime supporters; or the sabotage against building an improved sewer system in the Gaza Strip—even though foreign aid was paying for the whole project—are wonderful case studies in how economic development campaigns that look good in the West amount to a joke on the ground.

There are, however, three countries that could benefit from economic development efforts if they were to be focused. Those are Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan. Tunisia, of course, is currently ruled by an Islamist-dominated regime. Whether that government will remain cautious or turn increasingly radical—pressed on by rampaging Salafists—is not clear. Strengthening the moderate forces in Tunisia, which are more proportionately substantial than in any other Arabic-speaking country, is a worthwhile effort but it might not work.

Ironically, Morocco and Jordan are led by moderate regimes threatened by a public opinion that is often radicalized due to poverty. Even there, however, this is not the sole factor. Jordan, for example, has a powerful opposition Brotherhood and a potentially radicalized Palestinian majority. The Palestinians who came there after being expelled from Kuwait in 1991 (because of the PLO’s support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion) brought in a lot of riches and business skills. Amman has become a much wealthier city but Jordanians generally don’t seem to have benefited much.

But Jordan is relatively small, weak, and doesn’t cause trouble, while Morocco is not a factor in the region’s international affairs. So the places where a real economic development effort could really make a difference get neglected. For a while, the Saudis talked about admitting Jordan to the rich man’s club, the Gulf Cooperation Council and giving a billion dollars in aid. But nothing came of it in the end.

Remember that the United States gave tens of billions of dollars in aid to Egypt without getting gratitude or popular moderation. Similarly, the United States gave or helped organize an effort for the Palestinians that constituted the most aid money given per person in history. Yet this brought neither progress on the peace process, a transformation in Palestinian thinking, or gratitude.

At any rate, while “economic development” sounds like a great idea, a fine way of making people happy, getting them to love America, and undermining radicalism, in practice it isn’t so effective.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include 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). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

They got it right: America is Their Enemy

This article is published on PJMedia.

By Barry Rubin

One of President Barack Obama’s main themes has been to convince Middle Eastern Islamists and Arabs generally that America is not their enemy. But the reason this strategy never works is that the radicals, be they Islamists or nationalists, know better. They see the United States as their enemy and they are right to do so.

No amount of sympathy, empathy, economic aid, apology, or appeasement will change this fact. Nor did such efforts succeed in making either Obama or the United States popular in such circles and the tens of millions of people influenced by them.  The only thing surprising about all of this is that so few “experts” and politicians seem to comprehend it.

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There are a number of reasons why this is true, though many people mistakenly think they must find just one factor that explains this reality. The causes of this enmity include:

--American policies. True, the United States has supported Israel and also many Arab regimes over the years—including countries like Morocco, Tunisia, post-Qadhafi-Libya, Egypt, pre-Hizballah Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, post-Saddam Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates. The Islamists are equally unhappy with the U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority.

In short, U.S. support for any non-radical regime makes radicals angry and will always do so.
So what if the United States is nice to radical or Islamist regimes? Will that help?

No. The radicals still keep their goals—which include throwing U.S. influence out of the region and overthrowing its allies—no matter what Washington tries to do to please them. In the context of their ideology, they interpret U.S. concessions as signs of weakness which thus invite them to become even more militant and aggressive.

In Libya and Iraq, the governments have been pretty much directly installed by America. Thus, anyone who wants to overthrow those governments has a strong vested interest in hating and attacking Americans. The assassination of the ambassador to Libya wasn’t an accident or the result of a video but the inevitable and logical outcome of the political situation there.

As for Israel, giving that country less help would not change the radical view. Only if the United States had the same policy as Hamas, Hizballah, and the Muslim Brotherhood might it be forgiven. Merely putting more space between the United States and Israel, to paraphrase Obama’s stated intention, won’t do it. Even brokering a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which isn’t going to happen of course, won’t help.

On the contrary, the radicals—especially Hamas, its Egyptian backers, and Iran—would go into a frenzy of denunciation and attempts to destroy the arrangements, which would be blamed on America. In the Middle East, peacemakers aren’t blessed, they’re assassinated.

The ultimate attempt to do away with these problems would be if U.S. policy would actually help Islamist regimes into power, give them money, and whitewash their extremism. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And we can all see the results have not been good, neither in terms of U.S. interests nor even in terms of U.S. popularity.

--American values and culture. While the mere fact that a highly secular, largely hedonistic, and generally free lifestyle is practiced in the United States raises the Islamists’ ire, there is far more involved here.
The United States is the world’s leading exporter of culture regarding everything from tee-shirts, films, and democratic ideas. As such, it inevitably subverts traditional Islamic society and poses as a rival alternative to the kind of system the Islamists want to impose. There is simply no way around this conflict. It is not an imagined one and remains in effect no matter what political policy a U.S. government follows.

--America as example to their own society. If the United States succeeds with a “Satanic” standpoint, how can Islamists persuade their people that Allah is on their side? America must be seen to fail, either through propaganda or by its actual collapse, at least in terms of the Middle East. Otherwise, the United States will remain an attractive model for many, prompting everything from immigration to political philosophy.

Many years ago in Istanbul I had dinner with the man who was the chief security officer in the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979. I asked him what he thought was the critical detail that brought the seizure of the embassy and the holding of the staff as hostages. He replied that every day the new Islamist rulers saw long lines of Iranians outside the building applying for visas to go to America or, perhaps they thought, plotting the regime's overthrow. It was not the unpopularity but rather the popularity of the United States and its style or standard of living that frightened them. Something must be done. A break must be provoked; hatred must be stoked.

Obviously a distinction can be drawn between, on one hand, winning over the radicals and their supporters, and winning over ordinary Arabs. Yet it is also true that the masses have also been fed anti-Americanism for decades, that their worldview, news, and spin comes from a radical direction, be the source Islamists, militant Arab nationalists, traditionalist clerics, or rulers who have good relations with the United States but demagogically use anti-Americanism to shore up their reputation as militants in the Arab or Islamic causes.

In other words, no matter what the United States does it will not be interpreted—especially by the masses--based on the U.S. government’s statements or intentions but through the filter of a very different culture and worldview that has a good deal of hostility in it and is prone to xenophobia and conspiracy theories.

By the same token, to be hated the United States doesn’t have to do something wrong. It just has to be itself and pursue its own legitimate interests. This is a point that many Americans—including “experts” and leaders—seem to have great difficulty in grasping. What you say is not what someone else hears; what you do is not what someone else sees.

Finally, the radicals—which include a large portion of governments, political movements, teachers, clerics, and journalists—will deliberately do everything they can to discredit the United States and foment popular hatred against it. That includes using anything they can, be it a video, the slaying of Usama bin Ladin, accusations of atrocities, and so on, whether the specific accusations are true or false, consciously misinterpreted or misunderstood on ideological grounds.

They will never run out of reasons to hate America and ammunition for trying to convince others to do so. One conclusion from this assessment is that the traditional arsenal of diplomacy—credibility, deterrence, power—is what’s important, not courting popularity. The same principle applies to allies, of course, who must feel that their friend or patron is strong and reliable.

Such an approach has not been the one pursued during the last four years. As for the next four years, the vote count is not in yet.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include 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). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

Hamas Launches New Rocket Offensive Against Israel

By Barry Rubin

In 12 hours during the night and early morning of October 23-24, Hamas and its allies launched 68 rockets and also mortar shells.  Iron Dome anti-missile missiles brought down 7 of them. Two foreign workers on Israeli farms were critically wounded; three or four others were lightly wounded; and several houses were damaged. Israeli civilians were told to stay near shelters and schools were closed. Earlier, a roadside bomb seriously injured an Israeli officer.

Israeli military forces hit two rocket-firing teams, an area from which launchers were firing, and tunnels used to smuggle in rocket motors.  Similar short-term heavy barrages took place in March and June. Hamas sources reported three dead, two of them Hamas soldiers.

There are two important factors in this latest offensive. First, the attacks from Hamas and the smaller groups it allows to operate from the Gaza Strip are increasing. Second, an emboldened Hamas is now more directly involved in these operations.

This trend is a direct result of the fact that Hamas now feels secure in that its Muslim Brotherhood allies are governing Egypt and allowing more, and apparently more advanced, military equipment to enter the Gaza Strip.

The danger is that as the Brotherhood consolidates power in Cairo and Hamas becomes even more confident it will at some point open a war against Israel. Such a conflict would bring even more Brotherhood-Hamas cooperation and such things as escalated attacks across the Egypt-Israel border and the entry of Egyptian volunteers into the fighting. An Egyptian army that has been purged by the Brotherhood regime will not pose an independent barrier to such a situation, which could lead to Cairo being dragged into war with Israel.

The Obama Administration, which in the past has pressured Israel to reduce import sanctions against the Gaza Strip, cannot be assumed to support a higher level of retaliation. Nor, as far as can be seen, has it put any pressure on the Egyptian government to reduce cooperation with Hamas. This all could be a formula for future crisis and war.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Romney's Structural Handicap: An In-Depth Analysis of The Foreign Policy Issue in the Presidential Election

By Barry Rubin
This article's purpose is to give a full analysis on the foreign policy aspects of the third debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Remember that the idea that someone “won” the debate in terms of an outside observer’s standpoint or even based on a poll is misleading. The only important thing is whether either candidate swayed additional voters to his side.

Since I’m writing this to provide a detailed assessment, I’m not going to try to be short. So for your convenience let me begin by briefly explaining how Romney is so handicapped in dealing with foreign policy:

--He either cannot (or has decided for strategic reasons not to) name the enemy, revolutionary Islamism.

--He either cannot (or has decided for strategic reasons not to) discuss in sharp terms how Obama has objectively helped this enemy become stronger while weakening America’s allies.

--It is not politically profitable for him to explain that America faces a long struggle, since this would make voters unhappy and prefer Obama’s promise that he has brought peace.

--It is not politically profitable for him to explain that democracy and economic development are not panaceas for the Middle East.

Given either the terms of the larger debate or the strategic decisions of the Romney campaign (based on an arguably realistic assessment of American voters, or at least the additional votes he needs to win), Romney starts out at a huge disadvantage. He did not overcome this handicap in the presidential debate.
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Now to the debate itself.

Romney began with an assessment of the “Arab Spring” as having gone wrong. It brought hope “that there would be a change towards more moderation” but instead there was the bloody Syrian civil war, the terror attack on American personnel in Libya, the takeover of northern Mali by “al-Qaida type individuals”; and a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt, alongside Iran’s continuing drive for nuclear weapons.
What is to be done? Romney continued:

“But we can't kill our way out of this mess. We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the -- the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is -- it's certainly not on the run.”

The threat is “a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries” that “presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America, long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”

But what is that group? Al-Qaida? And this is a genuine problem that Romney has faced, either because a presidential candidate cannot name the enemy more explicitly or because he’s making a mistake in choosing that strategy. For is the problem al-Qaida—a tiny terrorist organization—or massive revolutionary Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood?

Obama prefers the focus to be on al-Qaida. He ignored all the points Romney had made and focused on what he could claim as accomplishments: that there had been no new September 11; that the war in Iraq was ended; that “al-Qaida's core leadership has been decimated;” that the U.S. forces are pulling out of Afghanistan; and that he has rebuilt alliances and united friends against threats.

On Libya he merely repeated his previous statement that once he received news of the killings he directed that Americans there be kept safe, the matter be investigated, and that those responsible be punished. He added that he had provided leadership in overthrowing the Muammar Qadhafi dictatorship without putting in troops and at low cost, making Libyans like Americans.

This certainly would seem to voters to be a record of success, presented in part by not mentioning any of the current problems to which Romney referred. Implicitly, Obama was speaking as if an end of history had been achieved in the region: as if Libya would not be the source of further trouble; the Taliban might take over in Afghanistan; Iran might not gain influence over Iraq; al-Qaida was not still very much alive; and crises in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere continued.

For electoral reasons, Romney does not want to tell the American people that there is a long, hard struggle ahead. So he puts forth a relatively low-cost, pain-free strategy of getting “the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own.” Instead of another Iraq or Afghanistan—that is, American military intervention—U.S. strategy should be to go after extremist leaders while helping the “Muslim world.”

How is that to be done? He answers: “More economic development”; “better education”; “gender equality”; and the “rule of law” by helping “these nations create civil societies.” Romney is not going to point out that the problem is the growing rule of [Sharia] law.

Obama responds with a…cheap trick: “Governor Romney, I'm glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida….”

If al-Qaida is the biggest geopolitical threat facing America in the world than the United States has nothing to worry about but occasional terrorist attacks by a relatively weak group that cannot seize and hold power anywhere. In other words, Romney has one hand tied behind his back. Whether this is a necessary strategy for him given the situation or a mistake I will leave to the readers.

Obama also caught Romney’s mistake—which I pointed out at the time—as implying there should still be U.S. troops in Iraq. He also got across the snide, but effective point, “I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy.” Obama continued that Romney had opposed a nuclear treaty with Russia and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In other words, the framework imposed on the foreign policy discussion favors Obama. He is saying: You see, I am making these problems go away so the United States doesn’t have to fight. Romney must bring the psychologically unwelcome news that problems aren’t going away.

In the most implicitly funny remark of the night, Obama could even say: “What we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map.”

So now Romney was on the defensive, not so much because of a lack of skill or of good arguments but because he is trapped in the need to sound optimistic and not promise costs and casualties in comparison to Obama’s “good news” that everything is going great. He does respond that he views Iran as the greatest national security threat, adding, “I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin.”

The real problem is the wearing of rose-colored glasses when it comes to the Middle East.

Romney tries to get across the point—perhaps too detailed for viewers—that Obama failed to get an agreement with Iraq on the status of U.S. forces. Instead, there is a long back and forth about how many troops who wanted to keep in Iraq. Obama’s interruptions prevented Romney from getting his point across while Obama repeated the accurate claim that his opponent said there should still be U.S. troops there.

Obama then listed his program as one of counterterrorism, support for Israel, and—a bold falsehood—protection of religious minorities and women. Well, the last point is part of his stated program but he just didn’t do anything to implement it at a time when those groups are facing growing threats. He added helping Middle East countries develop economically but that the United States couldn’t do “nation building” in that region.

Both candidates agreed on what is a major fallacy: that U.S. policy needed to concentrate on economic development of the region. The underlying concept is that by raising living standards extremism will be made to go away. Some Middle Eastern countries have a lot of oil revenue (for example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Libya) yet still are mired in extremism, violence, and anti-Americanism.

Others are poor. Regrettable as that poverty is, how is the United States going to help with economic development in a country like Egypt, given its lack of resources, non-productive political culture, and rule by the Muslim Brotherhood? It can only put in money as a form of political bribe or effort to shore up the status quo. For example, the massive sums—unprecedented on a per capita basis--poured into the Palestinian Authority have not brought peace or real prosperity. Still, the fiction of an economic development panacea is maintained.

Next, the debate turned to Syria. Obama provided comforting pabulum about his organizing the “international community” and calling for dictator Bashar al-Assad’s ouster. He added that the United States had provided humanitarian assistance and is “helping the opposition organize,” especially “mobilizing the moderate forces.”

This is comic since in fact U.S. influence has been used to help the radical forces but the mass media has not told voters about that. Obama also stressed the limit of U.S. involvement, including no military entanglement.

So what could Romney answer? That the crisis is terrible but provides an opportunity:

“Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world….It's the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally, Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us.”

But Obama can say that he wants to remove Assad. Romney then states this that the United States should identify “responsible parties” in Syria, organize them, and bring them to form a government.

Yet, of course, Obama had already done this by creating a Syrian leadership council. What Romney could have pointed out is that this council was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, that Obama helped push for an anti-American leadership. He didn’t.

In fact, he implied that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey wanted American leadership. Of course, the last two are following U.S. leadership, which has not forbidden them from backing the Brotherhood. And the Saudis, because they are against the Brotherhood are supporting the Salafis!

Since Romney focuses on the point about leadership, it is easy for Obama to claim that he has been providing leadership on the issue. His claim is reasonable. The problem is not the lack of leadership but leading in a disastrous direction, the creation of another Egypt or even Gaza Strip.

As Romney correctly said, U.S. objectives should be “to replace Assad and to have in place a new government which is friendly to us,” implying—but not in a way clear to viewers—that arms should be going to moderates not radicals.

Yet here is Romney’s second big dilemma, the first being not naming the threat as revolutionary Islamism and not just al-Qaida. For reasons we all can understand—however we evaluate them—he didn’t want to accuse Obama of helping America’s enemies, that is of strengthening the forces of revolutionary Islamism.
Without that element, it was hard for Romney to make a case. He simply falls into what might be considered Obama’s trap: America needs to be a leader, work with its partners, and help organize the opposition. Obama has done that on Syria. That’s not the problem.

Obama then tells an interesting historical analogy on which we should reflect:

“I think that America has to stand with democracy. The notion that we would have tanks run over those young people who were in Tahrir Square that is not the kind of American leadership that John F. Kennedy talked about 50 years ago.”

Kennedy, of course, was the man who faced with demonstrations in South Vietnam covertly organized a coup and installed a pro-U.S. government that was in effect a dictatorship. He didn’t say that since the Communists had so much support they should run the country. Kennedy put the emphasis on national interest, not democracy promotion. Of course, the Vietnam situation did not end well but how many viewers will know that Kennedy did the opposite of what Obama claimed?

Obama then laid out his “red lines” on Egypt: the government must protect Christians, women, the peace treaty with Israel, and cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism. None of that will happen and if Obama is reelected he won’t do anything about it.

With relief, Obama quickly dove back to the economic development solution. Young people want jobs, good schools, and nice housing. And this is what his policy has been helping on by…“organizing entrepreneurship conferences.”

I cannot let his next remark go by without noting the irony:

“One of the challenges over the last decade is we've done experiments in nation building in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and we've neglected, for example, developing our own economy, our own energy sectors, our own education system. And it's very hard for us to project leadership around the world when we're not doing what we need to do [at home]....”

Who has been the president for the last four years, one might ask. But back to the Middle East. The moderator asked Romney if he would have stuck with Egyptian dictator Husni Mubarak. Romney said “no” but could only weakly add that he supported Obama’s policy at the time but “wish we'd have had a better vision of the future.”

Wish? First of all, there was an alternative policy, backed no less by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of working with the military to get rid of Mubarak personally, make some reforms, but to keep the regime in power. But Romney probably doesn’t understand this and he can’t say this, since the current debate doesn’t sit well with supporting a dictatorship.

Second, rather than wishing for better foresight, Romney could have listed the ways in which Obama helped make a Muslim Brotherhood victory more likely. But that lies outside his own strategy. He even added, “When there are elections, people tend to vote for peace.”

This is, then, basic American political culture: democracy and economic development solves problems and that is how the Middle East can be fixed. Politicians will nowadays not publicly contradict that notion.
Romney does point out, that Obama has not made America strong at home and has not stood behind having a strong military:

“And if we're strong in each of those things, American influence will grow. But unfortunately, in nowhere in the world is America's influence will grow. But unfortunately…nowhere in the world is America's influence greater today than it was four years ago.

Finally, well into the debate, Romney gives one example why that’s true, that Obama didn’t support the anti-regime demonstrators in Iran. But he never extended that point to the Arabic-speaking world.

Obama replied that America is stronger than when he became president. First, “We ended the war in Iraq.” Actually the war was won under his predecessor using the “surge” which Obama opposed. On another level the war in Iraq goes on forever. It’s merely the U.S. troops which are gone.

Second, “we were able to refocus our attention on…the terrorist threat” from al-Qaida. But his predecessor did that on September 12, 2001.

Third, the United States is “beginning a transition process in Afghanistan.” Yet that transition might be to a Taliban regime.

Fourth, “Our alliances have never been stronger, in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, with Israel….” That claim would bring snorts of derision (only in private) from a great many governments, especially in the Middle East. But there is no way for many Americans to know that.

None of my rejoinders are likely to overturn Obama’s ability to claim that we now have peace. (I hesitate to add, in our time.)

The tipoff might be that when Romney speaks of having a stronger military, Obama replied, “We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space.” It is his usual stress on the visionary over the actual; his ideological need to rewrite all of the most basic strategic and diplomatic principles.

When Obama said, “I will stand with Israel if they are attacked,” I could not help but think that his policies make it far more likely that Israel will be attacked.

Incidentally, a cute little bit of misdirection came when Obama said, “So that's how I've used my travels, when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.” The unwary viewer is left to believe that Obama visited Israel as president.

On the Iran issue, Obama said, “As long as I'm president of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.” If he serves only one term that promise will be secure. But how is he going to stop Tehran from doing so? One trick here is definitional: If Iran has everything it needs to make nuclear weapons but for the moment doesn’t assemble them than Obama can say he succeeded.

Obama does point to his strong sanctions and to evidence that Iran’s economy is in serious trouble. He concludes that he is offering:

“Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we're not going to take any options off the table.”
One problem is that Iran may not see itself bound by that choice. The other problem is neither Romney nor anyone else has a solution, certainly not one that is politically palatable for Americans. Obama falsely accused Romney of favoring “premature military action.” 

But that is Romney’s difficulty. He can assert that he would provide tougher leadership more likely to intimidate Iran, and many Americans will believe him. Yet there is no alternative policy he can articulate. And so Romney is left to say that he, too, would support Israel; he, too, views “a nuclear-capable Iran” as “unacceptable to America”; and that he, too, wants diplomacy to work. He can make some points about how sanctions can be strengthened around the margins but that isn’t a game-changer for the election.

Romney can (rightly) assert that when Iran’s regime looked at Obama’s administration, “I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength.” He mentions Obama’s original policy of engaging Iran and of failing to support the demonstrators in Tehran’s streets. Romney’s strongest assertion is that the world is four years closer to a nuclear Iran, but what could he have done or what could he do differently? Romney didn’t make a persuasive case, except for one critical point.

That point was best articulated by Obama:

“The central question at this point is going to be: Who is going to be credible to all parties involved? And they can look at my track record, whether it's Iran sanctions, whether it's dealing with counterterrorism, whether it's supporting democracy, whether it's supporting women's rights, whether it's supporting religious minorities.

“And they can say that the President of the United States and the United States of America has stood on the right side of history. And that kind of credibility is precisely why we've been able to show leadership on a wide range of issues facing the world right now.”

Aside from the humorous notion—albeit one accepted by many Americans and promulgated generally by the mass media—that Obama has credibility in the Middle East or that he has protected women and religious minorities--there is something shocking in what he said.

Let us assume that that the Progressive Party had won the 1948 elections and the American president had not covertly interfered in countries like France and Italy to help ensure the Communists didn’t win elections. Let’s assume that the United States had not engaged in other interventions that today are generally reviled. Instead that president might have said that helping a solution in Greece, for example, with a Communist electoral victory would be showing that America was on “the right side of history.”

Instead, U.S. governments, both Democratic and Republican, followed a national interests’ defined policy. They did not assume the “right side of history” meant observing matters of process or letting the other side win in the belief that it would become moderate.

Obama and his supporters are definitely Progressive in the same sense as those who would have lost—indeed, never have fought—the Cold War.

Romney’s main argument is that the United States is worse off in foreign policy terms than it was four years ago:

“Look, I look at what's happening around the world, and I see Iran four years closer to a bomb. I see the Middle East with a rising tide of violence, chaos, tumult. I see jihadists continuing to spread, whether they're rising or just about the same level, hard to precisely measure [talk about crippling diffidence! –BR], but it's clear they're there. They're very strong.

“I see Syria with 30,000 civilians dead, Assad still in power. I see our trade deficit with China...growing larger every year....”

So it is silly to argue about who won the debate. What’s important is which vision of the international reality Americans will believe when they cast their ballots.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include 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). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.