Friday, February 25, 2011

Egypt, the Middle East and the Obama Doctrine

by Guy Millière

The most common – but incorrect--description of the storm that has just shaken Egypt is that it was born spontaneously of a large popular discontent.

There was and still is discontent among the Egyptian people, but the spark that ignited the powder was not spontaneous at all. It is now known ("The Secret Meeting That Sparked The Uprising," The Wall Street Journal, February 11th 2011) that a group of activists met several weeks before the start of the uprising to organize a series of events carefully designed to thwart the actions of security forces, and that these activists included members of various organizations of the left, the extreme left, and Islamists.

It is also impossible to ignore the fact that the Obama administration, beyond attitudes sometimes contradictory, supported the agitation, and that it indicated relatively quickly a determination both to drop Hosni Mubarak to encourage rapid democratization, and to see the Muslim Brotherhood integrated into the game.

Hosni Mubarak is gone, but there was no "revolution," just a coup; and thanks to maneuvers and manipulations, power is now in the hands of a "high council of the armed forces," which includes all military commanders. The constitution was abolished. Parliament was dissolved. The army remains what it has been since 1952: the backbone of Egyptian society.

Maintaining a military dictatorship is still possible, if not likely.

A new constitution is being drafted, and elections are scheduled. The new constitution, written by a committee headed by an Islamist judge, Tarek al-Bishry, will soon be completed. If elections are held, they will almost certainly lead to very disappointing results for those who may still dream of seeing the emergence of a "democracy."

There is a broad discrepancy between what most of the activists say they want, what the English speaking urban middle class protestors shown on American TV news reports from Tahrir square say they want, and what the poor and illiterate people who comprise the bulk of the population seem to want.

Surveys conducted in recent months show that only a tiny minority—less than 5%-- wish for freedom.

An overwhelming majority support instead a solid commitment to the strict enforcement of Islamic Shariah Law -= including stoning and female circumcision -- and to anti-American and anti-Israeli policies.

As poverty and illiteracy will not magically vanish, and sources of opinion, belief and prejudice will remain what they are, the logical consequence is that votes will go mostly to Islamists and radical nationalists.

In addition, one should expect an overall economic decline that Western aid will not curb. Presumably, the growth figures for recent years -- -9% through 2009, and 4.7% in 2010 -- belong to the past. Prices of food and basic necessities will rise again. Poverty, hunger and discontent will increase. It is almost certain, therefore, that trouble and unrest will also increase.

As Egypt needs American financial and logistic assistance, the alliance with the United States will not be broken, but will most likely become more distant and more chaotic.

As the army fears the consequences of another war, the peace treaty with Israel will not be repudiated, at least not immediately. But the border between Egypt and Gaza will probably become more permeable, and Egypt will presumably be less vigilant in controlling the passage of potential terrorists through its territory.

An evolution similar to the one at the end of the reign of the Shah in Iran seems excluded for the moment: there is no political and spiritual leader in Egypt that could be fully compared to Ayatollah Khomeini -- even if Youssef al-Qaradawi, President of the International Union of Ulema and prominent speaker on Al-Jazeera in Arabic, is back in Egypt and could play this role if he decide to play it, and if his health allows (he is 84).

Without fully joining the camp of the enemies of America and the West, Egypt will no longer be a friend; it is effectively lost -- whatever the initial intentions of those who started it all.

The handling of events by the Obama administration will, in all probability, be judged harshly by historians.

During the first two years of the Obama presidency, the position of the United States everywhere in the world has weakened. The president of the United States apologized for the past of his country wherever he went; he reached out to regimes that were supposed to be his worst enemies, and turned his back consistently on regimes that were supposed to be his most reliable friends.

In June 2009 in Cairo, Obama delivered a speech obsequiously extolling the virtues of Islam, and comparing Israel to South Africa during apartheid and Confederate States at the time of the Civil War. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, considered the mortal enemy of the Egyptian government, were invited to attend the speech.

At the same time, as the Iranian youth were protesting against a rigged election, Obama chose Ahmadinejad over the protestors.

Those two years were also marked by an almost unprecedented isolation and demonization of Israel, and by a strengthening of the camp of Iran in the Middle East: Syria, an ally of Iran for thirty years, was joined by Turkey (Sahar Zubairy, Turkey and Iran: A Growing Alliance, 11-05-2009,, and then by Lebanon. At the same time, the pro-Western camp was weakened and destabilized. Egypt is being lost. Jordan is confronted by protests and riots. Saudi Arabia looks more stable, but events in Yemen, in Bahrain, and now in Libya could have heavy consequences.

Although some think it a coincidence, others discern relations of cause and effect: During the twentieth century, whenever the United States was led by weak and indecisive people, or by ideologues, freedom retreated, and disorder grew.

This unwritten rule seems to apply also to the twenty-first century.

During the first year of the Obama Presidency, some authors spoke critically of an "Obama doctrine," based on docile courtesy vis-à-vis dictatorships hostile to the Western world; anti-Israeli attitudes; hints of anti-colonialism and pro-third-worldism, and a perhaps unconscious desire to weaken the United States. Charles Krauthammer in "Decline is a choice"(The Weekly Standard, October 19 2009) said the Obama doctrine was an "exercise in contraction," the demolition of the moral foundation of American dominance." Ralph Peters, in "The Obama doctrine, Hugging Foes, Hurting Friends» (, April 29 2009) wrote that Obama's foreign policy was « a combination of dizzying naivete, dislike of our allies, disdain for our military, distrust of our intelligence services. »

The Obama doctrine is mentioned again, this time to say that President Barack Obama finally embodies American values; that what is happening will serve the interests of America (Simon Tisdall, "Out of Egyptian protests Obama's new doctrine is Born," The Guardian, February 11, 2011).

It is difficult to see how what happened in Egypt, and what happens in other Middle Eastern countries serve the interests of America. It is even more difficult to see, in Obama's words and reactions, a clear embodiment of American values.

It is easier to see the effects of the Obama doctrine as it was defined by critics of Obama in 2009. Obama's words and reactions could be described, at best, as a lack of any sense of leadership, or, more simply, using the words of Niall Ferguson ("Wanted: A Grand Strategy for America,, 02-13-2011), a "colossal failure."

Contagion, which many thought would not occur, has occurred, but it was helped by a mix of bad intentions, naivety and incompetence that will have to be analyzed at a later date.

Hostile dictatorships are facing trouble, but less trouble than allies of the West are facing -- and the dictatorships can use the most brutal and unrestrained repression. They will almost certainly survive. Allies of the West might not be so lucky. Iran continues to place its pawns: two Iranian warships just crossed the Suez Canal, after a trip through the Red Sea with a stopover in Jeddah, forty miles from Mecca. What, as well, will happen if Jordan falls; if Egypt is ruled soon by a combination of Islamists, radical nationalists and generals, and if Saudi Arabia has to consider that the "strong horse" in the region is Tehran, and no longer Washington? What will happen if Yemen and Bahrain, and then Bab El-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz, fall into the wrong hands?

Several presidents during the last decades spoke of America's determination to make the world safe for democracy. This determination seems to have been replaced by hesitations and by what seems to be a strange propensity to make the world safe just for powers that are toxic.

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Guy Millière

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