by Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi
In 1645, after failing in his efforts to locate Malta, the Kapudan Pasha, who commanded the Turkish armada that was about to annihilate the Knights Hospitaller group that ruled the island, reported back to his boss, the Ottoman Sultan Ibrahim the Mad. "Malta yok," he said. Translated from the Turkish, it means Malta is no longer in existence.
Despite the fact that the American superpower enjoys limitless advantages in technological capabilities that were simply unavailable to the Turkish fleet in the 17th century, one gets the impression that the Obama administration is still having trouble identifying clear and present challenges in the international arena.
The most glaring example of such repeated failings was on display this week, when word came that the U.S. was shuttering its embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa following an intelligence tip indicating that al-Qaida was preparing attacks in the region.
The wholesale closure and immediate evacuations, which were carried out quite dramatically and with great media fanfare, particularly of American nationals in Yemen, resurrected the issue of the global war on terrorism which President George W. Bush made a top priority following the attacks of Sept. 11.
Bush's successor in the White House, Barack Obama, sought to disentangle himself from this agenda to the greatest extent possible. The liberal Obama, who made it a priority to forge a rapprochement with the Islamic world that would serve as a key pivot point in his foreign policy, preferred to minimize and downplay the threat posed by radical Islamist extremists that were liable to thwart and frustrate his conciliatory vision.
In light of these hopes and expectations, which were enunciated quite eloquently in his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009, it was hardly astonishing to learn that Obama's first decision as commander-in-chief was to shut down the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The threat of terrorism was pushed to the margins, and Obama naturally deported a number of terror suspects to various U.S. allies.
The fact that Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize during the first year of his presidency further steeled his determination to justify the credit that was extended to him. He sought to put American foreign policy on a path of reconciliation, characterized by a willingness to extend an outstretched hand even to those who provoke and threaten (like Iran).
This deeply ingrained tendency of seeking the widest possible common denominator with Islam out of a willingness to ignore its very foundations and radically violent underpinnings gained further momentum after May 2, 2011, the day on which Osama bin Laden was assassinated.
The death of the man who symbolized unbridled hatred for the West, its culture and traditions, should have spelled the end of any possibility that al-Qaida would undergo a metamorphosis and relocate its center of gravity from Pakistan and Afghanistan to the deserts of Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and the Maghreb. As such, it boosted the president's confidence that "al-Qaida yok," and that he finally had license to turn his back completely on the Bush years, the era in which the American people became "a democracy on the defensive," namely a country that was willing to infringe on individual rights in order to ensure the safety and security of many.
This state of affairs closely reflected Obama's fundamental worldview, yet it was also sustained in large part by the president's acute sensitivity to political correctness. As such, federal authorities no longer had carte blanche to dig into the personal matters of an American citizen and to turn him or her into a target for interrogation based solely on ethnic background or religious affiliation.
As a direct result, the FBI put off investigating Nidal Malik Hasan, the son of Palestinian immigrants from El-Bira who, on Nov. 5, 2009, went on a shooting rampage that killed 14 soldiers on an army base in Fort Hood, Texas (Hasan's trial is ongoing). The authorities ignored Hasan despite the evident radicalization in his religious views as well as the supposedly incriminating correspondence that he began to maintain with the radical Yemen-based imam Anwar al-Awlaki. In their exchanges, Hasan requested that his spiritual teacher give him a "green light" to commit his act of murder (al-Awlaki, whose fanatic sermons provided inspiration to three of the Sept. 11 hijackers, was killed in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011).
A chain of near-attacks
Another manifestation of the Obama administration's strict adherence to the view that al-Qaida-manufactured terrorism was a threat that had vanished for good could be found in the manner in which the president interpreted the bloody events that unfolded in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11, 2012. The White House's desire (which was partially motivated by electoral considerations) to see reality as dovetailing with its preconceived notions led to a situation in which Obama initially characterized the events as a spontaneous outburst by an incited mob still smarting over the screening of a provocative anti-Islam Internet video.
It was only after an exhaustive congressional investigation that it became clear that this was a well-planned and executed attack carried out by a local al-Qaida cell.
Despite the Libya attack (which claimed the lives of four American diplomats, among them the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens), the gap between the utopian dreams harbored by the man occupying the Oval Office and the harsh, cold and hard reality has yet to be closed. Even the chain of near-attacks that was thwarted at the last minute did not prompt any change in thinking on Obama's part, particularly when it came to his initial belief that he could just do a complete U-turn on American strategy.
Despite Obama's ideological bent, some of the American intelligence community (particularly the National Security Agency) began to gather information on attacks-in-the-making. The revelations exposed by leaker Edward Snowden shed light on the vast system of information monitoring and gathering. Nonetheless, even with the latest intelligence tip indicating that the order had been handed down for a mega-attack by bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the Yemenite commander of al-Qaida (and which was intercepted by American intelligence), there is still a gap between wishes and reality in the mind and conduct of President Obama.
The NSA continues with its invasive, extensive activities that are designed to frustrate terrorist activities (NSA officials say that 50 such attacks have been thwarted), yet this operational vigilance has yet to seep down to the White House. Even if we can understand the reasons for the decision to close the embassies (indeed, recognizing the severity of terrorism was liable to bring Obama closer ideologically to his predecessor), this cannot justify it. Alongside the White House's wish to steer America on a course of reconciliation and peace, in spirit with the doctrine championed by President Jimmy Carter, the challenges and dangers continues to bubble in the American strategic environment.
Blind support for Morsi
It is still premature to determine whether the recent spate of embassy closures will serve as a wake-up call that will bring Obama back to reality and sober him up. Nonetheless, a glance at Washington's Egypt policy highlights the challenge in implementing a realist approach.
When it comes to the Egyptian front, we can see that the administration remains tethered to the democratic vision that it sought to see applied in the Land of the Nile. Not only did Obama swiftly abandon his long-time ally, President Hosni Mubarak, after he was convinced that the "Egyptian Spring" would usher in an era of a free civic society and a pluralistic approach in lockstep with Western democracy, but he also continued to provide support and backing to the autocratic, oppressive regime led by Mohammed Morsi, all the way up to the waning minutes of his rule. Obama did so despite Morsi's religious roots, which were planted by the Muslim Brotherhood and which are inherently hostile to Western values as well as the political, cultural, and liberal traditions espoused by Obama himself.
The fact that Morsi was elected in a free vote (procedural democracy) is what tipped the scales in his favor in Washington's eyes. His sharp deviations from the most fundamental principles of democracy, which were laid bare during his lone year in power, prompted "all of the president's men" to reevaluate policy toward Cairo. Even after the military coup was carried out and the Morsi-Muslim Brotherhood era was brought to its premature end, the administration continued to contemplate its next move for a full month before finally expressing its support for the newly installed regime.
All of these difficulties and contradictions appeared despite the fact that it was clear from the outset that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his partners in the Egyptian transitional government were committed to a demonstrably pro-Western regime that will yield numerous strategic benefits for the American hegemon in the Middle East.
Similar to its desperate attempt to suppress the threat of terrorism and deny its acuteness, on the Egyptian front the American approach remains on neutral, frozen as a result of its adherence to formal and legal technicalities.
In keeping in line with his approach, the legitimacy granted to Morsi following his election was a sort of indefinite green light that kept flashing even as the Egyptian leader was initiating oppressive and aggressive policies against his rivals. Obama was too loyal to this approach, even after it was proven bankrupt and that Morsi's style of rule was light-years away from any kind of democratic model.
This adherence led Obama to initiate a "cold-shoulder" policy toward Cairo at the exact, critical time that the new el-Sissi-led government was making its first steps and desperately needed international support. First, there was criticism over the fact that el-Sissi used violence against the demonstrators and that he did not work toward the desired goal of "national reconciliation" and the formulation of a road map that would eventually lead to democratic elections. Then came more punishment when Obama ordered the suspension of F-16 fighter jet shipments to Egypt as a sign of Washington's dissatisfaction with the violence in the public squares.
It is worth noting that Obama refrained from burning all his bridges with the Egyptian military regime by purposely doing all he can to avoid calling the Egyptian military's overthrow of Morsi a "coup." Labeling it such would have legally obligated the president to immediately halt all U.S. aid to Egypt (which annually comes to total $1.5 billion).
The cool chill that emanated from Washington this past July stood in stark contrast to American core interests not just in Egypt but in the entire region. These interests required Washington to embrace the new leadership in Egypt, even if it wasn't brought to power in entirely free elections.
Indeed, when el-Sissi takes a determined stand against religious fundamentalist radicals in Egypt, and when the U.S. is suddenly presented with a window of opportunity to once again turn Egypt into a central cog in the Sunni regional alignment in a part of the world with so many serious challenges and threats, this is where he could have demonstrated good will rather than sternness that came with sanctions.
One can only hope that the legitimacy granted to the el-Sissi regime this past weekend by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will mark a turning point toward a more realistic approach. This step will also benefit Egypt's neighbor, Israel.
The process of getting up to speed with the latest developments requires Obama to face facts, one of them being that democracy is not a concept that can be applied universally and immediately in countries that have yet to develop the institutional, moral, and social infrastructure that are so necessary for it to work. This is how a new dilemma came to spring up before the president's eyes, a dilemma that is derived from a delusion that has crashed down to reality.
What is clear now is that the parade of presidential delusions from which Obama suffers as it relates to the Middle East has yet to conclude. Despite the fact that his Egyptian adventure was finally stopped in its tracks, Obama continues to pursue the diplomatic track as it relates to Iran and the nuclear program. He does so in the hope that dialogue with newly elected president Hasan Rouhani -- who announced that he was open to negotiations with the West -- would yield the desired breakthrough.
One can only hope that awakening from these American delusions does not come too late, after a new page -- one more dangerous and risky -- is opened in the Middle East.
Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi
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