THE PARALYSIS OF US FOREIGN POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST
US foreign policy in the Middle East and Northern Africa is presently in a particularly difficult situation in part due to the new political scenario in the region.
Apart from the unconditional support for Israel which is part of the traditional US policy in the region (although the Obama administration has had difficulties in starting a constructive dialog with the Israeli PM Benjamin Natanyahu), the rest of surrounding scenario has undergone a substantial mutation. The US have failed this far in finding a common direction in foreign policy that could give coherent justifications for its hegemonic role. This is especially true – that's what politics are all about – when trying to act in its own interest without losing sight of the ethical-ideological aspects of such actions.
At first, when trying to face local problematic, the emotional response prevailed: the revolutions of the Arab world made clear reference to the longing for freedom, to the ousting of dictators, the search for social justice. The US, as a matter of principle, were supportive of these revolutions.
It happened in Egypt, in Tunisia, and many other similar situations in neighboring countries were looked upon with satisfaction. But the problems were yet to arise.
Egypt ousts Hosni Mubarak, a forefront ally of Washington, and immediately the US administration expressed its support for the Muslim Brothers. In the Egyptian social mixing pot, they were the better organized movement with strong territorial rooting. The choice was based on the hope that the movement could put aside its socio-political configuration – that in the past had assumed subversive and revolutionary methods – in favor of a sense of the State and of social liberty. The US opted for a choice that seemed rewarding at the time: to support the movement that had the highest chances of success. By ingratiating such a powerful institution with so many affiliates and branches in the Islamic world, the US thought they could produce positive results in other parts of the region as well.
Yet as often happens in politics and in US wars, there is much thought about the present but no worthy hypothesis for the future. The US calculations didn't take into account the instability produced by a revolution. Most of all, the US underestimated the ideology of the religious movement that was spreading a vision of the world that has very little in common with the secular and libertarian ideals of the USA. It did not take long for this incompatibility to surface.
Once the military were ousted (they ensured a pro-Western direction in the country's policy), the Muslim Brothers, in light of their political past, have shown their real face. Their domestic policy was that of trying to impose the Islamization of society with scarce inclination for Western standards in freedom of expression and thought.
Despite the US decision to maintain the financial support unchanged, the economic problems of Egypt were not solved. Corruption was not dealt with and society was not liberalized. In fact, the legitimization that the US bestowed upon the present administration of Egypt could easily mutate into collusion with a regime that has done nothing to better the countries conditions and has not given satisfactory answers to the longing for liberty and justice expressed by the Arab Spring.
The Muslim Brothers have promoted their ideas and vision of the world abroad as well. Their foreign policy is also in contrast with the interests of the USA, but they have acted cautiously and have skillfully dissimulated their intention thus far.
The Muslim Brothers had always openly attacked the presence and policy of expansion of Israel. Now they alternate moderate stances with radical declarations. They keep supporting Hamas in Gaza, but at the same time they promoted the mediation between Palestinians and Israel. They have drawn Iran near by participating in the summit of the non-aligned countries, then they stationed in the Sunni spheres.
Mostly – as this is one of their constitutive characteristics – the Muslim Brothers have fueled, supported, protected or financed the radical Islamic world to which they belong. A fundamentalist galaxy where the political code of ethics suits religious visions and interests that are traditionally hostile to those of the USA.
Tunisia, the other country where the US supported the revolution against the corruption of the Trabelsi family and the failure of Ben Ali to concede further civil liberties, is now dealing with the resurgence of radical fundamentalism. It was no secret that, once in power, the Ennadha of Rashid Ghannouci – another movement that had been accused of terrorism by several Western countries – could promote the movement's characteristics domestically: islamization of society and more room for Salafite claims. The US choice to support Ghannouci might have been motivated by the person's long exile in Great Britain. Perhaps it was thought to be an objectively important factor. Tunisia is a country that is very near to the Western world. It is a popular tourist getaway if anything. Perhaps that's why it was deemed impossible that it might land in fundamentalist hands. The rise to power of the Ennadha has not solved the social problems in the country, nor has it increased the democratic inclination of the Tunisian political system. What continues to prevail is instability alone.
In Libya's case, trailing the French initiatives, the US supported military intervention against Muhammar Khadafi. They also offered, as usual, their powerful military contribution. Yet, as in Iraq, the fall of the cruel dictator that was hated in Washington was not coupled with the identification of a credible alternative.
Rachid Ghannouchi at an Ennadha conference
The deep rooting of Khadafi's power, which would have surely resisted the pressures of the Arab Spring if it hadn't been eradicated militarily, was grossly underestimated. Once Khadafi fell, the US found themselves unexpectedly on the side of the Islamic extremists that deposed the dictator. As one structure of power crumbled, there was no ready replacement for it (Perhaps Barack Obama, like his predecessor, believed in the myth of exported democracy). Libya was plunged into social chaos to this day. This chaos leaves much operative room for terrorism, as demonstrated by the murder of the US ambassador in Benghazi and the assault against the French embassy in Tripoli. It is hard to understand what, if any, political advantages are there for the US in the novel Libyan scenario.
True to our timeline, it is time to discuss the Syrian issue. After the loss on political and geo-strategic terms suffered by the war in Libya and mindful of the fact that backing Islamic movements produces an abnormal spread of fundamentalism, the US find themselves hesitant to offer their support to the various Islamic movements that are fighting against Bashar al Assad. In fact, prudence prevails on the Syrian issue. There exists a secular-based opposition fighting for power in Damasco – and this opposition could surely qualify for US support – but there is also another opposition – like Jabhat al Nusra, by far the more efficient fighting group in the lot – that is rooted in Islamic fundamentalism, has ties to Al Qaeda and has been listed among terrorist organizations.
So once again the same dilemma: can we, Americans, fight alongside a terrorist organization? Would it be convenient for the US to replace a dispotic regime such as the Alawite regime with a new management that has a fundamentalist movement as their political point of reference (if not Al Nusra, this could be the Syrian Muslim Brothers who are de facto – as in Egypt – the more credible opposition movement against the regime)? Of course, the fall of the Damasco regime could weaken the regime in Iran by interrupting the territorial contiguity that presently grants the Hezbollah direct Iranian military support. Israel would benefit from such a scenario, and Washington would too, indirectly. Yet is it convenient to have yet another country with strong Islamic connotations in the Middle Eastern panorama?
All of these scenarios, interlinked in time and regarding the same geographical area, have made it difficult for the US to find and pursue a common denominator in foreign policy. There is strong social instability, some of the new administrations have yet to consolidate their newfound power and dialog with moderate political Islam looks more like a chimera than a political opportunity. Everything is difficult, every action is riddled with pros and cons. Every situation seems to float betwixt what is ethically just and what is politically wrong.
Meanwhile the US is paying once again the price of its uncritical support to the country of Israel, which is presently governed by an administration that is reluctant to adopt any solution that involves negotiation on the Palestinian issue. For the umpteenth time, the umpteenth US secretary of state is attempting to set the umpteenth negotiating table.
The US are also paying the price for their political culture that is short-sighted and deaf with regards to a complex world where white is never white and black is never black, where shades, undertones, Byzantine behavior and intricate knots that are hard to unravel prevail. The main problem for the US today is to find a coherent, logical foundation for their intervention.
All this while keeping in mind that there are other actors on stage. There is Turkey that plays – and is trying to re-affirm – a dominant role in the region. Recep Erdogan's neo-Ottomanism. There is Israel that, when threatened by security issues, will lend the ear to no counsel. There is Russia that refuses to disavow its historical ties to Damasco. There is Qatar's struggle with Saudi Arabia for the political dominion of the Sunni. There is Iran, presently troubled by domestic political struggles, that won't and can't lose an ally like Syria. There is Iraq and its crawling civil war between Sunni and Shiites that is slowly becoming an element contiguous to the interests of Teheran. There is Lebanon that is once again treading on the very edge of the chasm of civil war.
And then there are a series of other issues, the developments of which are hard to foresee. We have the Kurdish issue that, after the agreement between Turkey and the PKK, could promote the creation of a new state. We have the Behrein issue where the Sunni minority abuses the Shiite majority. We have the struggle in Yemen between the north and the south. The Syrian crisis that slowly but surely overflows into neighboring countries. The Palestinian issue that could fuel a new intifada. Finally, we have other dispotic regimes, as are many of the monarchies in the Persian gulf, that have been grazed marginally by the Arab Spring but are good credentials to become brand new battlefields.
The main issue – not only for the USA – is that all of this social and political instability fuels terrorism. Not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the new theatres as well: Syria, Libya, Mali... To these we must add other dangerous sources of contagion such as the Huiti in Yemen, the Salafites in Tunisia and Egypt, the Sunni gangs in Iraq and the radical Palestinian movements. If observed from a slightly broader viewpoint, the Somali Shabaab and the Nigerian Boko Haram could also join the lot.
It thus becomes difficult, not only for the US, to unravel the knots of intertwined scenarios where cause and effect generate results that sometimes invalidate intentions. Every choice becomes a dilemma in terms of benefits and losses, between that which is convenient and that which is counterproductive.
US policy suffers greatly from the present state of things because its geo-strategic interests are more complex and important than those of others. Also, the US have lost – after the fall of the Soviet Union - a sense of identity and belonging in a world where there are no more ideologies to fight (these have been skillfully replaced by the improper use of Islam). A world where the enemy is harder to identify, it is not one entity anymore and is has diversified forms and characteristics. It is an asymmetrical battle that the US is not accustomed to fighting.
Barack Obama, more-so than the presidents that preceded him, in an attempt to promote a foreign policy that would value principles (not just interest), will be more penalized than others in the world-to-be. He inherited two wars that produced disastrous results (Iraq being a wrong war, and Afghanistan a badly-managed one) and felt the urgent need to pull out of the Middle Eastern bog where his predecessor had landed him whilst attempting to depict the US role in an ethically positive light. Psychologically speaking, Obama is looking to pull out, not be involved deeper. Yet the circumstances prevent him from doing so.