The embassy mobs and Obama’s ‘failure’ in the Middle East

 

OK, let’s stop this line of reasoning before real damage will get done.  Obama is about to deliver an address to the UN with recent events in the Middle East high on the agenda and there seems a real risk that because of these embassy protests he and and many others are starting to lose faith in American policy in the region.  Wrong: it is time to double down.  As it happens, I was in Cairo when these embassy protests started and there are two reasons why Americans (Obama included, apparently) would do well to take a more clear-eyed view of what is really happening on the ground.

First, a small group of people protesting at US embassies and burning the flag makes great video footage but says little about whether Obama’s Middle East policies are succeeding or failing.  By pretending otherwise we give a bunch of demagogues the power to reshape American policy; what foolishness is that?  When I first saw the claim that these embassy protests indicated “a foreign policy in epic collapse” it was put forward by Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post in an op-ed entitled “The Collapse of the Cairo Doctrine” — a joke, that, to claim that Obama’s rhetorical change in emphasis in his Cairo speech a couple years ago should be elevated to the level of doctrine, but all the better to tear it down — I thought, OK, Krauthammer is a Republican party hack and it is an election year so he has to do what he can to undermine the president.  But the New York Times has a long UN speech preview out tonight expressing many of the same doubts (albeit in less heated terms) and these kinds of articles are usually written with the background participation of administration officials, so clearly this twisted notion is in danger of gaining momentum.  Well, stop it: the thing to remember is that no change in rhetoric by an American president or change in policy on the ground will alter the fact that for a certain part of the political spectrum in the Middle East colorful condemnation of the world’s only superpower is an effective base-rallying cry so you can’t use their actions as your benchmark.  We know the equivalents in American political discourse — for the right, the mere mention of the words ‘France’ or ‘socialism’ sends the base into a tizzy — and we know not to make too much of it because this is just the kind of stupidity that extremists get up to.  As they say in certain circles, haters gonna hate.  In Egypt, if the demagogues get a million people into Tahrir, then we can take them seriously as a mouthpiece of broader opinion; until then, ignore them or, better yet, make light of their efforts.

Second, the revolutions in the Arab world over the last two years are not about us.  Really, enough with the vanity.  [Update: by chance, three days later Tunisia’s president Moncef Marzouki had an op-ed in the Times saying exactly this: “The Arab revolutions have not turned anti-Western. Nor are they pro-Western. They are simply not about the West.”]  Obama didn’t birth them nor could he have stopped them so he doesn’t deserve credit or blame for the fact that they happened.  (And while we’re at it, consider why it seemed so important to credit the role that Twitter and Facebook played: they were vital organizing tools, yes, but they were also a way for the American media to put something American at center stage.  It would be like crediting Alexander Graham Bell during the Cuban Missile Crisis for the fact that nuclear war was averted because the principals used telephones to negotiate.)  What Obama did do — and where, to my mind, he deserves quite a lot of credit — is place a large American thumb on the scale to signal that American policy would be supportive of the changes demanded by these massive, almost entirely non-violent demonstrations calling for freedom, justice and dignity…which, come to think of it, is what you would expect any American president to do given that these are in perfect accord with our professed political values though, of course, we know that not every president would actually have done so.  Obama did.  Good for him, and for us.  I can’t say, having watched the Egyptian revolution in real-time, that I thought Obama was exactly ahead of the curve in his support for the revolutionaries.  In my opinion, he was a day or two behind at every stage — trying to engineer a hand-off to Omar Suleiman, for example, when the ground in Tahrir had shifted too far for that — but, after many decades of American complicity with a regime that had long since failed its citizens but served our narrow parochial interests in the region reasonably well, I don’t think being a day or two behind is too bad.

Now, a year and a half on, we need to look at what we can do to make this new era work, for them and for us.  Chiefly, that means addressing the practical, economic needs of the generation that put their lives at risk in the streets because they hoped that the revolution would improve their circumstances and, so far, it hasn’t.  You want to see angry, bitter, desperate, potentially violent protests in the region on a very, very large scale?  Do nothing and let this generation see their dreams collapse.  You want to avoid that?  Help, by redirecting US aid to something other than just subsidizing American weapons sales and military retirement villas; by recognizing that the Mubarak regime stole or otherwise squandered a good deal of the money that Egypt now owes international lenders and it is an absurdity of righteousness to demand that the people who had so much else stolen from them should now pay that back in full as well; by going to visit Cairo, as I did two weeks ago, because there is no on-the-ground reason not to — it is safer than wherever you live now and there are so few tourists that you’ll have usually-mobbed sites largely to yourself — and for better or worse many, many jobs in Egypt depend on the tourism sector; and, last, by trying to resist the temptation to measure the progress of the revolution just by what it means for the people we ‘really’ care about — women, Christians, and Israelis — important as they are and instead recognize, as a Mubarak-era Coptic activist used to say, that it is pointless to talk about Christian rights in an environment in which there are no human rights.  Sometimes the big picture matters.

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Still worried the US today is practically back in Tehran in 1980 with the hostage crisis?  This interview with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in advance of his visit to New York for the UN meeting is interesting: he sounds less like Ayatollah Khomeini than like a Muslim version of an American Christian conservative — maybe, dare I say it, a good deal less wild-eyed than some American Christian conservatives?  Or read this, in which Mahmoud Salem (who blogs as Sandmonkey), draws a similar comparison and makes some pretty reasonable suggestions for how Egyptians can and stood stand up to the demagogues.  Or, really, just go to Cairo and ask people what issues they care most about right now.

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Update (27 Sep): The op-ed in the Times by Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s president, is quite remarkable.  In addition to making precisely the same point about the vanity of imagining the Arab revolutions are about the West rather than local justice and dignity, he says this about the US embassy protests in Tunisia and elsewhere:

Arguing that the groups who have recently staged violent demonstrations represent the entire Arab population is as absurd as claiming that white supremacist groups represent the American people or that the Norwegian right-wing mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is representative of Europeans.

The demonstrations that took place against the anti-Islamic video “Innocence of Muslims” involved small numbers of extremists; there were only about 3,000 in Tunisia. Counterprotests denouncing the violence also took place in Benghazi, Libya, after the killing of Ambassador Stevens; numerous Muslim leaders have implored believers not to respond to provocations; and no demonstration occurred last Friday, after a French newspaper published demeaning caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

The attempts by journalists and anti-Islamic filmmakers to stage a sequel to the Danish cartoon controversy of 2006 are in vain. Most Tunisians firmly condemn the violence that took place against the United States embassies, even if they were personally offended by anti-Islamic provocations emanating from the United States and Europe.

They are frustrated by how this unnecessary uproar has made the struggle for what matters most to them more arduous: building new democratic institutions, creating jobs and halting the exodus of Tunisian boat people seeking a better life in Europe.

These are difficult tasks for any country, and the challenge is even greater for new democracies in the post-revolutionary Arab world. We are in a race against poverty. At this crucial moment, the West must not abandon us. It must continue to aid Tunisia in strengthening democracy and the rule of law, securing our borders to stop arms from reaching extremists, and creating economic opportunities that give our citizens hope.

 

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