Feb 1st 2011

Limited Options in the Face of Turmoil

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
Across the Middle East dramatic events have been unfolding in rapid-fire succession, confounding U.S. policy makers.

First, Tunisia erupted in mass protest leading to the abdication of that country's President and the dissolution of its ruling party. While developments there were fermenting and still unresolved, attention was diverted to al Jazeera's much hyped release of leaked notes recording conversations between Palestinian negotiators and their American and Israeli counterparts. As revelations go, the "Palestine Papers", as they were marketed, didn't amount to much. However, as an effectively orchestrated and well-timed political attack designed for maximum impact, they proved quite devastating.

That manufactured story was all the rage for a few days last week, only to be eclipsed by the upheavals in Egypt which upended most everything else in the news. Dramatic scenes of mass mobilizations calling on President Mubarak to step down, clashes with riot police, and burning government buildings, proved too enticing to the world's media. As a result, other major unfolding stories across the region were either pushed to back page coverage or completely off the page. Thus during the past few days there has been scant mention of: the inauguration of a new Hizbullah-backed government in Lebanon, raising fears of new sectarian tensions; anti-government demonstrations across Yemen and Jordan challenging the rule of two other U.S. allies; and a still unsettled situation in Iraq with the formation of a "new" government being compromised by continued violence and sectarian and factional disputes.

The pace, the extent, and the consequences of all these events have confronted U.S. policy makers with a difficult set of challenges. While America remains, at least rhetorically, committed to human rights and political freedom, the imperative to protect national security interests often trumps other concerns. This is especially problematic in the current unrest since all of the countries boiling over are led by governments that have been close allies of successive U.S. administrations or are viewed as important to regional stability or broader national security objectives. As a result, in almost every instance, the U.S. has very little leverage (or even contact) with the opposition groups in question and/or little ability to impact the outcome of the ferment. Furthermore, at this point, with the exception of Lebanon and Palestine, much of the dissent rocking the region has nothing to do with the U.S. Despite the fact that we are closely identified with the governments in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen, protesters in those countries have, for the time being, ignored the U.S., since they have bigger fish to fry.

This has complicated the policy-makers' dilemma. There is concern that too much of an embrace of the protesting movements would appear unseemly or even risk being rejected. On the other hand, it is impossible and equally unseemly to ignore the unrest, the social, economic and political conditions that created it, and the horrible repression with which it was met. At the same time, about all that full throated support for the protests would do is pull the plug on regional allies - opening the door to the unknown.

This is not Eastern Europe, where the Soviet occupation regime was our enemy and the democracy movements were our allies. In Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq, the hostility of opposition groups to the US is known. In the other states in question, too little is known about the forces driving the protests and even less is clear how any post-regime scenarios would evolve.

What has been unnerving during this entire period has been the contradictory and in some instances hypocritical way some in the U.S. have seized upon these rapid-fire developments. In Congress and the media, new champions of Arab democracy have been born overnight. In too many instances, however, I suspect this celebration of the "Arab street" is born more of an anti-Arab animus, than of a real commitment to Arab democracy.

Those, for example, who call on President Obama to break with the Egyptian government and suspend U.S. assistance to Egypt's military, would recoil in horror, should a new Egyptian government emerge and, following the will of the people, cancel the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel and/or open ties with Hamas in Gaza. And what would the reaction be were the new Tunisian government to suspend anti-terror cooperation with the U.S?

Evidence that this support for revolution is based more on what these folks don't know mixed in with a dash anti-Arab sentiment can be seen in how they deal with the democratically elected Arab leaders or governing groups they do know. There is no cheering, for example, from Congress or the Washington Post editorial pages for the new Hizbullah-backed government in Lebanon, the Hamas-led Gaza Strip or the emergent Sadrist bloc currently at the center of the Iraqi government. In the case of Lebanon and Gaza there is a taboo placed on any engagement with these groups and calls to suspend all American assistance programs - all of which appears to undercut the professed commitment to democracy.

One final observation on the Palestine Papers" - since discussion of the full impact of their release was aborted by the all-consuming story from Cairo. It is not so much that there is anything new in the leaked documents - despite al Jazeera's hype. Most of the compromises offered, or the behaviors or attitudes manifested, have been known for years. Nor does the release of these inter-office Palestinian memos represent "the final nail in the coffin of the peace process", as some have suggested. That nail was driven in months ago. What these documents do shine a light on, however, is the belief that the Palestinian leadership is "out of touch" with their constituency and a bit too desperate in their dealings with the U.S. and Israel. They also make clear the degree to which the U.S. has been insensitive to Palestinian needs and impotent in the face of Israeli intransigence.

The bottom line here is that the complexities of these multiple challenges and the uncertainties associated with each of them have placed a real burden on an already weakened Obama Administration. Two years ago they came into office generating high expectations throughout the Middle East. But during the past two years U.S. policies vis-a-vis a range of regional issues (Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, etc) have appeared more a continuation of the failed past than hoped for change. As a result, today the Administration appears exhausted, distracted and flat, creating a massive let-down across the Arab World.

Recognizing this is important since it establishes the reality that the U.S. has diminished credibility, capacity, and few good options. Critics, both liberals and conservatives, who are demanding "bold leadership" from the President, ought to remember their earlier support for "deposing the Iraqi dictator". Not understanding the consequences of that move or the factors driving Iraqi society in the post-Saddam era and having little ability to control the disasters that followed (despite having 150,000 troops on the ground), should give these pundits pause. Therefore, it is advisable for policy makers to dismiss the critics and proceed, as they have, with carefully calibrated messages that affirm both principles and interests.

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