Washington’s Mideast Dilemma: Choices Exist

Washington faces a dilemma in the Mideast as a result of its long-time policy of supporting Arab dictators and right-wing Israeli expansion, but policy-makers do have choices, if they can imagine new ways of doing business.
Speaking of U.S. ally Egypt, Secretary of State Clinton piously intoned at a news conference in Washington that “We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence.”
It is somewhat disingenuous to urge peaceful demonstrators and vicious police to “both be nice.” On the other hand, if all took Clinton’s words at face value and followed up, Mubarak would be a refugee in Saudi Arabia tomorrow. Is Washington waking up to the possibility that the Arab dam is breaking and that the U.S. should not be standing downstream when it does?
Maybe, maybe not. But an American decision-maker can be excused for asking, “Is there any way Washington can win, after supporting Arab dictators for so long?” There is much to be said for a policy of speaking in moderate, neutral terms but otherwise staying out of it. Compared to the horrors of the war party, “do no harm” is a big improvement. Whether or not that actually is the U.S. policy remains unclear, but if it is, to make it credible Washington will need to end its subservience to the expansionist faction in Israel. A people’s revolution in Cairo is hardly compatible with continued Egyptian collusion with the Gaza Ghetto, the suppression of Hamas, or the pretense of a “peace process” that simply covers up Israeli digestion of the West Bank.
Washington is no doubt still far from reasoning its way through that convoluted chain of logic. And at the moment, given the reality of Washington’s deep involvement in propping up Mubarak, all his sins against his people are to some extent Washington’s sins, and no Arab on earth needs me to articulate that equation. So Washington “neutrality” is in reality not neutrality at all, but a transparent sugarcoating over continued exploitation of the Egyptian people to serve the goals of empire (Washington’s big one and Israel’s small one).
If Washington continues to deplore but tolerate Mubarak’s repression of popular feelings, Washington risks inciting not just a democratic revolution but an anti-American revolution. Given the strength of the Egyptian security apparatus, Washington may well calculate that the people cannot overthrow it, but the well organized Muslim Brotherhood still sits on the sidelines, not to mention various extremist groups looking for opportunities, and the Egyptian middle class is being given lots of new reasons for anger.
A different risk for Washington, if it decides to stick with Mubarak, also exists. The Egyptian security state faces a growing problem of popular rage. How long will it be willing to beat up thousands of people every day? It must surely be casting about already for some other solution to distract the people and gain some popular sympathy. Where would Washington be if the Egyptian security state concluded that opening the Gaza-Egyptian border and cutting a deal with Hamas might enable it to pose as the true champion of Arab nationalism? With a bit of 21st century Nasserism, it could invite Palestinians to demonstrate their thanks in Cairo and invite the Egyptian people to demonstrate alongside them, with the Egyptian Defense Minister leading the call to prayers. Might Egyptian security officials consider that a better bet than continuing to beat up protesters under the intrusive lens of al Jazeera cameras?
The result, in the context of Tunisia’s declaration of independence from dictatorship and Lebanon’s smooth step out of the U.S. orbit and the scandal of the Palestinian papers and the declining U.S. position in Iraq, would be to leave Washington sitting in a very sinkable Israeli rowboat jostled by very big Arab waves.
The obvious alternative policy for Washington—distancing itself from Mubarak—of course also entails risks, but a broad move away from personal relationships with this or that national leader toward state-to-state or, better, society-to-society, ties would both be more principled and a safer bet for America’s reputation, not to mention giving President Obama a route to resurrecting a Mideast policy of his own. Such an approach would free Washington from its current self-defeating dependence on the political fortunes of individuals and confer some protection from being blamed for all these various leaders’ failings. Washington could take the professional stance of offering to work with any regime willing to work with it and thus tempt adversaries to come to terms (Lebanon), could make the case that it supports its friends’ security even while opposing certain recalcitrant politicians (Israel), and could plausibly support the right of people to express themselves without being attacked by regime thugs (Iran, Algeria, Egypt). Such a policy might begin to reverse the downward slide of U.S. influence in the Mideast.
In reality, Washington has a broader array of choices, which might be summarized as:
  1. Support the man;
  2. Support the state;
  3. Support the people;
  4. Opt out.
Supporting the man. A personal relationship with a leader minimizes U.S. freedom of movement, makes the U.S. both morally responsible and perceived by the people as responsible for all the sins of the client. It also encourages the client to feel sufficiently secure, backed by the world’s last remaining superpower, so that he can afford to treat the people like his personal property. This is by far the worst choice from the perspective of U.S. national interests.
Supporting the state. Supporting the state but not the individual leader leaves the U.S. still responsible but with much more bargaining room vis-à-vis its client: it can much more easily contact key national security officials directly and indicate its loss of faith in the abilities of the particular politician who happens to be top dog or publicly blame an individual while maintaining support of the state. This is still a bad choice to the degree that it means preferring the state to the people, boxing the U.S. into a trap that gives a client state far too much power over U.S. policy, but it is at least marginally better than identifying with an individual.
Supporting the people. Supporting the people will not typically be distinct from supporting the state; it is distinct only to the degree that the state becomes predatory (e.g., Algeria, Tunisia until last week, Egypt, Iran) or conducts a policy that harms the society (e.g., Israel’s policy of security through force and repression of the Palestinians, both short-sighted policies that provoke hostility and undermine long-term Israeli security). Supporting the people to the exclusion of the state is tricky because it easily provokes violence over the short term, in contrast to support the state to the exclusion of the people, which provokes violence over the long-term while looking stable for the moment (one reason why short-sighted politicians in the U.S. tend to favor the latter).
Opting Out. Albeit hard for an activist global power to do and costly in the sense that failure to exercise power can be seen as evidence the power does not exist, opting out, especially if done sincerely and from a consistent and principled position, is an option policymakers should consider far more often than they do for a very simple reason: interference, given the limited ability of Americans to understand what is really happening in far-away places, very frequently makes things worse – not just for the locals but also for Americans. Unfortunately, for a superpower with economic, military, diplomatic, and commercial fingers deep in every pie on earth, opting out happens to be very hard to do. All official contacts would have to be terminated, and that could in itself constitute a type of interference on multiple levels. The best in practice may be to downgrade ties incrementally, starting with anything that smacks of support for abusive police, while simultaneously calling for international observers to ensure that peaceful demonstrations are allowed.
Washington has real options to resolve the dilemma it faces in the Mideast, but the implications are convoluted and traditional policy is a heavy millstone around the neck of policy-makers. Developing a new and consistent approach to respond to the new Mideast reality will be a challenge.
My thanks to Media With Conscience for publishing the initial version of this article.
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