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Tomgram: Juan Cole, American Policy on the Brink

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently took a four-day tour of the Middle East, at each stop telling various allies and enemies, in classic American fashion, what they must do.  And yet as she spoke, events in Lebanon, IraqAlgeria, and even Egypt seemed to spin ever more out of American control.  Meanwhile, the regime in Tunisia, one of the autocratic and repressive states Washington has been supporting for years even as it prattles on about "democracy" and "human rights," began to crumble.   

In Doha, Qatar, in front of an elite audience peppered with officials from the region, Clinton suddenly issued a warning to Arab leaders that people had "grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order" and that "in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand." With Tunisia boiling over and food riots in Algeria and Jordan, she insisted that it was time for America's allies to mend their ways and open themselves to "reform." A New York Times report, typical of coverage here, described her talk as a "scalding critique" which also "suggested a frustration that the Obama administration's message to the Arab world had not gotten through."

And there, of course, was the rub.  After all, since Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in January 2009, U.S. foreign policy has essentially been in late-second-term-Bush mode and largely on autopilot, led by a holdover Secretary of Defense and a Secretary of State who might well have been chosen by John McCain, had he won the presidency.  Look at Clinton's address again and, beyond a reasonably accurate description of some regional problems (and that frustration), only the vaguest of bromides are on offer.

The problem: Washington's foreign-policy planners seem to be out of ideas, literally brain-dead, just as the world is visibly in flux.  In their reactions, even in their rhetoric, there is remarkably little new under the sun, though from Tunisia to India, China to Brazil, our world is changing before our eyes.  

One of the new things on this planet has certainly been WikiLeaks, whose document dumps were initially greeted by the Obama administration with stunned puzzlement and then with an instructively blind and repressive fury.  (Forget the fact that the State Department should be thanking its lucky stars for WikiLeaks' latest document dump.  Overshadowed by the Pentagon as it is, all the ensuing attention gave it a prominence that is increasingly ill-deserved.)  As TomDispatch regular Juan Cole, who runs the invaluable Informed Comment website and is the author of Engaging the Muslim World, makes clear, it's not just America's Arab allies who are "sinking into the sand."  These days, for the Obama administration, it's a quagmire world.  (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Cole discusses Washington's backing of corrupt autocratic regimes globally, click here  or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

The Corruption Game 
What the Tunisian Revolution and WikiLeaks Tell Us about American Support for Corrupt Dictatorships in the Muslim World
By Juan Cole

Here's one obvious lesson of the Tunisian Revolution of 2011: paranoia about Muslim fundamentalist movements and terrorism is causing Washington to make bad choices that will ultimately harm American interests and standing abroad.  State Department cable traffic from capitals throughout the Greater Middle East, made public thanks to WikiLeaks, shows that U.S. policy-makers have a detailed and profound picture of the depths of corruption and nepotism that prevail among some "allies" in the region. 

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The same cable traffic indicates that, in a cynical Great Power calculation, Washington continues to sacrifice the prospects of the region's youth on the altar of "security."  It is now forgotten that America's biggest foreign policy headache, the Islamic Republic of Iran, arose in response to American backing for Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, the despised Shah who destroyed the Iranian left and centrist political parties, paving the way for the ayatollahs' takeover in 1979. 

State Department cables published via WikiLeaks are remarkably revealing when it comes to the way Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his extended family (including his wife Leila's Trabelsi clan) fastened upon the Tunisian economy and sucked it dry.  The riveting descriptions of U.S. diplomats make the presidential "family" sound like True Blood's vampires overpowering Bontemps, Louisiana.

In July of 2009, for instance, the U.S. ambassador dined with Nesrine Ben Ali el-Materi and Sakher el-Materi, the president's daughter and son-in-law, at their sumptuous mansion.  Materi, who rose through nepotism to dominate Tunisia's media, provided a 12-course dinner with Kiwi juice -- "not normally available here" -- and "ice cream and frozen yoghurt he had flown in from Saint Tropez," all served by an enormous staff of well-paid servants.  The ambassador remarked on the couple's pet tiger, "Pasha," which consumed "four chickens a day" at a time of extreme economic hardship for ordinary Tunisians. 

Other cables detail the way the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans engaged in a Tunisian version of insider trading, using their knowledge of the president's upcoming economic decisions to scarf up real estate and companies they knew would suddenly spike in value.  In 2006, the U.S. ambassador estimated that 50% of the economic elite of Tunisia was related by blood or marriage to the president, a degree of nepotism hard to match outside some of the Persian Gulf monarchies. 

Despite full knowledge of the corruption and tyranny of the regime, the U.S. embassy concluded in July 2009: "Notwithstanding the frustrations of doing business here, we cannot write off Tunisia. We have too much at stake. We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold here. We have an interest in keeping the Tunisian military professional and neutral." 

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The notion that, if the U.S. hadn't given the Tunisian government hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid over the past two and a half decades, while helping train its military and security forces, a shadowy fringe group calling itself "al-Qaeda in the Maghreb" might have established a "toehold" in the country was daft.  Yet this became an all-weather, universal excuse for bad policy.

In this regard, Tunisia has been the norm when it comes to American policy in the Muslim world.  The Bush administration's firm support for Ben Ali makes especially heinous the suggestion of some neoconservative pundits that George W. Bush's use of democratization rhetoric for neo-imperialist purposes somehow inspired the workers and internet activists of Tunisia (none of whom ever referenced the despised former US president).  It would surely have been smarter for Washington to cut the Ben Ali regime off without a dime, at least militarily, and distance itself from his pack of jackals.  The region is, of course, littered with dusty, creaking, now exceedingly nervous dictatorships in which government is theft.  The U.S. receives no real benefits from its damaging association with them.

No Dominoes to Fall

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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