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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 10/5/13

Obama's Reverse-Pivot to the Middle East Offers Yet Another Opportunity for "Change"

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Blindness of this actuality explains how a Wall Street Journal editorial, and others like it, are able to advise a continuation of US support for the Egyptian military because it "buys access with the generals." And why it can then explain with a straight face that, "Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy." In reality, Pinochet was put in charge with the assistance of none other than Henry Kissinger and the CIA. He overthrew Chilean democracy and was ultimately charged with international war crimes. In September, 2000, the CIA was finally forced to reveal that in Chile it "sought to instigate a coup to prevent Allende from taking office after he won a plurality." Pinochet was assassinating protesters and executing political opponents while the US sustained sales of "controversial military equipment." It took 17 years for Chile to restore democracy and today a rapacious elite continues to reign despite reestablished elections. Chile remains a country with an incredible gap between rich and poor. However, because Chile is now a part of the neoliberal order, for the Wall Street Journal it is a success story. It is unacknowledged contradictions like these that allow John Kerry to describe the similar situation unfolding in Egypt today as 'democratic restoration'.

The gist of Obama's rhetoric is actually not that new. His initial National Security Strategy outlined that the U.S. would "reject the notions that lasting security and prosperity can be formed by turning away from universal rights" and that democracy "does not merely represent our better angels; it stands in opposition to aggression and injustice. And our support for human rights is fundamental to American leadership and source of our strength in the world." Additionally, in accepting his Nobel Prize, President Obama rejected "a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists" and explained, "no matter how callously defined, neither American interests nor the world's are served by the denial of human aspirations." While not even the hallmark of his UN address however, Obama's connection between the collective will of Arab publics and the national interest of the United States represents a principle of foreign policy that can be measured. It is only by surveying that record and realizing that it has consistently been opposed that one can see the prospect for positive change if Obama chooses to practice what is preached.

Such a proposition has recently been documented by American political scientist Amaney Jamal. In her important and courageous new book Of Empires and Citizens (2013), she confirms that the US has always insisted on "pro-American democracy or no democracy at all" in the Middle East. Dr. Jamal's thesis that Arab societies are "divided between the people who benefited from their leader's relationship with the United States and therefore sought to preserve the dictatorship and those that did not, and therefore sought democracy" has generated expected but unfair criticism. Nevertheless, such an empirical recognition documents that the 'collective will' of Mideast peoples has always been defined, at least in the minds of US planners, as equivocal to the perspectives of those interested in preserving the regime. Grasping these relationships leads to an understanding of how the American Empire has expanded on colonialist tools for indirect rule. As Mark Lynch, the Obama administration's chief academic adviser during the Arab Spring, put it in Foreign Affairs (May, June 2013), "If Jamal is right then much of the received wisdom of the last decade needs to be reconsidered."

No academic who wants to stay in favor can take that position, however. In turn he dismisses her claims as farfetched and instead defers to neo-Orientalism, explaining that Mideast publics, and by discrete extension Dr. Jamal, suffer from 'cognitive bias' - "the misplaced belief that Washington's power to shape their lives is actually much more interesting than the prosaic truth." In reality, Lynch's dismissiveness is typical of the hubris and cognitive dissonance that helps Americans justify its role in making the Muslim world the democratic exception. Conjuring up pejorative labels like 'the Arab Street' helps the wielders of power blame the victims themselves. As Fawaz Gerges explains it, the Arab Street "is a derisive term so often used by the foreign-policy community and even by the best Western journalists [that] is in great part a myth that has prevented US policymakers from examining or even acknowledging the existence of civil-society politics." 

Realistically attending to the collective will of the people and connecting that attention to US interests would require such altered realizations. Effecting alterations in defense of the actual collective will of Mideast peoples would require a refusal to participate in authoritarianism. The use of carrots and sticks, or what Kissinger described as a "network of incentives and penalties to produce the most favorable outcomes", has always sought to preserve the status quo and in opposition to publics. That explains Obama's general failure in Mideast policy, the indifference to the Egyptian coup, and his initial disinterest in engaging at all with the faultiness his predecessor's efforts to impose pro-American democracy by force had exposed.

Promoting government that "legitimately reflects the collective will of the people" would serve US interests, especially in the long-term. Apart from seeking to reignite the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to negotiate with Iran, Obama should make some clear, principled alterations that would have wide appeal. First, the US should immediately halt its military aid to Egypt, making it contingent on the removal of repressions and the reimposition of multiparty civilian rule open to all sectors of society. Gulf sheikdoms may provide cash but they cannot provide actual weapons or development and while majorities in Egypt have sided with the coup, that support will twiddle away when it becomes apparent Egypt will only return to the age of Mubarak. The military and whoever might be elected to head the new regime will not be able to reimplement authoritarian rule without sustained US assistance. The immediate reaction may be nationalist and anti-American, at least from some sectors of society, but it will subsequently craft a 'collective will' that ultimately proves supportive.

At the same time, the US should arm Syria's rebels and counter Russia and Iran's massive support for the Assad regime. No matter ongoing diplomatic efforts to remove chemical-weapon stockpiles, the 'collective will' of the Syrian people also needs support. For over two years they've suffered most from Obama's disengagement. It is time to usher in an era of foreign policy distinct from Kissinger's realism. On Syria, Obama has followed his advice completely. In a Washington Post editorial from 2012 entitled 'The Perils of Intervention', Dr. Kissinger argued against humanitarian intervention in Syria and democracy promotion on the grounds it would endanger the world order and induce lawlessness. He asked whether humanitarianism as a principle of foreign policy implied that a vital but nondemocratic nation like Saudi Arabia should be opposed simply because "public demonstrations develop on its territory." One year later, Syria indeed lay in lawless shambles with over 100,000 dead and the world order remains subject to disintegration. Kissinger's point on Saudi Arabia however leads to another necessary adjustment.

Were the promotion of 'collective will' as a principle of foreign policy actually adopted, the Saudi regime would not be opposed once public demonstrations formulated. Instead, it would be subject to immediate cessation in aid and support simply on the grounds it quells all internal dissent and serves as the primary obstacle to development. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal recently warned in an open letter to oil minister Ali Naima, "the world is increasingly less dependent on oil from OPEC countries including the kingdom." The US shale revolution implies the strategic partnership with the House of Saud is no longer appropriate or necessary; now that is true from both realist and idealist positions.

Additionally, discussions with Iran, no matter the displeasure of Benjamin Netanyahu, must continue. The last thing the Mideast or America needs is conflict in Iran that could pull the US into another quagmire or even lead to the breakout of World War III. Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani is no doubt sincere and the potential for peace far exceeds the associated risks, regardless of whether the Ayatollahs will accept the outcome of negotiations. Iran is nowhere close to developing actual nuclear weapons and rational discourse between US and Iranian officials would certainly generate valuable political and human capital, especially amongst the next generation of Mideast leaders. To that end, the US must understand that meaningful negotiations about the Israel-Palestine peace process cannot occur until the US makes sustained assistance for Israel contingent on its cessation of settlement construction. It is absolutely insane to expect the Palestinians to enter negotiations while Israeli occupation is expanding.

Finally, the effects of such an actual expansion in the definition of US interests would entail a "long haul" commitment to development. In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, the US and Europe discussed a New Marshall Plan for the Middle East with Egypt as its pillar. However, to this date US, EU assistance is below the one-trillion-dollar mark. Yet, in his national security speech in May of this year, Obama claimed foreign assistance is "fundamental to our national security and it is fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism." In cooperation with the rest of the international community and especially its local NGOs, a long-term plan for Mideast development should be prepared and funded and a few major initial projects should be initiated immediately.

All of this may seem idealist and the odds are that the traditional principles that have driven US policy will maintain. However, we should contemplate the long-term consequence of a sustained mismatch between our speech and action. At the same time we might also pause to question why, no matter the degree of corporate propaganda, US domestic policy also seems unrepresentative of the 'collective will' and instead caters to an elite. Absent such alterations democracy on American shores will continue to trend much closer to Egyptian totalitarianism.    


Younus Abdullah Muhammad is a master of international affairs and American Muslim presently incarcerated in the US federal prison system. 

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Younes Abdullah Muhammed is a Muslim American and Master of International Affairs. He is presently incarcerated in the U.S. Federal Prison system. He is the founder of Islam Policy and can be contacted at
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