I’m getting a headache trying to figure out whether or not to be mad at President Obama for his position on Libya and the Middle East’s big democratic moment. The biggest problem is that I can’t figure out what his position is. The second problem is that every time I think I’ve figured out where he’s headed, I can’t figure out whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
In a report in the Saturday Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous and Julian Barnes flatly state that the administration has decided to support the existing regimes.
After weeks of internal debate on how to respond to uprisings in the Arab world, the Obama administration is settling on a Middle East strategy: help keep longtime allies who are willing to reform in power, even if that means the full democratic demands of their newly emboldened citizens might have to wait. Instead of pushing for immediate regime change — as it did to varying degrees in Egypt and now Libya — the U.S. is urging protesters from Bahrain to Morocco to work with existing rulers toward what some officials and diplomats are now calling “regime alteration.”
On the other hand, the Washington Post’s lead foreign policy columnist David Ignatius writes on Friday, with just as much assurance, that Obama is quietly backing the rebels and looking toward dumping the autocracies.
President Obama has been so low-key in his pronouncements about events in Egypt and Libya that it’s easy to miss the extent of the shift in U.S. strategy. In supporting the wave of change sweeping the Arab world, despite the wariness of traditional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, Obama is placing a big bet that democratic governments will be more stable and secure, and thereby enhance U.S. interests in the region.
What if the new orders that replace the old ones in Egypt and elsewhere turn out to be Islamic republics that take power democratically only to end democracy and spread jihad? Ignatius hears from his intelligence sources that it’s not going to happen.
There are near-term tactical dangers, said one counterterrorism analyst, such as the escape of prisoners in Egypt and the potential weakening of the intelligence service there. But this official says there’s no evidence that al-Qaeda has been able to take advantage of the turmoil. It took a week for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group’s No. 2 official, to publish his windy and out-of-touch analysis of events in Egypt. Change will have its downside, but a second U.S. intelligence analyst offers this estimate: “This is a world we can live with. Our relationship with Egypt may be different and rockier, but I don’t think it will be inherently hostile.” As for the much-feared Muslim Brotherhood, it is currently planning to run parliamentary candidates in only 150 of Egypt’s 454 districts, and no candidate for president.
Don’t be so sure, says Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit during the late 1990s. He thinks the winner in these putatively democratized Arab states will turn out to be Al Qaeda and its Islamist ilk:
In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and any other nation with a U.S.-supported tyranny that sinks in the weeks and months ahead, the role of Islamist groups will become larger - and over time perhaps dominant - if only because the populations in play are almost entirely Muslim and because Islamist groups have the most effective nationwide infrastructures to replace the old guard. And most do and will receive funding, openly or covertly, from always generous donors in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Sunni gulf states…. How tragic that in the war being waged against the United States by al-Qaeda and its allies precisely because of Washington’s relentless intervention in the Islamic world, the U.S. government will now be forced to intervene even more - or sit on the sidelines and watch al-Qaeda build or expand bases from which to threaten U.S. security. Of course, open and vociferous participation by Islamists in the demonstrations in Cairo, Tunis, Tripoli and elsewhere would have earned a lethal and Western-supported response from Mubarak, Ben Ali and Gaddafi. So al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups simply used a talent that long ago atrophied in the West - the ability to keep their mouths shut. As usual, the West wrongly concluded that silence connotes not strategy, but impotence and irrelevance.
One of the weirder responses is Charles Krauthammer’s Thursday column, also in the Washington Post. Hopelessly stuck in Iraq circa 2003, he thinks the Libyan uprising proves Bush was right to invade, because the sterling example of Iraqi freedom and democracy is what has inspired today’s Arab youth to rise up and demand democracy. He can’t understand why we don’t just go in and take out Qadhafi, the way we took out Saddam Hussein.
Voices around the world, from Europe to America to Libya, are calling for U.S. intervention to help bring down Moammar Gaddafi. Yet for bringing down Saddam Hussein, the United States has been denounced variously for aggression, deception, arrogance and imperialism A strange moral inversion, considering that Hussein’s evil was an order of magnitude beyond Gaddafi’s. Gaddafi is a capricious killer; Hussein was systematic. Gaddafi was too unstable and crazy to begin to match the Baathist apparatus: a comprehensive national system of terror, torture and mass murder, gassing entire villages to create what author Kanan Makiya called a “Republic of Fear.”
Well, except for the fact that Gadhafi is currently in the midst of massacring his own citizens in order to suppress a popular uprising that they initiated. We didn’t go into Iraq to stop a massacre—Saddam hadn’t done one of those since the 1980s, and wasn’t likely to because he was boxed in by U.N. sanctions. Nor was there a popular rebellion by the Iraqi people against Saddam that we were supposedly protecting. We went in because the White House claimed he was threatening us with all those weapons he didn’t have.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).