Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

Republican Schizophrenia on Middle East Policy

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

Here’s a Jon Stewart riff from a couple of weeks ago on the hypocrisy of Republicans using the death of the Ambassador in Libya as a reason to attack Obama’s foreign policy.

Republican critiques of Middle East policy are actually more complex than just the usual Republican hypocrisy in that they get to the heart of a real rift in the Republican party on Middle East Policy. On the one hand, you have what we might want call the “The Arabs Only Understand Force” Republicans–the people who believe that the solution to almost every problem is military force and the threat of military force. These people want to play a version of Cold War era global chess with the Middle East, supporting our dictator friends and deposing the others. They don’t give a shit about democratization and many of them believe that the Arabs can’t handle the freedom. On the other hand, we have the neo-cons, who think that the key to our security in the Abab world lies in allowing these countries to democratize. The theory here is that democracy and freedom lead to economic growth, and economic growth leads to stability, and stability leads to less terrorism which leads to our security. Whether that is actually true is the central question of the Middle East for the next few decades and a topic for another day.

The problem with Republicans under Obama is that they are so mixed up that they constantly shift from one pole to another. This is what allows Republicans who scoffed at Democratic arguments that we should get rid of George W. Bush when he invaded the wrong country, Al Qaeda rushed in and fanned the flames of a sectarian war and 100,000 people died, but have the temerity to say that Obama’s Middle East policy is a failure because of an attack on our embassy and protests across the Middle East. A few weeks ago, my conservative uncle, who was an ardent Bush supporter eight years ago, actually tried to make the argument that Obama should be voted out because “the Middle East is in flames” and people are protesting against our embassies after Obama said that everyting would be better after he was elected. I pointed out that he is suffering from the same short term memory that so many of his fellow Republicans seem to be experiencing these days.

Another example of Republican schizophrenia on Middle East Policy can be seen in contradictory Republican messages messages on Libya and Syria. In Libya, we had a very constrained but effective tactical role in overthrowing a historic enemy of the United States which was accomplished with no American casualties. We now have an emerging, albeit fragile democracy in the country, but also the presence of some militant groups that have yet to be dealt with and unarmed, one of which attacked our embassy a few weeks ago. So you hear from the “Arabs Only Understand Force” Republicans like Ben Stein, who wrote that

It’s amazing that Qaddafi kept saying that the people fighting against him were al Qaeda and we kept helping them — and sure enough, they turned out to be al Qaeda. And Qaddafi, who had become our friend — although a cruel and vile man — was killed by the rebels so now Libya is in large measure in the hands of al Qaeda. 

Too many factual innacuracies to go into detail on (the government isn’t Al Qaeda, the rebels are), but this is a main point of the AOUF Republicans: we deposed Qadaffi and empowered Al Qaeda. Well that’s a reasonable enough argument, but it’s slightly less credible coming from the same people whose response was basically “shut the fuck up” when the exact same argument was made about the War in Iraq (the main difference being tens of thousands of American soldiers wounded, thousands of US soldiers killed, our eye off the Osama bin Laden ball and over a trillion dollars added to the federal debt). 

Similarly, AOUF Republicans blame the Obama administration for the emergence of the Egyptian Brotherhood, but it’s not clear what the alternative was for them. Encourage the government to fire on the protestors? Take sides with our traditional ally when the writing was on the wall that he would ultimately be deposed by his own people?

On Syria, the Republicans have the luxury of an almost diametrically opposed argument to wield against Obama: he isn’t doing enough to help overthrow the Assad regime, even though it’s not clear who would take Assad’s place and there is ample documentation that Al Qaeda are among the groups backing the Sunni insurgency in a conflict that breaks down largely on sectarian lines.

Look, these are tough calls, but that’s partly the point. It’s tough to sit back and watch a government slaughter it’s people, but it’s also probably not wise to help overthrow one government when you don’t know what kind of government is most likely to replace it. Fortunately for the Republicans, they can complain no matter what happens: if we continue to support the Syrians revels with only words, then we’re not doing enough and Obama is showing American weakness. If we enable them to take power and the government that everges is even slightly more Islamic than it is today, then Obama’s foreign policy is a failure because he allowed “radical muslim extremists” to take power.

In the meantime, there’s nothing you can do about it but laugh. 

Glenn Beck off the Deep End

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

It seems like Glenn Beck may have finally gone too far.

The week that the Egypt protests broke wide open, Beck seemed to go off the deep end with his talk of how the peaceful protests in Egypt demanding the end of Mubarak’s rule could be a precursor to the eventual establishment of an Islamic Caliphate that would take over the entire Middle East and potentially spread into Asia and Europe.

If you didn’t know that Beck was a pasty faced huckster with no real sense of international politics or history, then you might get really freaked out watching him manipulate his touchscreen to create a phosphorescent Islamic Caliphate out of the entire Middle East and then explain how Spain, France, Britain and Italy could come under the sway of the new Caliphate because they also have some Muslims living in their countries. Beck goes on to weave a complex tapestry of conspiracy, which includes among its members both President Bushes, “the Left,” and labor unions, just to name a few. In fact,  throughout the week Beck tied the Islamic caliphate theory to quite an impressive list of Fox News villans, including Islamic Socialists, ACORN, Code Pink, Anarchists and Bill Ayers, all of whom Beck claimed were engaged in a  ”well orchestrated campaign” to pave the way for the caliphate.

The next week, Bill Kristol at the American Standard, the most idealistic (Pollyanish?) of the neo-cons, called Beck out. Kristol contrasted Charles Krauthammer’s words of caution about events in Egypt and Beck’s paraniod ravings, noting:

hysteria is not a sign of health. When Glenn Beck rants about the caliphate taking over the Middle East from Morocco to the Philippines, and lists (invents?) the connections between caliphate-promoters and the American left, he brings to mind no one so much as Robert Welch and the John Birch Society. He’s marginalizing himself, just as his predecessors did back in the early 1960s.

In fact, as Chris Matthews pointed out, Beck’s paraniod ramblings seems to be cribbed directly from the John Birchers‘ recent talking points.

In the month that has followed, a number of prominent conservatives have joined Kristol in denouncing Beck. Joe Scarborough (no fan of Glenn Beck before) called him ”bad for the conservative movement” and said that he was “losing it before our eyes.” Peter Wehner, from the uber-conservative website Commentary, called him the “most disturbing personality on cable television,” and urged conservatives to distance themselves from him before he “blows apart professionally.” Time columnist Joe Klein noted that he had heard from more than a few conservative sources that “prominent conservatives” have approached Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes and pushed for his ouster at Fox.

While Fox has never been a network particularly concerned with the truth, perhaps a better motivator may be Beck’s declining ratings: January’s ratings were the worst he’s posted since his Fox show debuted in January 2009.

My own take on this is that two trends are driving this backlash against Beck and people like him:

First, the country has had a full two years of heart rending bitter partisanship. While Obama and Pelosi were running the country and the Right was fully mobilized against them, there was a strong tendency toward cohesion. The nutty conspiracy theories that Beck was spouting were tolerated because they were aimed at a common enemy. Now that the inexorable march toward liberal “tyranny” has been stopped, people are looking for a respite from the continual pitched battles between left and right. This has shown up not only in Beck’s declining ratings, but in public opinion about Sarah Palin after she clumsily and agressively went on the attack after Gabby Giffords was shot. At a time when the country needed healing, Sarah Palin showed the same pettiness that she has shown throughout her career, and the public took note. While Obama delivered a stirring speech on the need to come together as Americans and tone down the rhetoric, Palin once again seemed obsessed with her own public image and sense of victimhood.

In a similar vein, the Republican victory is revealing cracks in the facade of conservative unity that were obscured during the fight against a common enemy. These cracks were conspicuously on display during the Egyptian protests.  Neo-cons who still believe in Bush’s “freedom agenda” have a far different worldview from the cautious realpolitik that Repulicans like Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft used so effectively (and that Obama’s team has tried to emulate), and Glenn Beck’s Bircher influenced conspiracy theories are almost diametrically opposed to the neo-con worldview. As events unfolded in Egypt, you had people like Beck and others basically arguing that Muslims can’t be allowed to have democracy and neo-cons like Kristol arguing that Middle Eastern democracy is essential to achieving our national security objectives.   

While no faction has a monopoly on truth, Beck’s recent rantings are undeniably nutty and it is clear that it’s probably in the interest of the Republicans to distance themselves from him. As Kristol alluded to, we may finally be seeing a replay of the early 1960′s when William F. Buckley famously denounced the John Birch Society in the National Review.

The secretive Birch Society had views that were not far from Beck’s. It’s founder, Robert Welch had called President Dwight D. Eisenhower, ”a conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy” and he claimed that the US government was “under operational control of the Communist party” (can’t you hear Beck saying something like this on his show?).  

In his 1962 editorial, Buckley called Welch “idiotic” and “paranoid” and said his views were “far removed from common sense.” This effectively banished the Birchers from the conservative movement for almost 50 years, until  they re-emerged in 2010.

Could we be watching history repeat itself 5o years later? I won’t hold my breath, but this might be fun to watch. 

The Turning Point

Friday, February 25th, 2011

I was thinking this week about turning points: points where foreign observers of the situations in places like Libya and Egypt suddenly have a better understanding of what they are watching.

During the protests in Egypt, I remember when I read this article in the New York Times about how the Egyptian military announced that they would not use force against the protesters. I thought to myself: game, set and match.

Those hundreds of thousands of people in the street were not going away, and if the military refused to fire on them, I knew that Mubarak would be out soon.

This moment on Libya came for me this week when I watched this report from Richard Engle, showing a Libyan military unit handing out heavy artillery including rocket launchers and machine guns to civilians. At that moment it was clear to me that this was not like the protests that gripped Egypt, it was an armed revolt, and that Qaddafi was in real trouble.


Since then, close to 90% of Libya has now turned over to rebel control, the towns under rebel control have started to develop their own rudimentary governing structure and Qaddafi, abandoned by the vast majority of Libyan’s, has had to turn to an army of mercenaries to defend Tripoli and maintain power.

No doubt Qaddafi could drag this out, but it’s increasingly clear that he’s making his last stand.

Fouad Ajami: Demise of the Dictators

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Great article from Fouad Ajami on the history and context of the current tumult in the Middle East.

Juan Cole: Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Here’s Juan Cole on why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979. As always, consider the source and keep a healthy skepticism, but this is a guy who knows a lot about the Middle East.

Let’s hope he’s right.

Also see below on possible outcomes in Egypt.

He later clarified in his actual post that what he meant by “pull a  Khamenei” was that the usual suspects: the military, the pro-Mubarak people, etc. would prevent real change and real democratization. He also noted that this possibility seemed diminished after the events of Friday.

Richard Engel: Living Among the Muslim Brotherhood

Sunday, February 13th, 2011


Some day I will start the a post about Richard Engel without talking about what a badass he is. We’re not there yet. He’s a badass.

On the day Mubarak went down, the guys on CNN had their translators with them. Engel was speaking Arabic and translating the responses from the people in Tahrir Square himself.

Anyway, here’s an interesting take on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Seems to me that it’s difficult to predict not only how much support these guys have or even what they believe in because they have never competed in fair elections nor been able to express themselves publicly as a party.

Gonna be interesting.

History Makes Fools of Us All

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

In the almost 2 weeks since the Egyptian protests broke out, Ross Douthat’s New York Times column on the perils of change in the Middle East and perils of US response to it is one of the best I have read.

On the one hand, Douthat argues, Hosni Mubarak has proved a bulwark against Islamist extremists taking control of one of the most important countries in the Middle East. On the other hand, there is a good argument to be made that Mubarak’s 30 year rule of Egypt radicalized many Islamist extremists as well as vindicating the worldview that sees the US (not incorrectly) as an enabler of autocratic regimes in order to maintain stability, secure an inexpensive flow of oil and protect Israel.

The fact is that, while we can all argee that Egyptians have a right of self determination, and democracy in the Middle East could potentially stabilize the region in the long run, we have to face that fact that the new government replacing Mubarak would almost surely be less reflexively pro-American and less supportive of peace with Israel.

All of this reflects the perils of our policy in the Middle East and around the world. As Douhat notes:

History makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.

Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.

After two weeks of protest, it is clear that Mubarak can no longer remain in power. Whether he leaves right away, or stays on for a few more months is largely irrelevant, but it’s important to guarantee that he, his son or his cronies are not running the show.

Ideally, an interium government will be able to ease the transition between Mubarak’s regime and a new democratic order and create some political space that will allow a constitution to be drafted. This constitution must respect human rights, including the right of expression. While there has been much discussion about the Muslim Brotherhood, most observers seem to believe that they would not be able to immediately win a national election. However, the new constitution needs to be written so that if the Muslim Brotherhood (or any other organization) were to take power, violations of constitutional and political rights would not be tolerated and hopefully the military would be committed to enforce any breach of the constitution.

This may be too much to ask, but that’s all the more reason that it’s more important for this to be done right than for it to be done fast. What happens in Egypt over the next few months and years will impact the region significantly. Whether that impact is for better or for worse remains to be seen.