The Saudi offer to subsidize Egypt's President Husni Mubarak if the U.S. government tries to pressure him by cutting aid calls to our attention still another inept flub of the Obama Administration.
Obviously, before demanding the regime go away, the White House did not consult with American allies on their views, and certainly didn't consider the impact on them. Aside from their sense of honor, the Saudis know that people view Egypt as a precedent for their country.
If Mubarak is humiliated today, the Saudi king can be humiliated tomorrow. If a radical regime takes power in Egypt today, it will be one more threat to Saudi Arabia that the Americans did not protect them from. Now the Saudis have rebelled against Obama's policy.
It's remarkable how effective he has been at demolishing the entire structure of U.S. influence, deterrence, and credibility in the Middle East. I certainly don't think any of this was on purpose. But the incompetence is at such a high level that it is understandable why some think otherwise. And that in itself tells you how bad things are.
This is an extremely important article. Let me explain why briefly. The point is to analyze the split within the Obama Administration: Should it let the current Egyptian regime manage the process of "transition" or press for the regime's fall and replacement by...who knows what?
And it isn't surprising. In favor of the moderate and sensible approach are Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, national security advisor Thomas Donilon and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, "who worry about regional stability and want to reassure other Middle East governments that the U.S. will not abandon an important and longtime ally."
In other words, the people who actually have some experience with international affairs understand that the administration's original policy would produce a disaster.
And who wants to dump Mubarak and the regime immediately while having no fear of the emergence of a radical Egypt? Why the ideologues, of course: National Security Council members Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power, who say "that if President Obama appears to side with the remnants of Mubarak's discredited regime, he risks being seen as complicit in stifling a pro-democracy movement."
This split which has existed all along now becomes visible for the first time. We are going to be hearing more about this conflict in future.
My articles on media coverage have prompted a number of letters from journalists about their own experiences. Here's my favorite, slightly rewritten to protect anonymity:
"Thought I'd share with you the time in 2002 I identified on the spot the fact that a dead Palestinian, spread across both sides of the street in many pieces in Hebron's market, was not killed by Israelis as the locals were passionately wanting us to believe (including some Hamas types at the scene) but the dead man was actually a suicide bomber on a mission who'd accidentally blown up.
"The locals claimed Israeli rockets were used to kill the man, either fired from helicopters or from the Jewish quarter--there were conflicting stories of course. I pointed out that there was no point of impact for any rockets; and there were some other things that to me clearly indicated that he just blew up. CNN and others were reporting he'd been killed by Israelis that morning after we were on the scene.
"Turns out I was right. Later in the day we met with a Hamas leader with his armed entourage and he admitted to us that something "technically went wrong.' CNN and others originally reported that the man had been shot and killed by Israel (without provocaiton, of course) eventually changed the report that day to say he was a suicide bomber who had accidentally detonated."
Back to me: Now multiply that by thousands of stories in most of which the correction was never made or done so grudgingly (and with such an emphasis on discrediting the critics) as to be of little improvement.
Imagine if no Western reporter had observed the event BUT nonetheless reported it as the highly partisan Palestinians claimed. This is precisely what happened in the Muhammad al-Dura affair--in which millions of people believe that Israel murdered a boy in a situation that was at the least a phony manufactured event--and in the Goldstone Report (which basically retold the Hamas propaganda version of the story), and most recently in the tear-gas-is-poison-gas scenario that has just unfolded.
This brings to mind the time when the Los Angeles Times reported that people in the Gaza Strip were suffering greatly from Israeli restrictions on providing power, an article published before the changes were implemented. Or the time when it was widely reported that the Gaza "parliament" was holding meetings by candle light when there was no power, though photos showed it was daylight and the curtains had been closed to stage the scene.
The weak point here is not what Israel says or does--since even documented reports are ignored or ridiculed--but the credulity, unprofessional behavior, and sometimes malice of the journalists involved.
My usual guidelines apply here: Many journalists and media outlets do a good job; the problem is with relatively few though often from the widest-circulation, most "respectable" publications.
I promised myself I wouldn't waste any more time on Roger Cohen but he said something so fascinatingly puerile that it gets to the center of the problem. In dismissing the potential threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, Cohen wrote:
"Already we hear the predictable warnings from Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu: This could be Iran 1979, a revolution for freedom that installs the Islamists. But this is not 1979, and Egypt's Facebook-adept youth are not lining up behind the Muslim Brotherhood, itself scarcely a band of fanatics."
That Cohen thinks the Brotherhood is "scarcely a band of fanatics" is due to his remarkable obtuseness. Note, too, the patronizing dismissal that the leader of a country that has fought many wars and buried many dead might be worried about a revolution next door that could well again force his country to defend itself against a neighbor that has twelve times as many people.
What's really interesting, and shows the true mark of the provincial thinking that he's a sophisticate is this: The population of Egypt is 90 million people. How many of them are urban, consumer-oriented, Facebook-adept youth who want to live in a relatively secular, stable democracy at peace with its neighbors?
Like the American journalists and diplomats who based their view of Tehran on the wealthy, cosmopolitan people they hung around with thus missing the Iranian revolution's real course, or the famous story of the New York socialite who couldn't understand how Reagan won because, "No one we know voted for him," Cohen thinks the world is made in his image. Here's an example of how this divide manifests itself in Pakistan.
Remember, too, that all of Egypt is not Cairo and Alexandria. There are hundreds of villages where peasants won't be voting for the same party as Cairo's Facebook-Adept Youth. And in Upper Egypt there are a lot of Christians trembling at what neighbors might do to them--based on precedent--if there is no order and a rising Islamist movement.
So Cohen's may be right that the Facebook-Adept Youth aren't going to join an Islamist group but they aren't the whole population of Egypt. For him to be blind to that simple point is a strong indicator of how the masters of the media and public debate are so clueless about the real world.
But there are other interesting issues here. Is technology destiny? That is, when you have television, radio, cds, computers, satellite television, Facebook, Twitter, Internet, and so on, does that mean you have to be modern, liberal, and democratic? That idea has been shattered (though the news has not caught up to Cohen) by a lot of events. Think of Khomeini's effective use of cassettes with his speeches to mobilize support in Iran, or how Islamists have used Internet so effectively.
It might be that in the long run high-technology gives the masses tools for independent thinking and action. But the Islamists have used these tools effectively, often more so than the reformers. Technology is more value-neutral than many in the West think.
The woman (and the fact that it's a woman is in itself significant) credited for starting the Egyptian revolution is enwrapped in a chador that's pretty comprehensive, even by Egyptian standards. That doesn't mean she's an Islamist, but as far as I've seen nobody asked her about her political views.
By total coincidence, a young Egyptian just asked to join my Facebook. His profile includes pictures of scantily dressed Western singers. And he lists his political heroes as: Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood hanged by Nasser, Edward Said, Malcolm X, and the Iranian Islamist theorist Ali Shariati. Oh yes, and he also likes Christiane Amanpour.
What's really interesting is his philosophical statement, which a Western observer might easily misunderstand. The basic message is this: Egyptian patriotism is out, Arab nationalism is out ("ethnocentrism and chauvinism") the only thing important is Islamic identity and having an Islamist state. The reference to "jahili" is to the period before Islam began, a time of ignorance and paganism, all of whose customs and beliefs should be rejected. Note also his rejection of any pride in Egypt's ancient past:
"I am...just trying to be a real Muslim. Although I was born in Egypt... and I do love my country very much, but it ain't relevant to my identity by any means. I'm a Muslim, so this is my identity and nationality. Wherever exists any Muslim; its my home country, and wherever exists a human; its supposed to be my home.
"I hate both ethnocentrism, and chauvinism; talking about stupid mythical ethnic purity, like Nazism, Zionism, and fascism, its a Jahili (Ignorant) habit. Also being proud of an ancient civilization that I haven't share its building; is totally ridiculous, and sounds slavish!!
"The fatherland is that place where the Islamic faith, the Islamic way of life, and the Shari'ah of God is belief and a way of life, and only this relationship is worthy of man's dignity.
"Grouping according to family, tribe, nation, race, color or country, are residues of the primitive state of man; these jahili groupings are from a period when man's spiritual values were at a low stage. The Prophet -peace be on him- has called them 'dead things' against which man's spirit should revolt. Thus Spoke Sayyid Qutb."
So he wants an Egypt in which Shari'ah is dominant and all other inputs are thrown away. And the quotation of the radical anti-American Sayyid Qutb makes clear where his loyalties lie. Liking Mariah Carey and Sayyid Qutb simultaneously is quite possible. His statement is almost like an Islamist version of John Lennon's song, "Imagine."
So here is the real issue: What do the masses want? Remember, it is the people of Egypt--especially in an election--that will determine the outcome, not just the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, and not just the Facebook-adept youth in Tahrir Square. And even many of the Facebookistas are also pretty extreme.
That's Egypt's problem. Here's ours: We all want this revolution to succeed and create a stable, democratic Egypt. But will it do so? And it is absolutely necessary for people to point out the dangers. For how else can policymakers try to avoid the dangers?
I can't resist adding that these are the same people who would look down on Americans from rural areas or small towns, the pious, the conservative, those who own guns, and so on. In their own culture they have strong views and know how to read social signals. Ironically, in a real sense they distrust their own masses. In short, much of the American elite thinks that the Tea Party or evangelical Christians are dangerous while the Muslim Brotherhood isn't.
Abroad, though, and especially in the Third World, their perceptions get even more confused, tangled up in the exotic and unfamiliar. They look for those who think like them, dress like them, and speak good English. Then they project those characteristics onto a whole society. Often their counterparts, whether intentionally or not, mislead them.
Even then, are they aware that the Muslim Brotherhood controls both the doctors' and lawyers' associations in Egypt? Or that Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, is head of the Syrian Internet Society? Or that radical Islamists have been far more effective at using the Internet than liberal reformers?
The only hope for people who don't understand these things is to get a really smart anti-Islamist cab driver between the airport and the luxury hotel in Cairo who can set them straight.
Muslim Brotherhood and ElBaradei run on a joint ticket, win 60 percent
Regime group (whatever they call themselves) 30 percent
Left-wing parties: 5 percent
Good-government reformers (the idealistic people from the demonstrations) 5 percent
In the presidential elections, the most likely person to run against ElBaradei would be Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League and former foreign minister. Moussa is known for his strong anti-Israel stance (a popular song on this was written in his honor). Since ElBaradei is relatively unknown in Egypt and has been outside the country for three decades, one cannot rule out Moussa winning.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood would support El Baradei the anti-Islamists might rally to Moussa. From a domestic standpoint this would make a big difference if Moussa won. But in foreign policy it would be roughly comparable.
Most Likely Outcome:
ElBaradei wins. West argues ElBaradei tames Brotherhood! Hooray! U.S. aid continues.
Actual result: Brotherhood is cautious but uses ElBaradei to increase its power, move society toward Islamism, and push a radical and pro-Islamist foreign policy.
Amr Moussa wins as anti-Islamist forces unite and ElBaradei is a disappointing candidate who is seen as the American's man. It is quite possible that Moussa would use a strong anti-American element in his campaign. Moussa is also the better politician. Th
Result: The Brotherhood is held at bay, which is good, but Egypt becomes much more radical internationally, very anti-Israel in its behavior, and antagonistic to the United States. Moussa is a demagogue and very mercurial. He is capable of the grand gesture and the emotional response. He could be real trouble.
I'd put it this way: A victory for ElBaradei is a long-run headache (with the Brotherhood getting stronger) and Moussa's victory is going to be an immediate migraine.
I reserve the right to alter this analysis but I think it is a reasonable one that tells us what we need to know.
I'd be delighted to hear how others would (politely) argue this differently. I assume these focus mainly on whether the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate (which doesn't affect the likely election results) or much weaker than I think (they're wrong on that one.)
The genuinely (relatively) moderate Palestinian Daoud Kuttab wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that beautifully shows the kind of thing Israel and Israelis and those friendly to Israel have to deal with daily.
"Palestine television, which falls under the president's [Mahmoud Abbas's] powers, was totally revamped and cleaned of anti-Israeli incitement."
Now, I will give Kuttab the credit for wishing that this was true but he knows it isn't true. Consequently, I have not the slightest reservation to saying that he is lying and that he knows that he is lying.
And I also know that hundreds of thousands of people will read and believe him, saying that it must be true or the Times wouldn't print it. Or if it weren't true they'd be reading about such anti-Israel incitement in the Times and other newspapers.
At any rate, no one raised the interesting question in any mass media environment: Why would it have taken until November 2010 to do this when it was supposed to have been done about 16 years earlier according to the 1993 Israel-PLO agreement?
And of course it hasn't happened even as of today. On the contrary.
One expert on Palestinian media and incitement therein remarked, "It so absurd a statement that to prove it wrong would be easy." Yet no Western journalist seems interested in tapping his remote control, turning the television on, and checking it out.
That's a funny thing about today's world. We have instantaneous reporting: You are IN Tahrir Square with the demonstrators; Yet this situation requires a higher level of understanding on the part of the journalists and their pontificating guests. And instead the opposite is true.
So here is one example of how simple it is to get the true story. In this case, of course, incitement on PA television has not declined. Here, a blogger provides three videos of songs on PA television inciting to violence against Israel and Israelis. The third one honors one of the most vicious terrorists in the history of the conflict.
But keep in mind that it is possible to provide dozens of examples, as Palestinian Media Watch has done.
Now multiply this little case study by one thousand, ten thousand or more in terms of the propaganda campaign and the Western media's collaboration in it.
"What are we going to do--support dictators for the rest of eternity because we don't want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East?" Thus spake Robert Kagan in advocating regime change in Egypt.
But that raises an interesting question. How many dictators is the United States supporting in the Middle East. Not many. In fact, as of today, none at all! Of course, to the Islamists the kings of Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and all the small Gulf sheikdoms are dictators. Do we regard them as such? If not, there aren't many potential dictators left.
The United States gives some help to Algeria, but that country isn't an American client. So what's left in the dictator category? Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Palestinian Authority (though its government has outstayed its term) and some others have governments picked in free elections. That's about it.
So with Tunisia gone, and the regime's fall welcomed by the United States, Egypt was the only dictatorship the United States was supporting. And indeed, the U.S. government overthrew two dictatorships--in Iraq and Afghanistan--and helped make them into (imperfect) democracies.
So was one remaining dictatorship too many? At any rate, Kagan's charge is false, unless he'd like to see the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood overthrow the monarchy with U.S. help.
On the other side, of course, there are a lot of dictatorships: Libya, Sudan, Syria, Iran, and the Gaza Strip. Those dictatorships have proven to be pretty durable. Their number is increasing.
Almost everyone has forgotten how the regime that rules Egypt got started in the first place. Kagan's argument parallels what American policymakers said then: Why support a corrupt monarchy when there are these shiny young idealistic officers who will win over the people and thus be more effective bulwarks against Communism. I don't want to give the impression that the 1952 coup was mostly America's doing but U.S. support was a factor.
The result was disastrous: Gamal Abdel Nasser became leader of the radical Arab faction and turned the Middle East upside-down for two decades.
In Iran in 1978-1979 the administration of Jimmy Carter applied what we might call Kagan's rule:
"What are we going to do--support dictators for the rest of eternity because we don't want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East?"
And so the United States helped push the shah out of power in the belief that a popular democratic government would emerge, the Iranian people would be happy and they would thank America. There was no need to be afraid of Islamists "taking their share." The resulting regime has turned the region upside down now for three decades.
Now the United States is doing the same thing. Fearful of being tarred with supporting a dictator (King Farouq, the shah) it wants to get rid of the old ally and bring in a new democratic model. Certain that the old regime's fall is "inevitable" Washington helps it along. Scoffing at the fear of radicals (nationalists in Egypt's case; Islamists in Iran's case), the United States opens the door wide to them, certain it will be rewarded for that generosity.
Sure, the United States is not engaging Hamas in Gaza, it also opposes the overthrow of that regime and has helped it with (indirect) financial aid and pressure on Israel to reduce sanctions. The United States has also been very generous to Syria during the Obama Administration, ignoring for all practical purposes its continued backing for terrorism and responsibility for the murder of Americans in Iraq.
So non-fearful of Islamism is the U.S. government that if Iran would only stop building nuclear weapons Washington would rush toward rapprochement, presumably even if Tehran continued doing all the other bad things it does.
The real problem of course is this one:
What are we going to do--watch friendly regimes fall to become anti-American, terror- sponsoring Islamist dictatorships for the rest of eternity because we don't want to protect allies and instead watch Islamists taking over every political system in the Middle East?
There are people--many in the media and academia--who literally go bananas if anyone criticizes President Barack Obama. They maintain that he is doing just a great job as if this is beyond any of rational discussion.
And yet what has happened in the Middle East in the first two years of his term?
--The Iranians have continued full speed ahead toward getting nuclear weapons. Though the administration deserves credit for getting higher sanctions through the UN, these have not actually affected the problem.
--The Israel-Palestinian peace process, partly through Obama's mismanagement, has fallen completely apart.
--Lebanon has been taken over by a Hizballah-dominated government with Syrian and Iranian tutelage.
--Hamas's control over the Gaza Strip has been stabilized and entrenched due to U.S. policy mistakes.
--Turkey has continued to drift toward the Iran-Syria bloc and disregarded U.S. interests without costs.
--The policy to moderate Syria has failed completely while Damascus is both confident and more aggressive.
--Pakistan seems more and more unstable while not being particularly helpful toward U.S. counterterrorist efforts.
--Obama's charm offensive toward Islamism has yielded no material benefit for U.S. interests.
--The Obama Administration's rush to push out Mubarak's regime has created a very dangerous situation that might spread to other countries.
--Generally, U.S. friends in the region are distressed, doubting they can trust in America's protection; U.S. enemies are encouraged, believing America is weak and in retreat.
It's a bit more complex to assess the two U.S. wars:
--U.S. forces have been largely withdrawn from Iraq, though this was in large measure made possible by the surge that Obama opposed and ridiculed. Iraq's governmental situation is in something of a mess.
--No particular progress has been made in Afghanistan while there are dangerous hints of U.S. concessions to the Taliban, while U.S.-Afghan governmental relations are quite rocky.
Well, nobody said it would be easy. Oh, actually a lot of the Obama people and their supporters did say it was going to be easy. Even if I missed any points or wasn't entirely balanced above--I welcome suggestions--this is a terrible record. Worse still, it seems to presage more declines and disasters to come.
It is barely possible to ignore all the above points; hard to distort them into something positive; tempting to blame the predecessor or other countries. Yet at least up to the Egypt crisis that's pretty much what's happened.
So what does this mean? Here are some implications:
--Israel will not take risks or make concessions based on this administration's promises because it doesn't keep its promises or its commitments. The Administration is only proving the ineptness that Israelis already expected.
--But, of course, the same applies to the Palestinian Authority. Do you think it believes the U.S. government is going to protect it from Hamas?
--Do you think the Saudis and Jordanians believe America will protect them from Iran?
--Do you think the democratic oppositions in Lebanon and Turkey and Iran believe the United States will help them despite what he did in Egypt?
--Unintentionally, the mistakes of the Obama Administration has become a factor spreading the power of radical Islamist movements. People aren't going to like that sentence but it is objectively true. Israelis know it; Arabs know it; Iran's leadership knows it.
These are not partisan statements. They are as true as any critical examination of the Bush Administration's shortcomings. If you wish, you can ignore them. But the Middle East cannot afford that luxury.