January 31, 2011
At the start of his presidency, Barack Obama spoke about his administration’s intentions to mend fences with the Islamic world. In hindsight, we might be forgiven to think that he meant Kenya’s Islamic community and not the Arab one. The plight of Arabs living in US-backed authoritarian states does not seem to get the same kind of attention at the White House as Indonesian Muslims, for example. It is, unfortunately, in the Arab world that the United States has made its biggest foreign policy errors and blunders outside of Latin America.
The desperate protesters taking to the streets of Cairo or Sana hope to force out of office two presidents viewed as pivotal to US securitary concerns in the Middle East. They have nothing to lose : their leaders are corrupt and inefficient, their freedoms do not really exist except on paper and their countries have failed a long time ago to care for their interests, instead of those of the US and its Israeli allies.
The US foreign policy in the Middle East has revolved around two objectives. The first is ensuring America’s oil supplies, hence the US military presence and support for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The second one is supporting the state of Israel and guaranteeing its existence against incredible geopolitical odds, hence the close relationship established between the US and Egypt. Since September 11, 2001, a third US objective has been that of fighting Islamic extremism, which has become a convenient excuse for propping up Arab political dinosaurs in Egypt, Yemen or elsewhere in the Middle East. The way these objectives have been put into practice, however, has come at the expense of ordinary Arabs, which these days see themselves deprived of jobs, basic foodstuffs, human rights or a future for their children. It was, therefore, only a matter of time until the militarised and securitised regimes friendly to the United States or Israel came to an end.
The European Union countries, on the other hand, have been trying to alleviate the hardships of the Arabs. Millions of young Arabs have established their second home in France, Italy, Spain or even Germany. Their hard currency remittances, the European investments in Maghreb or Palestine or outright European financial assistance have mitigated the hardships inflicted on the Arabs by insensitive US foreign policies. Not anymore. Since the outbreak of the financial crisis, EU nations have been forced to adopt unpopular austerity measures, fight illegal immigration and cut back on foreign aid packages. Accordingly, the worsening global economic situation has laid bare the incapacity of most US-backed Arab governments to provide for their citizens or to treat them in a humane and lawful fashion.
The authoritarian leaders currently being contested by protesters in the streets have been given all the US military assistance required to keep them in power for decades. In Mubarak’s case, such assistance amounts to no less than 1.5 billion dollars per annum. Ali Saleh of Yemen gets 250 million dollars for his army and security apparatus. Meanwhile, poverty-stricken Egyptians or Yemenites find it hard to feed themselves or their families, and in some cases they do not have a decent supply of water.
This Jeffersonian US foreign policy has lately been sugar-coated with some misleading Wilsonian trappings, but its essence has remained the same for a long time. Even among the US foreign policy elite, Arabs are thought to be uninterested in democratic values, which explains its support for authoritarian Arab rulers.
Fortunately, as the example of Turkey proves, Islamic societies are not incompatible with democracy. Slowly but surely, Arab intellectuals have come to realise that electing their political leaders freely and removing them when they fail to provide adequate leadership for their countries is a better alternative to the current political arrangements.
American political leaders are quick to criticise the autocratic regimes of Russia or China, but they are slow in conceding that the US’s Arab foreign policy is now in shambles. Nor does their protégé Mubarak get his countrymen’s message straight: his solution to the protesters’ call to resign was to appoint his chief spymaster, Omar Suleyman, as vice-president and change the government. These window-dressing measures continue to be contested in the streets by ordinary Egyptians and leading intellectuals alike. To be sure, the appointment of Suleyman, who is the Mubarak regimes’ interface with the US and Israel, is an indication of how strong the ties between Washington and the octogenarian president really are.
As much as he would like to, President Obama cannot invoke enlightened Wilsonian ideals and support hugely unpopular Arab regimes simultaneously. If anything, he could turn to another fellow Nobel prize winner, Mohamed El Baradei, for inspiration, who is living proof that not all the prize’s recipients are undeserving.
Spotlight on Geopolitics