Printed in the CJN
Why is it that just about everything the United States tries in the Middle East turns to dust?
With the region – from Libya in North Africa to Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula – undergoing cataclysmic upheavals, can the U.S., over the past decade or even longer, point to one policy achievement?
Its policy failures are not just President Obama’s but became evident under President George W. Bush with his 2003 invasion of Iraq, motivated by the misconceived – if idealistic – notion that the U.S. could bring democracy to that country and beyond.
That policy was an abject failure in human lives, both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, in the waste of more than a trillion American dollars, and in the vivid proof it provided that implanting genuine liberal democracy (more than mere elections) is simply illusory.
By displacing the Sunni-led dictatorship of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the Bush-led U.S inadvertently opened the door to Shia Iranian influence in that country. This process has recently accelerated dramatically as American armed forces, now under President Obama, have formed – denials notwithstanding – a tacit alliance with Iranian forces and Iranian-backed Shia-dominated Iraqi forces to fight ISIS.
In enabling Iran to extend its tentacles deep into Iraq at a time that Tehran has aggressive designs on the region – from Lebanon to Yemen – the U.S. has, however unwittingly, opened a Pandora’s Box, inflaming the historic conflict between Sunnis and Shia – much to the alarm of Sunni Arab states mainly Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which are America’s traditional allies.
Following Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, when he attempted to re-set anti-American attitudes in the Arab and Muslim world stemming from Bush’s failed war in Iraq, Obama was determined to prove that his country was not at war with Islam.
Accordingly, when the “Arab Spring” first emerged in 2010-2011, Obama placed his cards with the Muslim Brotherhood, which had prevailed in the Egyptian elections. The administration assumed that, because the Brotherhood had been “democratically elected,” it would govern democratically under President Mohammed Morsi. That was yet another failed assumption. Morsi proved not only incompetent but also even more repressive, anti-democratic, and intolerant of minorities’ rights than former president Hosni Mubarak and his military-backed regime. Let’s not forget that it was “liberal” Egyptians, at the forefront of overthrowing Mubarak, who subsequently demanded that the army remove Morsi from power — although, unfortunately, they too went on to suffer under Egypt’s new military strongman Abdel-Fattah Sisi.
America’s traditional allies in the region, mainly Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, were dismayed by what they saw as American naivety in putting faith in the Brotherhood, even as the Saudi monarchs support puritanical Wahhabi religious authorities from whom groups like ISIS derive inspiration.
With the possible exception of Tunisia (at least for now), the “democracy deficit” in that region, whether governed under monarchies, the military, or Islamic rule, is something that only the Arabs themselves can change, and that will mean challenging deeply entrenched patriarchal, tribal and Islamic-dominant traditions where there’s no real separation between “mosque and state.” Liberal democracy is not something that can be imposed or even infused from the outside.
In the meantime, with its high birthrate, increasing “youth bulge,” and extremely poor economic development, the Arab world lurches toward more instability where extremist Islamists like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and others fill the gap, offering disaffected youth both job prospects and a sense of purpose.
The U.S. aims to “defeat” ISIS but, even if it manages to achieve this, what comes after? Yet another radical Sunni group in its place?
Arguably far more dangerous, if less “frightening” on the surface than ISIS, Iran gains more influence in the entire region, to say nothing of what its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ensuing proliferation means – both for Israel and the Gulf States.
As this column appears, one day following the Israeli elections, it will be interesting to see how the Jewish state – the rare island of stability surrounded by havoc all around – manages to safely navigate its way.