Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

US confusion on the Middle East

Whoever wins the forthcoming US presidential elections, he or she will be influenced by the erroneous ideas of US think tanks on the Middle East region, writes Abdel-Moneim Said 

Al-Ahram Weekly

For all practical purposes, the Republican Party primaries in the US are over, now that Ted Cruz and John Kasich have withdrawn, leaving Donald Trump the virtually certain Republican presidential elections candidate. Soon we will be watching the rivalry between him and the Democratic Party candidate who, as I have written before, is almost certain to be Hillary Clinton.

So, in this regard, there are no surprises and nothing new to add to what I have written previously in this column. We will be returning to these two candidates frequently in the future. What concerns us today is that regardless of which of the two of them eventually emerges as the winner, he or she will be influenced by the prevailing ideas in US think tanks about our region.

These can essentially be summed up into three types. The first holds that the Middle East is no longer as significant as it was to the US, especially given the decline in oil prices, the stability of Arab-Israeli relations, and the declining importance of the Suez Canal to world trade in view of the emergence of other alternatives.

The second holds that all the cumulative problems and crises in the region, from the first setbacks in the so-called Arab Spring through the impediments to democratic experiments and the eruption of civil wars in the region, have fallen on the shoulders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The third maintains that the US will have to revise its policies towards the region as a whole and these two countries in particular. This third notion is hardly new and was voiced before, following the failure of the Obama administration’s efforts to broker Arab-Israeli peace during US President Barack Obama’s first term in office and in tandem with the beginnings of the US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. At that time it was argued that the US needed to turn its attention to its interests in Asia.

 More recently, however, the call for revision has intensified with the publication on 4 April of an article by Tamara Wittes, director of the Brookings Institute’s Centre for Middle East Policy, urging Washington to disengage from its close alliance with Egypt. Under the title “The United States can’t save Egypt from itself,” Wittes calls on the US to relinquish its “largesse” towards a country that no longer satisfies requirements for domestic reform and readjustment.

There are many details in the article that should be discussed at length, but what is noteworthy here is that this is not an individual piece of scholarship or opinion, but rather part of a political drive being undertaken by the US Working Group on Egypt, which recently sent a letter to Obama explicitly asking him to tell Egypt that if it does not respond to the Group’s demands on human and civil rights the US will sever all forms of assistance to the country.

But there is at least one fact that apparently no one in Washington is aware of: there has never been a formal treaty between Egypt and the US outlining clear mutual obligations. What has existed has been a form of “partnership” centring around certain issues pertaining to the Arab-Israeli peace process, stability in the Middle East, and fighting communist expansion in the region during the Cold War, a campaign in which Saudi Arabia and Egypt played central roles that have never received the recognition due to them by US elites.

Never at any moment in this relationship has there been anything that might give the US or the Working Group on Egypt the right to engineer political and social circumstances in Egypt, including the right to confer special status on some 25 NGOs out of the 46,000 civil society organisations that exist in the country.

Any objective appraisal of the relationship between the two countries would hold that the assistance that the US has given Egypt has been for the realisation of joint interests which have certainly had concrete benefits for the US. In any case, the amount of that assistance has come to only a small percentage of the foreign currency assets that Egypt has obtained from its own resources or from its fellow Arab countries. 

Simultaneously, one cannot help but raise an eyebrow at the criticism Wittes levels against the Egyptian leadership, which “resists learning from the hard-won American experience in effective counterinsurgency”. The US record in Iraq, Afghanistan and, most recently, in Syria, in spite of its technological prowess, does little to inspire emulation. And Wittes’s article and the Working Group’s letter to Obama make no mention whatsoever of US responsibility for the current state of the Middle East due to its decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

Egypt strenuously cautioned the US against that invasion, which was launched on the basis of reasons fabricated by a group of US neo-conservatives and which had catastrophic consequences.

The Brookings Institute has also hosted a discussion circle, moderated by Wittes, in which Senator Chris Murphy called for a reassessment of the US-Saudi relationship in the light of negative impacts on US interests. Other panellists at the same event, held on 21 April, included Bruce Riedel, currently a Brookings Fellow.

Those present held Saudi Arabia responsible for the current situation in the Middle East, whether due to the war in Yemen or to the country’s political creed. Once again, there was no significant mention of the impact of American actions on the region, whether the US defeat in Iraq, the political and military vacuum it created and that was filled by Iran, or the anarchic and ethnically and politically discriminatory system of government it established that has not the remotest connection to democracy or human rights.

Nor did the panellists mention the way that US actions in the region had paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State group and its move from Iraq into Syria, or how it had opened the doors to the Iranian alliance with Hizbullah and with Russia in order to set in motion the destruction of Syria in cooperation with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

In their discussions, the panellists insisted on citing the number of those facing humanitarian catastrophe in the Yemen conflict as 20 million and the number of those facing malnutrition as ten million, when there is nothing to corroborate these figures and they make no comparison with the similar wars in Iraq and Syria in which the US is an active participant.

They further omit any mention of the fact that while the Saudi-led military effort has laid the foundations for an end to the war in Yemen on the basis of a UN Security Council Resolution, everything is still up in the air and indeed is getting worse in Syria and Iraq.

The American confusion with regard to the Middle East will not be solved by blaming Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Nor will it help the US to deny or ignore its responsibility for what has happened in this region over the past two decades. It would be simple ignorance to claim that a superpower such as the US would act towards any country in this region without consideration for US interests first and foremost.

But instincts tell us that a certain anxiety has begun to take hold among US political think tank circles, and this is now creeping into the political parties and Congress. It has been stirred by the spectre of an effective Arab coalition in which Saudi Arabia and Egypt play central roles, a coalition that uses the instruments of economic and military might, combined with reforms, to rebuild states and societies on foundations made at home in this region and on the basis of its own choices.

I will conclude with the suggestion that perhaps it is now necessary to make this clear to Washington, especially since the process of shaping the mentality of the forthcoming administration has already begun by the very same groups that were instrumental in the formulation of the past US policies that have wreaked such disastrous results on the region.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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