Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Different (mis)perceptions

There are at least three ways of explaining official US attitudes towards the Middle East, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

My colleagues, friends and I frequently discuss or attend discussions with members of the Egyptian political, bureaucratic and cultural elites, evoking US foreign policy and its attitude towards terrorism, Political Islam, jihadism and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Basically, there is a confrontation between three different sets of analysis. The first and most prevalent thinks the US does not get the whole picture wrong, knows what it is doing and is doing what it does on purpose. But of course there are many variations when one comes to more specific analysis.

The most popular version is also the least plausible: that the US has orchestrated a plot to destroy the Arab states and to divide them into cantons to make Israel more secure (or to be able to steal the region’s resources). Some will tell you that the Washington elite thinks the jihadists are not going to be eradicated in the region, so the real problem becomes how to manipulate them in order to guarantee that they do not attack the US and instead focus on its enemies.

According to these views, Qatar has helped the US to solve this problem, from which derives its current impunity. Others will tell you that the US, especially during the former Obama administration, betted on “moderate Islam” to stabilise the region. It asked for, and got, guarantees regarding Israel.

Such experts differ on Washington’s analysis: for some, nobody could seriously believe that the Muslim Brotherhood was moderate, and the Washington’s elites were perfectly aware of the nature of this movement, nevertheless trying to empower it to neutralise the threat and hold it accountable. For others, including at some points myself, the majority of American academics had got it wrong, and this explains their “bet” on the Brotherhood. Within this sub-group, people have been quarrelling, trying to assess the different American elites’ positions.   

Another set of views focuses on Washington’s alleged pragmatism. In discussion, some say that the US had no preconceived plan and developed no serious strategy to deal with the Arab Spring. It did not anticipate it, was quite surprised by developments, and its policies were essentially reactions, trying to side with the winner, except if that winner was especially ugly (and in this region many winners are).

The US did not help the Brotherhood, such analysts say, but was willing to work with the movement once it had won elections. The US hostility towards the ousting of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi is not to be explained by a supposed association with the Brotherhood movement, but was instead due to a kind of sanctification of democratic mechanisms. The one who won democratic elections should be allowed to govern until the next elections, these people held.

Political memory may have played a role here, notably from former president Allende and his replacement Pinochet in Chile, but there has been neither sympathy nor a bet on the Brotherhood, some say. Yet, the evidence works both ways: it seems quite clear that the Obama administration did not foresee the upheavals of the Arab Spring, and it probably failed to elaborate a strategy to deal with them. This would probably have been impossible, with too many unknowns and “unknown unknowns,” as former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld liked to say.

However, to claim that nobody in the Obama White House or administration advocated for an alliance with Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood is a bit far-fetched. Rightly or wrongly, many in Cairo felt, with some excuse, that former US ambassador Anne Patterson had a soft spot for the Islamists and tried to help them.

Some of my friends and colleagues have problems with the idea of a US failure to elaborate a strategy: even the smallest African countries have strategies, one of them said. My own views oscillate between two opposite lines of analysis: the Obama administration’s policies were reactive, I sometimes think and there was no grand strategy. Alternatively, the Obama administration had strong ideological biases and a stubborn strategy in the “pivot to Asia” and reality had to knock it hard to get it to reconsider its often bad choices.

The third set of analysis (and I admit having belonged to this camp) focuses on radically wrong perceptions, with academic production contributing to producing a deeply misleading picture. I have written, and I will probably continue to write, papers describing the underlying assumptions of western academia. The nation state was an alien implant created by the great powers, for example, and one that has utterly failed to deliver. Political Islam is the only “authentic” ideology, as it is not affected by westernisation. People have problems with secularism (true), so they long for Political Islam. Religion plays a major role in this region, so theocracy may be an option.

All these ideas are sometimes heard, but brilliant monographs cannot compensate for the lack of an accepted general picture. The pictures that do exist are inspired by the works of the analysts Edward Said, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, which only see one side of the coin, plus the whims of political correctness.

The Islamists and their allies have done a very good job at lobbying and helping western academia, and they are now reaping the fruits. Yet, this set of analysis is also partial. Many experts may be blind, but others are not. National security experts have their biases, but these are different from those of the “Arabists”. Bureaucratic infighting and conflicting interests play a major role. The sad truth seems to be that terrorism is just one issue among many others.

In a panel held at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracy in the US in May, a former US official said the US had two objectives in the Middle East: countering Iranian expansionism and fighting Sunni terrorism. He seemed to be implying that the former required joint efforts by all the Sunni powers, which itself required caution when the US was dealing with regimes suspected of sponsoring terrorism.

Many former officials said Qatar was by far the most accommodating country regarding its US base, and that it had not put restrictions on its use. Former US defence secretary Robert Gates said military relations between the US and Qatar were excellent, but that all other types of relations were a matter of concern.

Listening to the conference was illuminating and frustrating. The evidence of wrongdoing looked overwhelming and was not contested. Yet, quick or tough action was described by one of the speakers as “emotivism” trying to disguise itself as toughness. This was not statecraft, he added. He advocated “constant diplomatic pressure” instead, while being evasive about what to do if this brought no results.

Nobody retorted that what you are advocating is defeatism disguised as statecraft.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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