Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

An American conspiracy?

Do carelessness and incoherence best explain US foreign policy in the Middle East region, asks Tewfik Aclimandos


I have been discussing narratives of the 25 January Revolution in Egypt put forward by journalists close to the state apparatus and looking at one crucial point: the idea of a conspiracy theory.

A colleague has contested my description of the causes of the Egyptian revolution. His remarks were useful, and I will consider them when I come to write my own narrative of it. However, I will not do so now.

What I will say here is that I am wary of, maybe even fed up with, the distinction between a supposedly genuine revolution by the Egyptian people and a not so genuine one launched by people who had evil intentions and rushed to seize the opportunity to achieve their goals.

Drawing this distinction is a constant temptation, and it involves a decision to identify one’s aims were those of the majority and to see those of others as being lies or proof of evil designs. I could accept this way of analysing things if there had been daily opinion polls able to identify the swings of public opinion. However, such polls do not exist, and it is a safe bet to say that in 2011 a majority of the population had had enough of former president Hosni Mubarak and his family.

It is also clear that this majority wanted radical change. However, what type of change it wanted is not so clear, and we do not know much about the general mood. We can identify which slogans appealed to segments of the population, knowing that sometimes this is enough while often it is not.

It should be clear that the distinction between a genuine revolution and the evil manoeuvring of those who wanted to bring about a non-genuine one is not a monopoly of journalists close to the state apparatus and their mentors. The young revolutionaries in 2011 and the Muslim Brothers were also fond of it. I prefer to describe the situation as a competition between many actors to define what the assertion “we want radical change” meant in 2011 in order to win the hearts of the country’s no-longer silent majority.

In my article in Al-Ahram Weekly last week I showed that there was no grand US plan to topple Mubarak in 2011. However, this does not mean that successive American administrations did not play a role.

Commentator Lawrence Freedman once wrote that American foreign policy was very dangerous even for its own clients and allies, because it could not come to terms with the fact that these allies had different cultures and different political systems. Americans want to work with regimes that look like theirs, Freedman wrote. As a result, they always try at the very least to reform allied regimes.

They are often oblivious to the fact that this is neither a reward nor an incentive to work with them. I would also add that this was particularly worrying earlier this century as neither former US president George W Bush nor former president Barack Obama thought strategically enough.

That said, we can understand the US urge to avoid putting all its eggs in the same basket, especially if we bear in mind that the economic forecasts were worrying for the future of the Middle East at the time and indeed remain so today. If we add that many US experts were telling the country’s political elites that the old regimes in the Arab world were the causes of all its ills and that Political Islam was the region’s future, then dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood made sense.

What was stupid was to arrive at a consistently wrong analysis of this political force and its intentions. To cut a long story short, the Americans believed the Muslim Brotherhood when it lied, did not believe it when it told the truth, and kept on betting on improbable things. In any case, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas both felt they had received an American green light in 2011.

The conspiracy theory has another component, which also looks and indeed is absurd. Many journalists have argued that there was an American conspiracy to destroy the Arab armies at the time, to consolidate Israel’s strategic superiority, and to prevent any questioning of the gains made by Israel in the 1967 War. Americans who hear such things are dismayed.

I myself firmly believe that this narrative is wrong. However, let us consider things through the eyes of an Arab security official. In the Middle East, every taxi-driver knows that destroying Iraq in the 2003 US-led invasion meant empowering Iran. Therefore, the destruction of Iraq could only mean either Iranian hegemony or a strong American military presence to counter it.

It is very difficult for Arab officials to accept the fact that a US administration with a widely respected foreign-policy team helped by experts who were supposed to be the best in the world never really considered this outcome. The “evil intentions” explanation looks sounder to them.

The dismantling of the Iraqi military after 2003 was a blunder of such magnitude that it is also difficult for the same officials to believe that the Americans did not foresee the consequences. These consequences for them were logical, natural, and evident. Here also, explaining the US decision in terms of an evil grand design looks more rational than saying “they were simply blind and foolish.”

Consider the 2011 Syrian Revolution through the eyes of the same Arab security official. The Americans did not seem to notice that the enemies of the Syrian regime were providing the jihadists with money and weapons. Worse, Obama kept on saying that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad “must go”, raising the stakes of the conflict.

Surely, the Arab official might have said, the Americans do not want a jihadi emirate in Syria. They may be stupid, but this is too far-fetched. Therefore, the natural explanation was that they wanted to weaken the Syrian army as there seemed to be no other reasonable strategic goal.

When Al-Assad crossed one of the US “red lines”, what was Obama’s reaction? He did not go for intervention in the conflict but chose instead the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. As a result, he weakened Syria’s army and achieved a key Israeli goal.

If he had been serious about human rights, he would surely have selected another course. There were other options. Once the destruction of the chemical weapons had been achieved and the Syrian army irremediably weakened, Obama stopped paying attention to the conflict, and only the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group regained it.

This is not my explanation of what happened, nor is it my interpretation of it. Instead, I would underline the importance of “human rights discourse,” the lack of strategic thinking, the persistence of wishful thinking, the refusal to see that the liberal order cannot solve some problems, the inability to admit that US resources are limited, and the sheer complexity of the events and their dynamics as elements of any explanation.

However, many in the Middle East find the explanation of “evil intentions” more satisfactory than simply one of incoherence and carelessness.

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

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