State of the Union

Eyeless in Gaza (and Elsewhere)

I am having a great deal of difficulty in understanding what is wrong about what is occurring in Egypt.  “Lost the Middle East,” hell, we lost it forty years ago when we starting adopting policies that were contrary to what most people in the region considered to be reasonable. 

Egyptians are rising up because they want to be able to have leaders who represent them rather than foreign interests.  Sounds good to me and there was a document back in 1776 that said pretty much the same thing and did not have a caveat about one’s having to be a Christian to aspire to such.  Is an Egyptian peasant less a human being than I, “all men created equal?”  Is an Egyptian some unthinking beast who, lacking an Ivy League education, cannot possibly understand the fine distinctions that I hear incessantly on television from the American “experts” who explain what is going on on the streets of Cairo?

Now what will happen if Mubarak goes (Inshallah!) and there are eventually elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood wins.  By all accounts they are relatively moderate and are unlikely to declare war on any of their neighbors.  They do not threaten the United States.  They are unlikely to close the Suez Canal as they need the income.  So?  What are they going to do?  They might hold the popular referendum they have promised that will reverse the peace agreement with Israel, but if they were to become belligerent Israel could squash them in short order.  I have seen one pundit suggest that they could use their large army to seize Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, but does anyone really consider that a possibility?  Any new Egyptian government will be confronted with the same problems confronting the old Egyptian government, namely feeding the people, though hopefully with less corruption that will make the feeding process more equitable.  Most governments in the second and third world manage to muddle along without declaring war on all their neighbors, particularly when they don’t feel threatened by the sole remaining superpower.  Get it?  Leave them alone and they will leave us alone and will hopefully sort out their own problems.  There is a persistent strain of punditry in the US that thinks that we know better than anyone else when it comes to the proper ordering of the universe, but it is clear we don’t.  We have effed up repeatedly in the past fifty years.  Every time I hear Hillary speak it is like the proverbial fingernails going across a blackboard and if I were an Egyptian I would wonder who the hell authorized you to tell me and my people what to do?

So praytell, if anyone on TAC can tell me why we should be talking about losing anything and why we should feel we have to get engaged to “moderate” Egypt’s development to produce a correct outcome, please enlighten me.

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The Middle East’s New Normal

Even if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak succeeds in clinging to power, that is not going to change the writing on Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia that the whole world has been reading: The days of the Middle Eastern autocrats, allied with the U.S. and open to some sort of co-existence with Israel — in fact, of the entire American hegemonic project in the Middle East — may be numbered.

But whether it comes to promoting its values or to securing strategic interests, U.S. clout in the Middle East has been shrinking now to its lowest point since the end of the Cold War when the U.S. had emerged as the only global player in the region: The “peace process” is all but dead. The radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s movement has joined an Iran-oriented Iraqi government. The new Lebanese Prime Minister was selected by Hizbollah. Turkey is pursuing a foreign policy independent of Washington and Iran is continuing to flex its muscle in the Levant and the Persian Gulf.

So it was not surprising that the only mention of the Middle East in Obama’s State of the Union Address was a brief reference to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq — to American retreat from the region.

The political crisis in Egypt – and the no-win policy choices available now to Washington — demonstrates the dramatic erosion in U.S. influence there. The Mubaraks of the Middle East may still be able to count on the support of their militaries and Mukhabarts (secret services). But having lost their legitimacy as national leaders they are threatened by the eruption of a political volcano — masses of young angry people. Their lowest common political denominator that brings them together is the hostility towards the U.S. which had helped keep their reviled rulers in power for so many years, and to Israel, which is perceived to be America’s partner in crime and the oppressor of their brothers and sisters in Palestine.

If Obama decides to save the American client in Cairo by giving Mubarak a yellow light to rescue his regime, he will only guarantee that the U.S. will become the main target for the demonstrators in Egypt and other Arab countries, igniting more anti-American violence and raising the costs of U.S. intervention in the region to the stratosphere.

But if Obama allows Mubarak to fall – even if that takes the form of a peaceful transition of power – the U.S. would not be able to control the outcome of the revolutionary change in Cairo that even under the best-case-scenario is bound to strengthen the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

Preventing the downfall of Mubarak and the collapse of the rest of the pro-American dominos in the Middle East could give the U.S. some breathing space for a diplomatic salvage operation – perhaps through the revival of Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, the co-opting of Syria into the U.S. sphere of influence, and the fixing of our relationship with Turkey — which could help prevent total loss of U.S. power and credibility in the region.

But even under such a best-case-scenario, we need to recognize that we are at the start of a long period in of a big disorder in the Middle East: regimes will fall, nation-states will split, regional coalitions will come and go and new global players will compete with the U.S. for influence. In short, a Middle East in which the U.S. is going to find it more and more difficult to re-establish order.

Leon Hadar is a research fellow at The Cato Institute.

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Rand Paul Speaks

There has been curiously little coverage of Senator Rand Paul’s recent comments regarding foreign aid.  Appearing with Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday night, he called for an end to foreign aid and, when challenged by Blitzer, twice confirmed that he would include Israel.  That a United States Senator would call for eliminating aid to Israel is astonishing given the general consensus prevailing in Congress that the assistance is sacrosanct. And considering that Israel is one of the wealthiest countries in the world (with a per capita income at the same level as Great Britain) and is alleged to be going through an economic boom, there is little justification for continuing the largesse, which is largely driven by domestic politics in any event.  The argument that Israel needs the money to maintain its military edge is also a red herring as Tel Aviv currently enjoys complete military superiority in all areas over all of its potential opponents. It also has the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal.

For his audacity, Senator Paul has been attacked by the Israel Lobby and by both Democrats and Republicans.

Now that the Obama Administration is considering withholding the $2 billion that Egypt receives annually, a sum granted in 1979 when Sadat abandoned the Palestinians and signed a peace treaty with Israel, it would perhaps be a good opportunity to reexamine all US aid to the region.  The US economy’s sorry condition should be demanding such a reappraisal in any event if the Republicans are sincere about budget cutting.  It would be nice to see some prominent Republicans and conservatives lining up in support of Rand Paul.

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Start the Twitter Revolution Without Me

I liked Daniel Larison’s comments on Egypt (which is not surprising) and also David Ignatius’s recent op-ed on the topic (which surprised me). These are cool headed responses by grown-ups to the crisis — in contrast to the never-ending orgasmic vibrations that we’ve been getting from all our pseudo- laptop/iPad revolutionaries on the left and on the right who are just dying to watch live 24/7 blood flowing in the streets of Cairo, Sana’a Beirut, etc. and are urging Washington to force Mubarak and the rest of our friendly Mideast autocrats out of power. And after getting rid of them have – the wet dream of our Democracy Promoters – free and open elections, the sure cure for all of humanity’s ills and the common baldness.

Last time we’ve tried doing that was in Iran in 1979 with the Shah – Jimmy Carter pressing the Iranian military to desert the Pahlavis. And later on we actually tried to do “regime change” in the region, and ended up helping wacky pro-Iran Shiite groups win elections in Iraq and Lebanon (and then have the Hamas getting elected in Palestine). In all these cases we became responsible — in practical and moral terms — for the election of characters that are not members of our fan club (which is understandable) — but who also hate women, Christians, Jews, gays, etc. and who are as ruthless and corrupt as their predecessors (surprise!). All things considered, if you were member of any of the above groups and others, you would probably rather be in the Shah’s Iran and in Saddam’s Iraq.

But, hey, our Democracy Promoters are so, so certain that the “good guys” will eventually win in Tunisia or Egypt (if they’re so smart, why can’t they tell us who is going win the next presidential election here). And when a Muslim Middle Eastern country does have a free and open election (Turkey), they don’t seem to like the guys who win.

As some who you are aware, I’ve been a long-time critic of the interventionist U.S. policy in the Middle East (including towards Egypt) and have called for a U.S. strategy of “constructive disengagement” from the region (including from Egypt). But my guess is that trying to get directly involved and taking active role in the current political turmoil in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast is a bad idea. It could actually raise the costs of U.S. intervention in the future (like being forced to free the hostages in the U.S. Embassy in post-revolution Sana’a and Cairo). So what to do? Let’s try exercising some benign neglect, say, a mix of a wait-and-see approach and quiet diplomacy, as we also start a major reassessment of long-term U.S. policy in the Middle East, ensuring that we won’t be subsidizing and protecting the Mubaraks of the future.

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Three Cheers for Egyptians & Al Jazeera!

It is great to see so many people with the courage to risk all defying a corrupt, oppressive government.

It is great to see the party headquarters of a corrupt regime going up in flames.

And it is great to see American politicians squirming as the authoritarian tool they have bankrolled for 30 years totters and looks heading for a fall.

This is one of Al Jazeera’s finest hours. Their English-language coverage is superb. (hat tip to Dennis Dale)

While much of the American government has derided Al Jazeera for years, that network has actually been more forthright against oppression than has the U.S. government. Ahmed Mansour, the journalist who interviewed me for an hour (in Arabic) back in 2006 was beaten by Egyptian security forces while reporting in that country. But he never backed down.

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State of the Right

State of the Union speeches are sort of like listening to cheating husbands apologize to their wives. Not only are we told that any past mistakes are yesterday’s news and the worst is behind us, but in an effort to show how things will be different we are given a laundry list of promises that paint a rosier future. Nobody paints rhetorically better than Obama and the smooth talking president’s oratory skills were on full display this week-just as they likely will be next year when things won’t have substantively changed one bit.

The most significant change Tuesday night was to be found not in Obama’s speech but in the Republican rebuttal to it. Congressman Paul Ryan is considered a rising star within the GOP due mostly to his image as a budget-cutting maven, a philosophy gaining traction across the nation and certainly within the Republican Party. Ryan was tapped precisely for this reason and his speech was dedicated almost exclusively to economic matters. Ryan made a plea for fiscal restraint and a pitch for limited government. He warned that America’s growing debt was unsustainable and that a day of reckoning may be upon us. Many said Ryan’s speech was “gloom and doom” compared to Obama’s. Others said the congressman was too vague and perhaps, in some ways, he was.

But one thing is certain: Ryan’s speech was definitively conservative — something that has been noticeably absent from the Republican Party for quite some time.

If today, House Majority Leader John Boehner talks about cutting government spending it wasn’t long ago that he was embracing it wholly under a Republican brand. So was the rest of his party. During the George W. Bush years, the size of government and the accompanying debt doubled, something most conservatives barely noticed-and often encouraged-due to the party’s almost singular fixation on foreign policy. The greatest “threat” to our republic, we were told ad nauseam, was terrorism in the form of “Islamofascism,” with conservatives often using Cold War-reminiscent language to address what has always been a significant, yet certainly much less menacing threat, given Al-Qaeda’s size and capabilities compared to the Soviet Union. Read More…

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The Egypt We Paid For

As I write in snow-covered Westchester, New York fires are breaking out in perhaps a half dozen National Democratic Party headquarters in Egypt. Unfortunately, most of our media and commentators are woefully ignorant of the state of Egypt. But that doesn’t stop them from picking a new leader and rewriting their constitution. Here is Jackson Diehl in today’s Washington Post:

Mubarak should step down and be replaced by a transitional government, headed by ElBaradei and including representatives of all pro-democracy forces. That government could then spend six months to a year rewriting the constitution, allowing political parties to freely organize and preparing for genuinely democratic elections. Given time to establish themselves, secular forces backed by Egypt’s growing middle class are likely to rise to the top in those elections – not the Islamists that Mubarak portrays as the only alternative.

The whole exercise is galling, considering that Mubarak has been under U.S. sponsorship for decades, and has received strong support even until the last two weeks. Does Diehl think these angry Egyptians want another U.S. crony? But it is worse than that – most of the commentary on Egypt is based on a fantasy that the opposition to Mubarak would naturally be a rights-respecting, pro-market democratic movement.

Four years ago, during some of the headiest days of Bush’s “democracy agenda”, our own State Department officials in Cairo told me that truly liberal parties in Egypt were “interesting to talk to but totally insignificant.” The idea that there is some huge reserve of middle class support for liberal democracy is an untested fantasy. Notice Diehl doesn’t bother to name any of the pro-democracy forces. Does he really believe the New Wafd Party – which has never held more than a few seats- is ready and to lead Egypt? Or does his hope lie with the National Democratic Front which began in 2007? All the elected Egyptian officials over the past two decades who can be fairly described as liberal could fit comfortably in my living room. The reason Diehl wants months for these parties to organize is that the only organized opposition force in Egypt is the Islamists, whom Mubarak has been unsuccessfully trying to appease in the past three years.

Any non-NDP government will include (or be lead by) the anti-American, anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood, who regularly get a strong percentage of the vote in Egypt, though they are a banned party. Diehl may dream of a secular middle class, but the Brotherhood’s support comes mainly from the professional classes – doctors, lawyers, and other trade associations. The image of Muslim extremists as the poor, disenfranchised and easily-led is another self-flattering Western fantasy. This morning, reports are coming in that the Brotherhood is joining the protests and giving them a distinctively “religious” character.

This is no defense of the NDP or Mubarak. They have had an impossible needle to thread. They could choose to cede some political space to the Muslim Brotherhood and-by definition- lose legitimacy. Or they could continue to repress them and the other small opposition groups and… lose legitimacy.

The fact, rarely mentioned this past week, is that the United States sends over $800 million in direct economic aid to Egypt along with $1.3 billion a year in military aid. The guns being used to beat protestors this week were bought with American tax dollars. Foreign aid to poor countries like Egypt creates both the impression and the reality that the government is more solicitous of its Ameircan sponsor than of its own people. Foreign aid also makes governments less anxious for domestic prosperity, and Egypt’s chronically high unemployment is a sure sign of that. We send this aid to ensure a stable non-Muslim Brotherhood controlled Egypt that is friendly to the United States and Israel. If the riots and protests lead to the fall of Mubarak’s government, we’ll have neither. Egypt is more likely to turn into a base of operations for Al-Queda than it is a liberal democracy. We’ve been making payments on such a disaster since 1975.

In the meantime, prepare to hear more pundits rhapsodize about Elbaradei and the coming reign of righteousness, democracy, and prosperity in Egypt. It is the same tune we heard for Chalabi in Iraq, Karzai in Afghanistan, and free elections in Palestine.

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Sputnik Moment or GM Moment?

What America was to the world in 1950, General Motors was to the nation.

It was the largest and most successful company with the largest number of employees. It paid the highest wages and contributed more in taxes than any other company. During World War II, no company had contributed more to the Arsenal of Democracy and America’s victory.

As one wag said, “For every shell Krupp threw at us, GM threw back four.” The cars GM built — Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac — were the best in their class. But in the second half of the 20th century, something happened.

General Motors’ executives repeatedly caved in to United Autoworkers’ demands for wages, health benefits and pensions the company could not afford over the long term. Small and inexpensive foreign cars were allowed into the U.S. market and, as their quality improved, began to flood the U.S. market.

GM executives failed to see what was happening, and if they saw it, to act upon the new reality. Thus, at the end of the last decade, the U.S. government acted.

The company was taken into receivership. Shareholders and bondholders of GM were wiped out. Hundreds of GM dealerships closed. Now, a new GM has come out of bankruptcy to takes its place as one of a dozen major auto companies in the United States and the world.

The failure of GM was a failure of leadership. Executives lacked the vision to see the challenges coming. They lacked the courage to resist the demands of union bosses. They lacked the decisiveness to act, when sacrifices were clearly required.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama called this America’s “sputnik moment,” like that October day in 1957 when we suddenly awoke to the reality that those backward Russians with their communist system had beaten America into space.

But listening to the president speak Tuesday night, one came away with a distinct impression. Either Obama does not believe this country is careening toward a fiscal and financial crisis, or he refuses to pay the political price of imposing the sacrifices needed to lead the country back from the brink. Read More…

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Keynesian Hangover

S&P downgrades Japanese debt:

How Japan dug itself into such a hole is a story of reckless spending. Japan is bristling with bridges, roads and dams, the legacy of vast government spending to lift the economy from a severe downturn following the bursting of its stock and asset price bubble in 1990. But even while amassing the developed world’s largest debt over nearly two decades, Japan has failed to spark a convincing recovery.

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Double Slap at Vets in SOTU

I already described not only how brief the President’s remarks on national security/foreign policy were on Tuesday night (I counted the word “veteran” twice in the 7,000-word speech, for example), but how his characterization of the military “progress” in Afghanistan was perilously close to being a bald-faced lie.

Now the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) are accusing President Obama of using what little breath he expended on veterans to exaggerate  an existing program at the VA:

In a statement from the IAVA, Wednesday:

“Last night, veterans did not hear a concrete plan of action to tackle the most urgent issues facing our community. We heard nothing on veteran unemployment and nothing on the staggering rates of military and veteran suicides.

In addition, the President said, ‘Veterans can now download their electronic medical records with a click of the mouse.’ This is not true. Contrary to the President’s comment, the only thing a veteran can download from the VA’s system are pharmaceutical records and personal health information that he or she has self-entered. This is a critical distinction.

The President’s comments are misleading to service members, veterans and the American public who now think that this system is in place and functional, while it is clearly not. In the last 24 hours, IAVA has heard from hundreds of members who have expressed surprise and outrage that the President could get something so wrong in arguably the most important speech of the year.

The White House has yet to respond to the IAVA on this charge. In the meantime, it is always surprising to me the short shrift that veterans are given in these speeches. But it turns out that Obama is no different than President Bush — he obviously fears that drawing attention to the needs of the veteran somehow reflects badly on his war policy, and as we gather from his very brief display of falsehoods and gratuitous exaggeration on Tuesday, the impulse to manage perception of the war in the face of glaring failure continues to override everything else, especially the truth.

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