US in the Middle East: who will lead Egypt? Why Libya? And where is all this going?

Ryan Lizzer has written a very insightful article about the Obama administration’s foreign policy, particularly in the wake of the recent “Arab Spring”. As always, read the whole article, but here are a few points that are worth noting:

How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy : The New Yorker.

I asked why they weren’t upstairs with the Secretary of State. “Hillary was against the revolution from the beginning to the last day, O.K.?” Mohammed Abbas, of the Muslim Brotherhood, said. “Obama supported this revolution. She was against.”

Abbas and Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a member of the liberal Democratic Front Party, said that if Obama was upstairs they would meet with him. Abbas lit up at the idea. “We respect Obama’s attitude toward our revolution, and when we were in Tahrir Square we were following all of the leaders all over the world and what were their views,” Abbas said.

That’s called “having your cake and eating it too” – Clinton was pro-Mubarak and Obama was pro-revolution. Lizzer doesn’t play this up so much, but it’s really quite smart. It means that whoever ends-up on top in Egypt, someone in the US looks good.

That said, there was a pessimistic note about the outcome in Egypt:

…The activists she [Clinton] did meet with were not as organized as she had hoped. “As incredibly emotional and moving and inspiring as it was,” she said, speaking of the demonstrations, “I looked at these twenty young people around the table, and they were complaining about how the elections are going to be held, and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists are so well organized, and the remnants of the old National Democratic Party are so well organized. I said, ‘So, well, are you organizing? Do you have an umbrella group that is going to represent the youth of Egypt? Do you have a political agenda?’ And they all looked up and said no. It made my heart sink.”

This is the difference between idealistic protests and realpolitik. Millions of pro-democracy activists pouring into the squares to reject dictatorship is all well and good, but there needs to be a movement, there needs to be someone competent to vote for who will deliver the reforms they want. Egypt does not seem to have done this at all – Mubarak is gone, but his lackeys are still in power and the only other discernible organised bloc is the Muslim Brotherhood. If they are shooting for a democracy, neither of these groups are exactly ideal.

The next point addresses the question on everybody’s lips: Why only Libya?

“I get up every morning and I look around the world,” she [Clinton] said. “People are being killed in Côte d’Ivoire, they’re being killed in the Eastern Congo, they’re being oppressed and abused all over the world by dictators and really unsavory characters. So we could be intervening all over the place. But that is not a—what is the standard? Is the standard, you know, a leader who won’t leave office in Ivory Coast and is killing his own people? Gee, that sounds familiar. So part of it is having to make tough choices and wanting to help the international community accept responsibility.”

Clinton insisted that the U.S. had to have regional support before it took action, and emphasized that it was crucial that U.N. action had been supported by the Arab League. “So now we’re going to see whether the Security Council will support the Arab League. Not support the United States—support the Arab League. That is a significant difference. And for those who want to see the United States always acting unilaterally, it’s not satisfying. But, for the world we’re trying to build, where we have a lot of responsible actors who are willing to step up and lead, it is exactly what we should be doing.”

Again, tough call. Where do you intervene militarily and for what reasons? The West does not have enough combined strength to solve every problem in the world (besides, we tried that – it was called colonialism, didn’t work out so well in the end), so how do we pick our battles? Regional support is not a bad basis, but the problem is that it discriminates against people who are being slaughtered by governments who are popular with their neighbours – Sudan, for example, has been able to act with near impunity because they are popular in the Arab League and the African Union.

This ties in to a bigger issue – the Obama administration is not sure where it is going.

…Obama has emphasized bureaucratic efficiency over ideology, and approached foreign policy as if it were case law, deciding his response to every threat or crisis on its own merits. “When you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you’re going to get yourself into trouble,” he said in a recent interview with NBC News….[Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski added, “He doesn’t strategize. He sermonizes.”

Obama managed to beat even the dogmatic Bush in lofty rhetoric, but what exactly is his vision for the world? His policy direction has been foundering from day one and we have seen many reversals. There is some merit in trial-and-error policy and at least he is willing to learn from his mistakes, but the lack of a unified vision ultimately makes his administration look weak and indecisive, even when they are pushing for military intervention.

Obama is up for re-election soon, maybe this will force him to come-out and state a solid foreign policy. He’ll need it if America has any hope of re-taking its leading role in international affairs.

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