x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Simplistic or plain dumb? US leaders still miss the point

The US view of the situation in Egypt continues to be shaped by political partisanship at home and loyalty to Israel.

When US politicians are forced to discuss critical Middle East matters, more often than not their remarks display ignorance, are shaped by politics instead of reality or are just plain dumb. Commentary about the popular revolt in Egypt provides a case in point.

There is no doubt that events in Cairo are momentous and deserve a response. In the case of most US politicians, however, struggling to come up with the right TV sound bite doesn't require actually knowing anything about Egypt. All that is needed is to frame the issue through either the prism of partisanship or unbending loyalty to Israel. The result has been a string of comments, some bizarre, others dangerous.

The new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, for example, cornered the market on incoherence and contradiction when she observed: "Mr Mubarak should immediately schedule legitimate, democratic, internationally recognised elections," adding "the US should learn from past mistakes and support a process which includes candidates who meet basic standards for leaders of responsible nations - candidates who have publicly renounced terrorism, uphold the rule of law, [and] recognise Egypt's peace agreement with the Jewish state of Israel."

In other words, Ms Ros-Lehtinen supports a democracy where the Americans, not the Egyptians, set the criteria. Not quite respect for the will of the people, but still better than the former Republican speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's partisan tirade. Mr Gingrich, who is reported to be considering a presidential run, is remarkably uninformed about most Middle East issues. He gets by largely because he sounds so authoritative and always has a clever quip or two.

In Mr Gingrich's assessment of the current situation, "there's a real possibility in a few weeks that Egypt will join Iran, and join Lebanon, and join Gaza, and join the things that are happening that are extraordinarily dangerous to us". Having thus displayed almost no understanding of the Middle East, Mr Gingrich goes on to ridicule President Barack Obama's "naivete". In his words, Mr Obama "went to Cairo and gave his famous speech in which he explained that we should all be friends together because we're all the same. Well I think there are a lot of differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of us".

Mr Gingrich's parting shot was to state that the administration "doesn't have a clue". Then, in order to demonstrate that he does, Mr Gingrich offered this "advice" to Mr Obama: "Study Reagan and Carter and do what Reagan did and avoid what Carter did."

The need to take partisan shots has been demonstrated more by some than others, but both Democrats and Republicans seem to need to make it all about Israel. The Republican presidential aspirant and former governor Mike Huckabee, for example, used the occasion of the unrest to make his 15th trip to Israel where he lamented: "The Israelis feel alone ... and they cannot depend upon the United States, because they just don't have a confidence that the US will stand with them."

The Democratic representatives Shelley Berkley and Anthony Weiner both have publicly worried about "Arab democracies". Mr Weiner observed: "Israel has been seared by the experience recently of seeing democracy elect their enemies." Ms Berkley added: "The reality is this: democracy as we think of it and democracy as it is often played out in the Middle East are two different things."

What is so disturbing is that there have been plenty of instances in the past few decades when American political leaders had the opportunity - and the imperative - to learn more about the Arab world. They failed. As a result, they continue to frame critical issues as mere politics. Transformative unrest in Egypt and Tunisia are seen as an Israeli issue or a partisan club.

The reality, of course, is that Egypt is about Egypt. No one in Tahrir Square is waiting for Mr Gingrich's, or even Mr Obama's, blessing. It was just silly when Eliot Abrams, a neo-conservative ideologue from the Bush White House, wrote last Sunday that George W Bush deserved credit for the unrest in Egypt, since he had advocated for democracy during his presidency.

The reality is more complex. Mr Bush spoke about democracy, but pursued regional policies that were so unpopular that allied Arab governments further subdued their own populations to counter the political cost of friendship with the Americans. When only 12 per cent of people in Egypt (and even less in Jordan) have a favourable view of the United States, the relationship can be an embarrassment.

US politicians need to hear their own voices, but they should realise that until they have a basic understanding of Arab countries, they do not have a constructive role to play. They can threaten to withhold aid and make more demands, but the wiser course would be to assert US principles, take a more humble back seat role and let this situation play out.

The Egyptians in Tahrir Square may cheer if the United States pulls the plug on their president, but they won't be cheering for the United States. When the dust settles, US regional policies will be the same and Arab anger at those policies will not have changed either.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute