In The Media

America’s crash and burn in the Arab world

by Derek Burney and Fen Hampson

September 17,  2012

The recent riots against American embassies in twenty countries in the Middle East and North Africa that were stoked by an offensive video about the life of the prophet Mohammed have stripped bare any pretense that Washington has a real foreign policy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may have “jumped the gun” with his attack on the Administration for “apologizing for American values,” but the Obama Administration did itself no favors when it back-tracked on the limp bleat from its Embassy in Cairo. One also has to wonder what kind of message President Obama was trying to send the Egyptians when he said that Egypt is “neither an ally nor an enemy.” It was an extraordinarily inept comment — Carteresque some would say. If he was trying to get the attention of Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, to shut down the protests, this was surely not the way to do it.

Obama’s persistent attempts to turn the other cheek has left him with no jaw at all. And America’s stature in the Middle East is now as tattered as their flag. Their only real ally in the region, Israel, is increasingly bellicose and set on doing its own thing. Jerusalem may well decide to take unilateral military action to stop Iran from getting the bomb. Should that happen, Washington would be dragged feet first into another war in the Middle East that it certainly doesn’t want.

Egypt takes U.S. money and provides neither support nor sympathy. America is widely distrusted and disliked in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere in the country. Its government is trying to have it both ways as it grapples with its own Salafist problem while making sure that the U.S. money spigot stays open in an economy that is dominated by the military and still in terrible shape after the revolution. What sort of message is Cairo sending a delegation of high-powered American business executives who just days before heard pleas from its leaders to invest while touting the country’s prospects as a democratic Islamist state?

America’s enemies are getting more rambunctious by the hour. According to the New York Times, al-Qaeda’s lethal branch in Yemen over the weekend called on its members to fight to “expel the embassies of America from the lands of the Muslims” and “to set the fires blazing at these embassies.” The mightiest military in the world is singularly incapable of dealing with nut bar terrorists. Meanwhile, Syria continues to implode and the world watches as thousands of its citizens are killed and flee en masse to other countries.

The unfortunate U.S. ambassador to Libya and his colleagues paid the ultimate price. Their noble sacrifice demands actions not words. The Arab Spring is degenerating swiftly into a nightmare of horrific proportions just as the many revolutions that preceded it did in Russia, China and even France. The only exception, in fact, was the American Revolution. But the values and principles that underpinned that success no longer inspire others because America’s capacity to lead is ebbing and its model to the world is losing its appeal. As we are witnessing now daily, Islamist religious fervor does not always travel well with principles of tolerance, justice or fundamental human rights. Words without action will not change that.

It is most unfortunate that a global flashpoint, one that calls out for firm, coherent U.S. leadership is being undermined (mangled?) by partisan electioneering and sniping from both presidential aspirants. If we expect any sensible result from the current chaos in the Middle East, the polarization of American politics should, as former U.S. senator Arthur Vandenberg said in the early days of the Cold War, “stop at the water’s edge.” A divided American voice serves no constructive purpose and will only encourage more of what we have already witnessed.

The whole squalid affair calls for steely resolve not platitudes meant to placate foes who have no concept of tolerance, accommodation or apology. Feeble attempts to disassociate from zany utterances only encourage more protest and more violence in the streets. The West is indeed experiencing a clash of civilizations and it is one in which civility is the major casualty. President Obama is learning a hard lesson in realpolitik a very hard way.

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