Thursday, September 20, 2012

What Is Really Happening In The Middle East -- And Can Obama Handle It?

It's taken a week, but it looks like the media is finally coming around to the idea that the current wave of Muslim riots cannot all be blamed on Mitt Romney.

That being the case, as the smoke begins to clear and the facts are slowly being accumulated, what is actually going on?

Barry Rubin first addressed the issues in his post The Truth About the Wave of Anti-American Demonstrations:
This is not a theological dispute. This is not a therapy session. This is not a contest to say the right things so you get invited to a Washington dinner party. It is a political struggle for power in which the losers end up dead or fleeing into exile or having their diplomats shot dead.
Key to understanding the Muslim riots spreading through the Middle East is that the problem is not a video, but the ideology that is taking advantage of that video.

Rubin notes:
  • There have been several such waves before, in reaction to Salman Rushdie and the “Danish cartoons.” In the end the demonstrations eventually end but without bringing any real political change.

  • The demonstrations are not in reaction to Islamophobia. They are the result of revolutionary Islamist motivated by anti-Americanism, hatred of the West, as well as hatred of Jews and Christians.

  • Freedom of speech in the West inevitably provides pretexts for Muslim outrage, and radical Islamists will inevitably exploit these opportunities -- and when possible, the Islamists will add fuel to the fire, as when they added cartoons to those that appeared in the Danish magazine.

  • Therefore, the problem is not eliminating "Islamophobia." The problem is dealing with an ideology seeking to seize state power, an ideology that knows that encouraging hysterical hatred against the US, the West, Israel, Christians and Jews can be channeled to their benefit.
In a later column, Rubin focuses on Egypt's advance knowledge of the attack on the US embassy:
What happened in Egypt was very simple. The Egyptian government knew that a demonstration would be held by radical anti-American forces, including the local branch of al-Qaida, outside the U.S. embassy. Through the ideology, public statements, past experience, and probably intelligence penetration, it knew they intended to storm the embassy.

The highest levels of the Egyptian government decided not to protect the embassy, in breach of their international obligations. And they knew—or rightly expected—that the Obama Administration would not punish them for behaving that way.
Yonatan Zunger, senior engineer at Google Plus, wrote an interesting post last week, working off of a New York Times article, Spotlight Is on Libya, but Bigger Challenge for White House May Lie in Egypt.

Zunger describes Morsi as walking a tightrope between the US and the Muslim Brotherhood:
But in Egypt, riots attacking foreign embassies have become common, and it's noteworthy that Morsi's government hasn't much acted to stop them. I've mentioned in previous posts how he is engaged in a very complex internal power struggle, both within his country and within the broader Arab world, to assert his authority, take domestic control firmly into his hands (and out of the military's), stabilize the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force backing him rather than as a free-acting rebel group, and establish his and Egypt's preeminence in the Arab world. Part of what this means is that he is very unwilling to challenge the Muslim Brotherhood, or indeed many other radical elements, domestically; which means that if they want to storm the American or Israeli embassies, he will be highly unlikely to stop them.

If this keeps going, this pretty much means the end of America's alliance with Egypt. You can't really have diplomatic relationships with a country that lets your embassy be torched or your diplomats murdered, and if things keep going in this direction, the odds of that happening keep going up.
Hat tip: Kyrinn S. Eis

Among the problems facing Morsi, Zunger lists
  • Egypt's already weak control outside of the Nile valley. The Sinai has been a trouble spot, especially recently with the Bedouin living there and the recent terrorist attacks.

  • Zunger suggests that even withing the Nile Valley itself, with the already weakened military and the geographic remoteness of some areas, some parts of Egypt could become "functionally independent".

  • Egypt's already weak economy relies on the Suez Canal and tourism as its main sources of revenue, making outbreaks of violence a serious problem. and tourism post-Arab Spring hasn't exactly been great. This sort of violence would push tourism the rest of the way down.

  • In addition, a cutoff of economic support from the West could drive Egypt into the arms of Russia or China for its resources. As a result:
    • Egypt would suffer from an even more disastrous economy and rising food prices
    • As a client state, Egypt would be too weak to serve as a counterweight to Iran
    • The Suez Canal would for all intents and purposes be controlled by Russian or China

  • Morsi would be faced with dealing with internal political strains while encouraging controlled riots -- a very delicate balancing act.
Michael Totten echos Zunger's point about the balancing act facing Morsi dealing with radical Islamists. But Totten sees the threat to Morsi coming not from the Muslim Brotherhood, but from the Salafists:
The Salafists have just pulled a similar stunt in Egypt. They are more extreme and therefore less popular than the Muslim Brotherhood government. By ginning up an anti-American mob and forcing President Mohamed Morsi, himself a Brotherhood member, to send riot police after the demonstrators to protect the American Embassy, they were able to make him look like a tool of the West. When push came to shove, Morsi ended up siccing the cops on his fellow Egyptians to protect the interests of the hated "imperialists."

Walter Russell Mead bluntly put it this way: "Moderates who speak against violence or try to cool matters look like American puppets; this is the kind of issue the radicals love, and we can expect them to milk it for all it is worth."
The question is: if you consider the potentially explosive situation in the Middle East a threat to US interests, do you think that Obama's record in foreign policy indicates that he has the capability to deal with the situation?

And if you don't think this is an immediate concern, and your main concern is the economy -- same question.


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