The president has found his fall guy, his collective fall guy, for his failure to see that several sort-of U.S. allies were in terrible trouble: The intelligence community, we are now told, was to blame. But the truth is that, if anyone is at fault for misreading the Arab world, it is Barack Obama himself.
Not that many other presidents and their administrations have seen these realities clearly. (John Foster Dulles, secretary of state to Dwight Eisenhower, believed he could transform the Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser from a Soviet satrap into a pro-Western republic. Alas, Nasser had other ambitions.) Nonetheless, there is a basic difference between Obama and his predecessors. They wanted to enlist Arab countries in the world of democracies. Obama’s conceit was the other way around. He had little interest in changing Arab governments. Rather, he would get them to admit us into their world. It turned out, however, that Obama’s intimacy was actually just suck-up stuff. Was his narrative, told in his 2009 Cairo speech, of an eighteenth-century treaty between the United States and Tripoli even a simulacrum of the truth? Many people at the speech actually knew the facts. They were not fooled. And, like Obama’s grand emblematic gesture—his graceless curtsy before Abdullah, the monarch of Saudi Arabia—the speech brought the president a good deal of ridicule and not a single diplomatic asset. (The same consequence of the bow before Hu Jintao of China. And the dictator of Russia. His truckling to tyrants is more than a bit creepy!)
Actually, it all began in Turkey, where Obama spent two days near the beginning of his presidency. What possible agenda could he have had to spend two days there? To smooth the path of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s already heavily clericized country to European Union membership? If so, he hadn’t cleared it with the Europeans, who have no interest in seeing Turkey join. In any case, there was nothing reciprocal from the Turks to the president. Not even a vote for a mild economic-sanctions resolution against Tehran in the Security Council.
Of course, it is not only the American encounter with Arab and Muslim governments that has been a coruscating failure. Every item on Obama’s international agenda has come to naught, to say nothing about matters that were of habitual U.S. concern since the administration of John Kennedy, like the fate of democratic capitalism in Latin America or the human rights trajectory of Africa. Even the Russian relationship, apparently smoothed over with an insignificant treaty on atomic weapons, has been roughed up by Moscow’s treatment of its former satellites. The president has also made a fetish of the United Nations, as if Eleanor Roosevelt were still filling it with moral splendor. Worse yet, his U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, has created a cult object out of the organization’s Human Rights Council, retrofitted a few years ago to be more attuned to world realities. Rice could not even prevent the General Assembly from scheduling a tenth anniversary jamboree celebrating the notorious anti-Semitic Durban conference.
Such was the setting—in Washington and the Middle East—when on December 17 Mohamed Bouazizi set himself aflame unto death. Tunisia was ready to blow up, and it did. The French, who have long purported to be the caretakers of Tunisia, were as surprised by the event as my eight-year-old grandson. As I write, there is relative calm in the country. But it is only relative. Yesterday, it seemed as if the ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), a conceit of 23 years, having had all its meeting places closed, was about to be dissolved. A crowd burned a police station, and at least three demonstrators were killed. The prime minister dropped his membership in the RCD, yet remained prime minister.
Anyway, the big protests, the huge protests, were in Egypt. Apparently, the American president was not kept well-informed by the intelligence community. It’s my view, though, that facts wouldn’t have helped him. Obama is burdened by his assumptions, which he takes to be a pretty good approximation of the truth. He certainly did not share in the emotions for an immiserated people who had taken to the streets in the long-time absence of more conventional paths. Their message was “this is not the way to live,” and they had lived that way for more than six decades. This somehow never touched our chief executive. Perhaps he believed that the massive but orderly crowds who greeted him on his 2009 visit were the reality of Egyptian society, poor but not insurrectionary. This reflects a blithe innocence about the cruelties of life. Maybe Obama believed that the Cairenes and the Alexandrians and the masses along the delta as well as the population that is being dragged into the expanding desert will take whatever is shoveled to them.
We don’t know what the next stage in Egypt will bring. There is a chance that the asymmetrical forces arrayed in the country will leave Hosni Mubarak—whom John Bolton correctly stated the president has treated like a “used Kleenex”—in control. Or Suleiman. Or someone else from the republic of generals and colonels. I know that one of the other contenders, Mohammed ElBaradei, who briefly had the inside track with journalists, especially American ones, has not a chance. He is a vain but weak man and, despite his pretensions, was recognized by the crowd for what he is. Another person suddenly nominated by the unknown knower is Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League and former foreign minister of Egypt. He has also been The Economist’s favorite for more than a decade, probably because he can be trusted to hate Israel. Yes, it is “hate” with quotation marks. I doubt, however, that the officer corps wants to lose its weapons for the fourth time. And, anyway, who will pay for such a war?
Which brings us to the Muslim Brotherhood. I wouldn’t count the fraternity out. Everybody concedes that it commands the loyalty of 25 to 35 percent of the people. That could be enough to run the country. But, even if it doesn’t drag itself to the very top, it is bound to be a real player, setting limits on what can be done and fixing absolute minimums that won’t be so minimal at all. This is a civil war in Egypt, although maybe more a cultural war than a political one.
Jordan is also in peril, with perhaps 70 percent of its demography being Palestinian. If you read Ethan Bronner’s recent New York Times pieces from Amman you might well come to the conclusion that the population—not excluding the native East Bankers—actually hates the king and queen, perhaps her more than him. I know that Rania is a fashion sensation and a thrower of lavish parties. But that hardly compensates for an economy that is in every way dysfunctional. Unlike his father, Abdullah has not a second- but a third-rate mind. His Arabic is not better than my Hebrew. What’s more, I am told by reliable sources that Papa Hussein spoke classical Arabic with an eloquence and subtlety that was poetic. I visited the Hashemite monarch several times, once during the middle days of Passover when Jews are forbidden the eating of leavened bread. Hussein had commanded his chef to make proper Passover bread. This was both elegant and transcendent. (Queen Noor had a grievance with both me and Michael Kinsley, who was editor when The New Republic published a slighting story about her majesty. And then someone in our party told the queen, who was having shoulder problems, about a Chinese acupuncturist in Jerusalem, who, I believe, made periodic visits to Amman thereafter.) The country has a long and peaceful border with Israel. Under what circumstances does it stay that way? Remember also that Islamism is far from a dead letter in the kingdom.
There’s turmoil also in Yemen, which my guess is most Americans cannot locate on a map. Still, we have Special Forces there and are fighting a sometimes clandestine, other times quite open war against the soldiers of the Prophet. Hillary Clinton was in the country just a month ago, and she told a Sanaa audience that “there are terrorists operating from Yemeni territory today, ... some of whom, I am sorry to say, are American citizens.” Maybe she thought this was a surprise. In any case, she added that “this is an urgent concern for both of us.” Clinton then went into her routine spiel about Washington wanting “to address the underlying causes of the violence, including poverty and social inequality.” Shall we set a schedule? Let’s say we aim for 2015. OK: 2020.
There is one Middle Eastern country that has experienced little disruption. That is Syria. There is reason for this quiet. Twenty-nine years ago this month, Hafez Assad set the Syrian Army upon Hama, a largish city with a heavy concentration of Sunni adherents to the Muslim Brotherhood. The media didn’t much notice it at the time, but the Syrian military took out some 20,000, and maybe as many as 40,000, people. Robin Wright, an expert on the region, wrote subsequently that this was “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people.” Bashar Assad rules from a tiny minority of Syrians, the Alawites, who are not especially pious. But the Syrian Baath, their political incarnation, has established genial relations with two Shia regimes: one, the ayatollahs in Iran; the other, the huge millenarian Hezbollah cohort that has now taken over Lebanon, leaving the Christians divided and the Sunnis terrorized. Due to Security Council Resolution 1701—which ended the 2006 Lebanon War in a manner that allowed Hezbollah and its two partners, Iran and Syria, to continue pouring weapons into the battle zone—Hassan Nasrallah is now ready to strike at any time. Some Israelis say he wouldn’t dare, so ferocious would be the Israeli response. But who knows? In any event, during Obama’s presidency, the administration has lavished so much attention on Damascus that even I am stunned to see that it has had zero effect.
There is one fact about the manifestations of Arab discontent that has barely been noticed by our oh-so-astute observers. And this is that Israel has played no role in the grievances of the people on the street. Not that they love Israel, surely not. But they recognize their suffering has nothing to do with Jews. These eruptions in the streets of Arab countries are not a Jewish matter or an Israeli matter. They have to do with the contempt of Arab rulers for Arab citizens.
These stormy happenings around the region might have been anticipated by someone in Washington had the president not been fiercely gripped by Israeli settlements in the West Bank and new housing for Israelis in Jerusalem. If we are to believe Al Jazeera—and there is no reason to doubt it—the Palestinians had already forfeited to Israel the most substantial of these. And Israel had long ago, both explicitly and implicitly, given up the heart-and-soul lands of the Jewish biblical inheritance. For whatever reason, the most belligerent Palestinians and Israelis have clung to these issues as if they were the salient obstacles to an agreement. What was actually left in dispute were: first, the modalities of rule in the Old City; second, the ostensible “right of return” of Palestinian refugees unto the fifth generation; and third, recognition by the Arabs of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. I don’t believe that these will be resolved in the near future—and maybe not ever. They are not necessary for long-term calm to prevail. So maybe there won’t be a formal peace agreement. So what?
Amidst all this upheaval, the Johnny-one-notes are still playing the same boring and obsolete tune. In a letter to the president on January 18, when Arab streets were already filled with tanks and tear gas, several dozen of the least distinguished but self-important men and women in public life urged that the United States support a Palestinian initiative in the Security Council condemning Israeli settlements in the territories. This is actually mischief for its own sake.
There are many security matters that have long been ignored by those addicted to the fetish of settlements. These matters are increasingly urgent: the impenetrability of the border between Jordan and the West Bank, the security of the Sinai from insurgence in Egypt, the upper hand of Hezbollah not only on Lebanon’s frontier with Israel but in Lebanon more generally, whether Hamas takes over the West Bank. How safe will Tel Aviv be—let alone Jerusalem and the Galilee and the Negev—if Salam Fayyad is not prime minister of the half-state of Palestine, but a Hamas militant rules and rules for God? This letter on the settlements is so very out-of-date that it is hard to believe it was ever relevant. The same goes for the Obama administration’s policies.
Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief-emeritus of The New Republic. This article ran in the March 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.