Jeffrey Goldberg at TheAtlantic has a fine piece in this month’s issue on the many shades of the Arab Spring revolutions and how America fits into that mix. It is worth a full read but I will give my thoughts:
Throughout his piece, Goldberg delves into the matchstick nation that started the Arab Spring: Tunisia. He also explores the nuanced group, The Muslim Brotherhood, and how he is unsure whether they are good for the future of many Arab nations post-Arab Spring.
Ben Ali’s (former leader of Tunisia) wife, Leïla Trabelsi, an arriviste hairdresser who would dispatch government airplanes to Saint-Tropez for shopping trips, carried herself as if she were the uncrowned queen of Carthage. Her daughter and son-in-law maintained a mansion of extraordinary size and tackiness on the Mediterranean, whose grounds included a very Uday Hussein–esque enclosure for a pet tiger named Pasha. On at least one occasion they sent a government aircraft to Europe to fetch their favorite frozen yogurt. Before they fled to Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali and his wife reportedly looted the Central Bank, taking as much as a ton and a half of gold bullion. All told, the family may have stolen billions of dollars from the treasury. Thirty percent of young people in Tunisia are unemployed.
One of the main threads in this piece is the careful picking and choosing of who America sides and supports and who it leaves behind. I wondered about this in a previous post but Goldberg does a good job exploring these tough questions:
And of course, American diplomats understood that there was utility for the United States in maintaining close relations with Ben Ali. Like Mubarak (and even the late-stage Qaddafi, who enjoyed a several-year period of détente with the U.S.), Ben Ali was a foe of Islamic radicalism, and his intelligence services provided not-inconsequential help in the American campaign against al-Qaeda. “Whenever we raised issues of political freedom or corruption, the answers were always the stock answers: ‘We’re threatened by the Islamist party, we’re facing extremists, you Americans don’t understand that we’re your only true friends.’”
Of course, various American administrations, embracing the “realist” notion that stability in Middle East countries brought about through repression could be maintained in perpetuity, accepted Ben Ali’s self-interested analysis of his centrality to the struggle against terrorism, even though Tunisia has the most secular of North Africa’s populations, and one of the most highly educated.
The Jordanian monarchy represents the sort of regime the United States finds itself defending. It is not the most difficult regime in the Middle East to defend—throughout the early stages of the Arab revolt, Bahrain’s royal family, engaged in the often violent suppression of the country’s Shia majority, was the problem child of the American monarchy-maintenance program—but Jordan is still governed in a manner inconsistent with the spirit of Tahrir Square, a spirit appropriated by President Obama and Secretary Clinton whenever they speak of the Arab desire for democracy.
Hillary Clinton, as one would expect, doesn’t think much of the charge that the administration is engaged in a sustained campaign of hypocrisy. As the administration’s point person on the entire set of issues roiling the Middle East, she is perceived in dramatically divergent ways. In Cairo, many democracy activists believe she was overly coddling of Mubarak; at the same time, she is the object of an intense lobbying campaign by leaders of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, who fear, according to ambassadors and foreign ministers I have spoken with, that she has become some sort of moralizing neoconservative. One Gulf official I spoke with asked me earnestly if Paul Wolfowitz, the leading neoconservative theoretician of the previous presidency, was now serving as her adviser. I mentioned to Clinton that she is seen in some quarters as a kind of wild-eyed Wolfowitz. “Oh, no, not that!” she said. “Call me wild-eyed, but not that.”
When I asked her how she squares the inconsistency—working to build democracies in some countries while keeping incompetent monarchs on their thrones in others—she rejected its very existence.
“I wouldn’t accept the premise,” she said. “I think we believe in the same values and principles, full stop. We believe that countries should empower their people. We believe that people should have certain universal rights. We believe that there are certain economic systems that work better for the vast majority of people than other systems. I think we’re very consistent.”
The U.S. needs to work with the monarchies to help them stay ahead of the unrest brewing in their kingdoms, Clinton said, but even if they don’t take American advice—and she was adamant (and the record does, in fact, show) that Hosni Mubarak was offered a great deal of advice that he consistently ignored—the administration will live with what she refuses to see as inconsistencies.
“We live in the real world, and there are lots of countries that we deal with because we have interests in common, we have certain security issues that we are both looking at,” she said. “Obviously, in the Middle East, Iran is an overwhelming challenge to all of us. We do business with a lot of countries whose economic systems or political systems are not ones we would design or choose to live under. We encourage consistently, both publicly and privately, reform and the protection of human rights. But we don’t walk away from dealing with China because we think they have a deplorable human-rights record. We don’t walk away from Saudi Arabia.”
I noted that the Chinese seem frightened by the possibility that the forces unleashed by the suicide of a Tunisian peddler could reach Tiananmen Square. “They’re worried,” she said. “They’re trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it, but they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.”
If it is true, to cite one of President Obama’s favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotations, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice; and if it is true that history will sooner or later catch up with the Chinese Communist Party, then why isn’t it also true that history will soon catch up with a collection of superannuated desert monarchs? The answer came, elliptically, when I asked Clinton whether she would be sad to see the disappearance of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Not long ago, Clinton had been criticized for suggesting that Assad himself might be a “reformer,” though she acknowledges that Assad is anti-American in some very consequential ways (and not only in his service to Iran). “Depends on what replaces it,” she said, her answer combining disdain for Assad with a realpolitik understanding that some things out there are, despite the promise of the Arab Spring, potentially more dangerous to U.S. interests than certain dictatorships. For people who have known only dictatorship and who yearn for democracy, this is a hard swallow.
Striking this balance—understanding when the United States absolutely must support leaders it dislikes intensely—will remain the key foreign-policy challenge for the Obama administration, and perhaps its successors, in the coming years.
Now, on to the Muslim Brotherhood. I at first wasn’t down on them. I thought the revolution in Egypt that ousted Mubarak was good. However, I am having seconds thoughts:
The Muslim Brotherhood is a global organization with autonomous branches, some more radical than others (the terrorist group Hamas, in Gaza, is a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, for instance). There is a diversity of opinion, but those who affiliate with the Brotherhood believe, generally, in the primacy of Muslim law; in the supremacy of Islam; and in the idea that women and men should play their traditional roles in society. They also tend to believe that the West (and Israel, the country they consider a Western outpost in the Middle East) seeks, through conspiracy, to undermine their way of life. American analysts are spending a great deal of time studying the Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere (the Brotherhood’s Jordan branch, the Islamic Action Front, is that country’s most potent opposition political force), and there is some debate, in and out of administration circles, about the true views of the organization, especially in Egypt. Since the Arab revolution began, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown signs of fracturing along ideological lines, but its leaders have proved somewhat adept at playing politics, particularly that aspect of politics in which hard questions are ducked.
It is worth remembering, particularly at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood is attempting to soften its image, that the group’s essential platform remains unchanged. The Muslim Brotherhood’s avowed creed is “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Quran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
I asked Clinton whether she worried about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, particularly as it related to the future of women in the Arab Middle East. “Well, I think we don’t know enough yet to understand exactly what they’re morphing into. For me, the jury is out,” she said. “There are some Islamist elements that are coming to the surface in Egypt that I think, on just the face of it—they’re coming out of jails, coming out of the shadows—are inimical to a democracy, to the kind of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience that was the aspiration of Tahrir Square.”
This was, if anything, an even more measured answer than one expects from Clinton. But in this fluid period, when there is a reasonable chance—not a large one, but still a reasonable one—that the Muslim Brotherhood might splinter, or perhaps even find itself in vigorous competition with more-secular-minded parties, Clinton and Obama recognize that the Brotherhood could turn harsh American criticism into a campaign advantage, particularly among more rural, poorly educated, and traditionalist voters.
Finally, neo-conservative nation building under the frame of democracy seems to be the outlook of America towards the world. I never would have thought Hillary Clinton to buy into this, but then again it might not be a bad policy in some ways:
“What I want to see is the freedom to choose,” Clinton said. “My model would be our own country. Women are able to dress as they choose in accordance with their own personal desires, and I would like to see this available for women everywhere, so that there is no compulsion.” The Obama administration has maintained a flexible, even positive, attitude about the hijab (unlike the French government, which sees covered women, and particularly fully veiled women, as a threat to the country’s national security, and to its cultural identity). In a speech delivered in Cairo in 2009, President Obama, in the course of attempting to reset America’s relations with the Muslim world, even boasted of America’s tolerance for the hijab:
Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union … That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.
This particular assertion in the Cairo speech was not met with joy by some Middle Eastern women’s-rights activists I spoke with at the time, women who believed that the U.S. should do nothing to celebrate the hijab—something that many Muslim women hope to shed when they come to America.
When Clinton talked to me about the hijab, however, she made clear that an attempt to pressure women in any way to cover themselves—anything on “the continuum of compulsion”—would represent a red line for her. “When people start to say that there are certain things that women should not be permitted to do, and the only way we can stop them is pass laws, like you can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, or you can’t vote … that’s a red line, and that infringes on the rights of women. Therefore I am against it. Any society in the 21st century that is looking toward modernization, and certainly [any society] claiming to be democratic, needs to protect the right to make these choices.”
This was a blunt message, delivered, quite obviously, in the direction of conservative religious forces; the secretary of state, correctly, sees the forced imposition of the hijab as a proxy for the ascendance of fundamentalist Islamism. So I asked her about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and of parties espousing ideologies similar to that of the Brotherhood. As winter turned to spring, it was becoming clear in Egypt that the Brotherhood, whose strength was downplayed by most Western commentators during the early days of the revolt in Egypt, was emerging as a power broker of surpassing importance.
On my most recent visit to the Middle East, I traveled from country to country asking essentially the same question of many different people: How could the United States best serve the interests of democracy and stability? Not a single person I spoke with believed that America was in decline; to a person, everyone agreed that American power was potent. Salafists believed it was potent and malevolent; secular democracy activists believed it could be marshaled benevolently. The most eloquent answer came from Ali Salem, a free-thinking Egyptian playwright whose plays and essays were periodically banned by the ancien régime. I met Salem in a café in the Mohandessin neighborhood of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile. While we talked, various cartoonists, columnists, and Libyan resistance leaders joined us. Salem is an unusual figure, even among democracy activists in Cairo—he is frankly Americaphilic, in part because he was brought to the United States as a young man through a State Department visitors program. He was bursting with ideas about the roles the U.S. could play in the Middle East—in education, in agriculture, but mainly in teaching leaders about how power corrupts, and about building political systems that resist that corruption. “I believe you have a great thing,” he said. “The great thing is, you have a president for four or eight years, and then out. If you are an enemy of the minister of culture and he bans your plays, you will be banned for only four or eight years. The beautiful idea is to limit the damage one human being can do to another. It’s a beautiful idea. Do you know how beautiful it is?”
This all does come with an ironic contradiction (thanks to Joe Lieberman and John McCain for the example):
En route to Tunis, I had stopped off in Jordan, where I paid a visit to the royal palace. Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman had passed through a few weeks earlier, to see King Abdullah II. Their visit, I quickly learned, was simultaneously a source of bemusement and irritation for the Jordanian government. The two senators, of course, advocate an assertive foreign policy, and both are associated with neoconservative striving for robust and quick democratization of the Middle East. “They came in and said that Jordan should open up its political space for more parties, and be more aggressive about democratization within the parameters of a constitutional monarchy,” a senior Jordanian official told me. “And then they said, ‘But whatever you do, don’t allow the Muslim Brotherhood to gain more power.’ So they want us to be open and closed at the same time.”