In early 2003, Saddam Hussein’s regional and international allies were all warning him that an American invasion was imminent. Hussein’s reply was basically, “I know Washington’s tone is getting aggressive, but they aren’t going to try to remove me. I’m the only one in the region who is really taking the fight to the terrorists and fundamentalists. I’m the only one in the region putting real pressure on Iran. Despite our differences, they aren’t crazy! There is no way the United States is going to invade Iraq.”
Saddam was gravely overestimating America’s sanity. Forty-five months later, he was hanging from the gallows, his Baath regime dismantled, his country in shambles. The carnage and chaos that followed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq horrified the world.
With the 2008 election of Barack Obama, there was widespread hope that we would see a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy: troops would leave Afghanistan and Iraq, detainees would leave Guantanamo. No more gunboat liberalism. No more wars fought on false pretenses, driven by delusional ideologues, and contrary to American interests. The death of the nebulous global “war on terror” was nigh.
This “hope” proved ill-founded – the promised “change,” ephemeral.
Since Obama took office, the war on terror has dramatically expanded. Nomenclature notwithstanding, it remains global, vague, and unending – increasing its dimensions from the Middle East to West Africa, and the real world into cyberspace with digital pre-emptive strikes. It is a war which continues to be waged at the expense of civil liberties. America continues to drive more people towards extremism than it removes from the field through many of its counterterrorism tactics such as the drone program.
As far as Palestine or Iran are concerned, Ehud Barak said it best: “I can hardly remember a better period of American support and backing, and Israeli cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.”
The astonishing continuity between the Bush II and Obama administrations is nowhere clearer than America’s disastrous foreign policies related to the Arab Spring – policies which were driven by ideology and misinformation, no less under Obama than his predecessor (in fact, many of the same people from the Bush Administration inform policies for Obama).
The Arab Uprisings brought regime change to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and likely Syria; the United States played a decisive role in all of these “revolutions.” And that role was usually to make things worse and more complicated.
The pharaoh, the people, and the generals
The mainstream narrative of Egypt’s 2011 uprising is of a people driving a U.S. ally, Hosni Mubarak, from power. This ignores some hard geopolitical truths.
The U.S. had long developed plans to foment revolution in Egypt and did not necessarily believe in a Mubarak-led future for the country. The 82-year-old despot himself was preparing to step down prior to the January 25 Revolution, and by all indications he was planning to turn over power to his son Gamal. Contrary to public statements of then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton including the Mubaraks in her family circle (much like her successor called Bashar al-Asad a “dear friend” and now supports his overthrow), leaked diplomatic cables reveal U.S. discomfort with Gamal’s foreign agenda vis-a-vis Tehran and Tel Aviv.
The playboy, soccer fanatic and scion was opposed to military intervention in Iran, and he planned to greatly and unrelentingly magnify the Palestinian issue. Gamal wanted to weaken U.S. leverage over Egypt by strengthening ties with Russia and China. Clearly he was not a stalwart friend of the U.S. However, America’s alliance has always been with the Egyptian military, more broadly, rather than Hosni Mubarak specifically.
For its part, Egypt’s military brass detested Mubarak’s son. There was a general sentiment that hereditary succession flew in the face of Egypt’s 1952 military revolution. Because he was not from the military, many suspected he would curb the army’s influence in the country (or worse, reduce its budget). To the extent that the military’s influence in Egypt was undermined, this would reduce America’s leverage in Egypt, as well.
The iconic revolt centered on Liberation Square in Cairo forced Mubarak from power, but was it really a popular movement that toppled Mubarak? During the revolutionary chaos, there was a marriage of convenience to interrupt the Mubarak dynasty — a goal convivial to both Egyptian and American elites. The U.S. retained their influence in the region, and the generals maintained in power, fueled by billions of dollars annually in American aid. Initially, the coup seemed like a masterstroke of realpolitik.
Post-revolution, the military was entrusted with running the country — a Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF)acted as a caretaker government. However, the U.S. then pressured the military into holding free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, and to empower the civilian government. This was obviously not the intent of the SCAF in the aftermath of the “revolution.” And it was a tactical error on several levels:
First, the United States called for parliamentary and presidential elections before Egyptians had ratified a constitution which defined these officials’ powers, responsibilities, and checks/balances relative to the military and judiciary. And so, these elected officials could not meaningfully do their jobs upon being elected—as it was unclear what their jobs were or how they were to be performed. Moreover, this vagueness would later be systematically exploited by the “deep state” in order to prevent the elected government from exercising any real authority, thereby entrenching the status quo.
Egyptians should have first instead elected/appointed a body to draft the constitution; once this document was ratified, it would have been sensible to elect a civilian government. Beyond this priority error, policymakers failed to understand that talk about democracy, rights, and freedoms is vacuous absent functional institutions and a robust civil society; pushing for them prematurely will only destabilize the country. The Americans should have pressured the SCAF to allow these institutions to flourish, rather than forcing the electorate to make weighty and polarizing decisions during a moment of profound uncertainty (incidentally, this is the same sort of error policymakers made in Iraq and Afghanistan in the preceding decade). It is unlikely that following this strategy would have dramatically changed the election results, but it would have given them a different sort of legitimacy, and rendered the resultant government much more effective. U.S. policymakers, for their part, were laboring under a series of severe, innately bipartisan, and wholly American ideological delusions:
These strategists bought into and bolstered the international media’s framing of the protestors as non-religious devotees of capitalist dogma and Western-style democracy — a prime example of the resilience of Orientalism. Egyptians, so conceived, would celebrate their liberators and follow the example of Western political, cultural and economic systems. While acutely aware of the Muslim Brotherhood, strategists believed the “ground game” they had set up to foment unrest in Egypt would effectively push Western-oriented liberals into power by the ballot. Had these assumptions panned out, paired with America’s continued leverage over the military, the United States would have enjoyed dramatically increased influence over Egypt.
Of course, this is not the way things played out.
As in Iraq, so in Libya
The justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq was to bring democracy to a decades-old dictatorship — and to hold said dictator responsible for his crimes. This was, almost verbatim, the justification used eight years later for regime-change in Libya. Even more, the U.S. deployed the same general tactics: a light footprint strategy kicked off by a “shock and awe” campaign, followed by the establishment of a compliant “transitional” government. As with Iraq, the invaders moved quickly to secure rights over Libya’s oil, forging deals with the government they, themselves, put in place.
However, the light footprint strategy depends on substantial buy-in from the local population. As in Iraq, Washington had four basic assumptions: we would be welcomed as liberators; the people would rise up and support Western armor and soldiers; the demonized Arab dictator would quickly fall in the face of our overwhelming power and popular support, and that liberated Libyans would eagerly embrace the new government we installed. As in Iraq, these same four assumptions proved false.
NATO was sucked deeper and deeper into Libya because there were few military or government defections, Moammar “Mad Dog” Gaddhafi didn’t fold quickly, the people did not rise up against him in substantial numbers, and he closed in on Benghazi despite the no-fly zone. Even after NATO stepped up its military involvement and began arming and training the rebels (whose numbers were augmented by AQIM affiliates), allowing the opposition to make advances on the regime, Libyans often refused to support them with food, water, or supplies. And so, as with UNSCR 1441, various NATO allies were forced to overstep UNSCR 1973, thereby violating international law (although who is going to hold them accountable, with the U.S. on their side?).
After Gaddhafi was brutally murdered, the new government in Tripoli was not overwhelmingly embraced. In fact, the people of Sirte refused altogether to submit to the National Transitional Council, prompting the new government to shell the city “into the Dark Ages” — exactly what Gaddhafi had planned for rebellious Benghazi. As in Iraq, contemporary Libya is anything but a paragon of democratic transition. Large swaths of the country remain essentially ungoverned, corruption is rampant, war crimes continue against minority groups, and the violence and instability has spread to the broader region. That is, the similarities between Libya and Iraq are not constrained to justifications and tactics, but to outcomes as well. As in Iraq, the intervention in Libya was a disaster—it is still not widely appreciated how catastrophic it truly was.
The Damascene conflagration
As unrest spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the “calculus” of the U.S. was that Israel could be strengthened and Iran and Hezbollah could be hurt by eliminating the al-Asad Regime in Syria. They were confident of the Ba’ath dynasty’s quick collapse and rebirth as a liberal and secular state.
Ironically, part of Washington’s hope was that replacing the Syrian regime may help return Iraq to the “America’s column” instead of its current alignment with the “Axis of Resistance.”
As was the case in Egypt, the U.S. had been sowing the seeds of unrest in Syria for years. Wikileaks cables reveal that the U.S. had begun cultivating opposition groups against the al-Asad regime, inside Syria and around the world, as early as 2006. These policies continued under Obama. As conflict erupted in Syria, the U.S. attempted to create a shadow government (the Syrian National Council), comprised largely of expatriates, pro-Western ideologues, and Washington insiders, handpicked years before. Due to America’s obvious imprint, both this government and its successor enjoy little credibility with the Syrian people, or with the opposition forces on the ground.
Even should Bashar be deposed, it seems implausible that a “football dad from Texas” – Ghassan Hitto, the Syrian-American IT Executive from Dallas who is now the SNC’s prime minister — will end up governing Syria.
In Iraq, Sadaam Hussein was said to be a sponsor of terrorism, and a threat to the world because of his supposed WMD program. The same branding was attempted on Bashar al-Asad, and it was equally (in)accurate. As with Libya and Iraq, the U.S. believed Syrians loathed Bashar, the rebellion was popular, and the regime’s collapse was inevitable and imminent. In fact, none of these were true. Yet the U.S. designed their Syrian strategy around these falsities, relying on half-measures and “light footprints,” believing these would be sufficient to topple the regime. They interfered with negotiations within Syria, saying there could be no dialogue until Bashar resigned. As a result, U.S. involvement in Syria propagated and escalated the violence, rather than stopping it.
Realpolitik of kings
As their ideologically-driven Arab Spring policies began to blow up in their faces, U.S. policymakers swung in the opposite direction regarding the rest of the region.
Western powers have continued to actively prop up the region’s monarchies, despite their repressive policies – especially in troubled Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia brokered a deal to have President Saleh step down in Yemen – to be replaced by his Vice-President, himself in power for decades. There has been little-to-no political reform in Yemen since, and the country remains highly unstable.
This hypocrisy of calling uncompromisingly for democracy in Egypt, Libya and Syria, while unwaveringly standing by these other repressive regimes (even collaborating with them to overthrow said dictators) that brutally stomp out the very sort of protests and aspirations the U.S. has ostensibly been endorsing – it is not lost on the people of the MENA region, and it is not endearing.
In short, the U.S. response to the Arab Spring has exacerbated anti-American sentiments in the region, weakened Western allies, and strengthened al-Qaeda. Stable, secular governments have been replaced by tumultuous, sectarian and partisan transnational struggles. By supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Gaddhafi, and Bashar al-Asad, America has sent the message that they are not to be trusted: they will dethrone allies when it suits them. This double-dealing will damage U.S. diplomacy around the world for the foreseeable future.
While a good deal of the developments in the region were, of course, beyond U.S. control, America’s confused foreign policy played a decisive role in ushering in these outcomes – policies driven by the same myths, ideologies, and failed tactics which defined the Bush II Administration.
Maybe G.W. should be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, too.