January 30, 2011

The 3:00am call from Cairo?

Al Jazeera image in Cairo with caption:
Urgent - Tens of thousands pour into Liberation Square, and the Army secures the area
The handheld placard reads: Leave, Mubarak!

During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Hillary Clinton asked voters who they would want to handle a phone call at 3:00am warning of a crisis - her or Barack Obama. Given recent and ongoing events in the Middle East, I believe the phone is ringing off the hook. How the Obama Administration handles that call will determine the future of much of American foreign policy in the region. Let's hope they get it right. Judging from the formulation and execution of American foreign policy in the last two years, I am not sanguine about the outcome.

A look back at the President Obama's foreign policy efforts in the region since he took office in January 2009 reveals a lackluster record (I am being kind). His repeated attempts to engage Iran and Syria have yielded no results. Iran continues to fund, train and equip terrorist and insurgent groups that have killed American citizens in the past and are killing American troops now, not to mention its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program and quest to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran has emerged as the primary power broker in neighboring Iraq, at American expense. Its designated "prince" (amir) Muqtada al-Sadr may someday be the most powerful man in Iraq. (See my earlier piece, Al-Sadr returns, stronger than ever.)

The President is committed to the complete withdrawal of American forces from Iraq by the end of the year. That may not be a wise move. With Iran continuing to make progress towards a nuclear weapons capability and asserting its influence throughout the Persian Gulf, it is important that the United States maintains a power projection capability and a physical presence in the region. Iraq, situated between Iran and Syria, is the perfect place to do just that.

Syria, once fairly isolated after its troops were forced to leave Lebanon in 2005, now again exerts more influence than any other country over its smaller neighbor. Against the advice of the U.S. Senate, the President used the recess appointment option to dispatch a new ambassador to Damascus, a post vacant since 2005 when Syria was almost certainly complicit in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafqi al-Hariri in Beirut. While I favor maintaining diplomatic relations with Syria, we do not need to reward Syria's actions by elevating our diplomatic relations to the ambassadorial level. (See my earlier piece, Recess appointment of ambassador to Syria.)

Syria's rising influence in Lebanon is coupled with Hizballah's proxy takeover of the government. After co-opting a mixed coalition of Shi'a, Armenian and Maronite Christian groups, the terrorist organization was able to bring down the pro-Western government of Sa'ad al-Hariri (son of the slain Rafiq) and have a pro-Hizballah candidate nominated as the new Prime Minister of the country. Najib Miqati now has 60 days to form a new government, which no doubt will be controlled by Hizballah, and no doubt advised by Hizballah's masters in Damascus and Tehran. Lebanon's days as a U.S. ally may be numbered. (See my earlier pieces, Lebanon - failure of American leadership, and Collapse of the Lebanese government - prelude to war?)

Obama's policy efforts vis-a-vis Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have not advanced American interests in the region, in fact, I submit that they have damaged them. While Westerners tend to regard the willingness to talk, or as the President says, "engage," as a sign of strength, Middle Easterners regard it as a sign of weakness. It is the proverbial "blink" that emboldens our antagonists.

All that said, it was the revolt in Tunisia, an American ally, that is more akin to Hillary's hypothetical 3:00am phone call. The country remains in a state of turmoil, but its plight has been overshadowed by events in Egypt. Of some concern is the return of Rashid al-Ghanushi, leader of the Tunisian Islamist party al-Nadhah (Renaissance) after 22 years in exile. It is doubtful that he will be able to establish an Islamic government in Tunisia, and he claims he does intend to try, but the increased influence of Islamists in Tunisia should not be ignored. The Obama Administration needs to work with the interim government to ensure that at best Tunisia remains an American ally, and at worst does not become an Islamic Republic. (See my earlier piece, Tunisia - a snapshot of the future?)

However, as alarming as the situation in Tunisia was two weeks ago, it is the events in Egypt now that are the most disconcerting. It seems inevitable that President Husni Mubarak will have to step down. The question as I see it is not if, but when - and how. This is one foreign policy issue that President Obama must get right. Egypt is one of America's major Arab allies, on the same level as our relationship with Saudi Arabia. With a population of almost 85 million people, it is the heart of the Arab world. It was also the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel and has been helpful in the peace process.

Although Mubarak has taken steps that he hopes will allow him to remain in power, it is becoming apparent that his days in office are numbered. His appointment of a vice president for the first time since he assumed office in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat may buy some time, but not much. His choice for the position was Lieutenant General 'Umar Sulayman, Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service and former Director of Military Intelligence. Sulayman is well-regarded in Egyptian and international circles, but his close relationship with Mubarak may cause the demonstrators to reject him as a viable successor to Mubarak.

The impending collapse of the Mubarak government has also overshadowed alarming events in two other American allies: Yemen and Jordan. There have been popular demonstrations in the streets of both countries. Jordan, a very close ally of the United States in the war on terror, was the second Arab country to recognize Israel. Yemen has been somewhat useful in American efforts to combat al-Qa'idah elements operating in the Arabian Peninsula.

Islamists may try to step into any power vacuum created in any of these countries. It is regrettable, but understandable. While the governments of these countries are American allies, the people may or may not be. In many cases, an unpopular government is assisted in maintaining power by the United States, for whatever reasons. The actual reasons are not important, the perception is, and any perception that the United States is supporting autocratic regimes does not portend well for future relations if and when there is a change of government.

The Obama Administration has received the 3:00am phone call. The answer needs to be quick and clear. We cannot afford the loss of any of these American allies.