When US politicians are forced to discuss critical Middle East matters, more often than not their remarks either display an ignorance of facts, are shaped more by political needs than reality, or are just plain dumb. Commentary about the popular revolt in Egypt provides a case in point.
There was no doubt that the events in Cairo were momentous and, therefore, deserving of response. In the case of most US political leaders, however, struggling to come up with the right TV sound bite didn’t require actually knowing anything about Egypt. All that was needed was to frame the issue through either the prism of partisanship or that of unbending loyalty to Israel. The result was a string of comments, some bizarre, others dangerous.
The new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, for example, cornered the market on incoherence and contradiction when she observed that “Mr Mubarak should… immediately schedule legitimate, democratic, internationally recognised elections,” adding however that “the US should learn from past mistakes and support a process which includes candidates who meet basic standards for leaders of responsible nations — candidates who have publicly renounced terrorism, uphold the rule of law, [and] recognise Egypt’s… peace agreement with the Jewish state of Israel.”
In other words, Ros-Lehtinen supports a democracy where we (not they) set up the criteria. Not quite “respect for the will of the people,” but still better than former Republican speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s partisan tirade.
Gingrich, who is reported to be considering a presidential run, is shallow and remarkably uninformed about most Middle East issues. He gets by largely because he sounds so authoritative and always has a clever quip or two. In Gingrich’s assessment of the current situation, “there’s a real possibility in a few weeks… that Egypt will join Iran, and join Lebanon, and join Gaza, and join the things that are happening that are extraordinarily dangerous to us.”
Having thus displayed almost no understanding of the Middle East, Gingrich goes on to ridicule US President Barack Obama’s “naiveté”, charging that Obama “went to Cairo and gave his famous speech in which he explained that we should all be friends together because we’re all the same… and there are no differences between us. Well, I think there are a lot of differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of us.”
Gingrich’s parting shot was to state that the US administration “doesn’t have a clue”. Then, in order to demonstrate that he does, Gingrich offered this “advice” to Obama: “study Reagan and Carter and do what Reagan did and avoid what Carter did.”
If the need to take a partisan shot is central to some, more important for others, both Democrats and Republicans, is the need to make this all about Israel. Presidential aspirant and former governor Mike Huckabee, for example, used the occasion of the Egyptian uprising to make his 15th trip to Israel where he lamented that “the Israelis feel alone… and they cannot depend upon the United States, because they just don’t have confidence that the US will stand with them.”
Representatives Shelley Berkley and Anthony Weiner, both Democrats, worried about “Arab democracies”. Weiner observed that “Israel has been seared by the experience recently of seeing democracy elect their enemies,” while Berkeley shockingly added “the reality is this: democracy as we think of it and democracy as it is often played out in the Middle East are two different things.”
Trying to sound smart and concerned with defence matters, and failing miserably, was Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr Jackson said that “US military technology can’t fall into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood or… Iran’s allies in Egypt. Our partnership with Egypt has provided [them] with a technological military advantage… it must be secured and not allowed to fall into the hands of enemies.” A number of other members of the US Congress focussed on the threat they believe the uprising poses to the Suez Canal and therefore to the price of oil. They, therefore, are pressing the White House to use this crisis to focus on renewing efforts to pass an energy bill in Congress.
What has been so disturbing about all this is that there have been plenty of instances during the past few decades where American political leaders had not only the opportunity, but were challenged with the imperative, to learn more about the Arab world. Despite this, they failed. As a result, they continue to frame critical issues as mere political issues. A transformative uprising in Egypt or Tunisia comes to be seen as being about Israel, or as a club to use against one’s opponent.
The reality, of course, is that Egypt is about Egypt. No one in Tahrir Square is waiting for Newt Gingrich’s, or even Barack Obama’s blessing. And the silly US TV anchor, who recently tried to get the Muslim Brotherhood spokesman to say that he would recognise Israel as a Jewish state, was just that — silly.
And just as silly was Eliot Abrams, one of the neo- conservative ideologues-in-residence in the Bush White House who wrote an article last Sunday attempting to give Bush credit for the uprising in Egypt, since Bush advocated for democracy while Obama has not. The reality is more complex. Bush did speak about democracy, but then went on to pursue regional policies that were so wildly unpopular with the Arab public that governments friendly with the US felt compelled to subdue their own public’s outcry in order to maintain their friendship and support for the US. Arab leaders found that their embrace of and cooperation with the US could be politically costly. Demands on their friendship only served to delegitimise their rule at home. When the US’s favourable rating is 12 per cent in Egypt (and lower still in Jordan), cosying up to America can be quite costly.
US politicians may need to hear themselves talk, but they need to realise that, in fact, until they have at least a basic knowledge of the Arab world and work to change America’s policies across the region, they will have no constructive role to play. They can threaten to withhold aid and make more demands, but the wiser course might be to simply assert US principles, take a more humble back seat role and let the situation play out. The Egyptians in Tahrir Square may cheer the US’s pulling the plug on their president, but they won’t be cheering for the US. When the dust settles, US regional policies will still be the same, and Arab anger at those policies, and the US, will not have changed either.
JAMES ZOGBY is president of the Arab American Institute.