Sep 14 2012

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Foreign Policy Returns as an Issue

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Traumatic Memories Resurface

Perception is a potent force in foreign policy.

In 1980, the US economy was nearly as large as the next three world economies combined.

And even as the US was rocked by gas lines, soaring inflation and double digit interest rates, per capita GDP for Americans that year was almost 25 percent higher than the next largest country, Japan. In addition to its economic strength, America also had an arsenal of 23,000 nuclear weapons, capable of vaporizing any country on earth in minutes.

But none of that power mattered as a group of Iranian government-supported students overran the US embassy in Tehran, violating American sovereign territory, seizing American embassy employees as hostages, and parading the blindfolded diplomats in public, taunting US authorities, paralyzing US foreign policy and crystaling the perception of American impotence.

Within a month of the hostage taking, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. Both events contributed to a growing sense of American doubt and powerlessness in global affairs.

For these reasons, the Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1981) is a cautionary tale in the history of American foreign policy. It traumatized Americans, gave pause to allies and enemies alike, and came to symbolize the Carter presidency, which it also helped end. It resulted in the Reagan presidency, which brought an entirely different perspective of American power; activist, serious and consequential. Actions would again have consequences.

The lessons of the hostage crisis are again relevant today as the US copes with the emerging Islamist consolidation of power through the Middle East after the Arab Spring, and specifically, the latest deadly attacks on American diplomatic outposts in Cairo and Benghazi.

The immediate questions are jarring, uncomfortable and politically potent.

Why was security at the embassy/consulate so lax? Is it Standard Operating Procedure to tolerate foreign nationals scaling the walls of US missions, gaining entry on to sovereign US territory and defiling the US flag with impunity before the embassy takes any action? How is it possible for a US Ambassador and other embassy personnel to die in an attack in their own mission? Aren’t there contingencies for just this type of action?

Then there are the broader questions.

Aren’t these people supposed to be our friends?

$28 billion in US economic and development assistance to Egypt since 1975. Official US support for the street protests that led to the demise of long-term US ally, Hosni Mubarak. As for the Libyans, Gaddafi would still be in charge but for NATO intervention made possible by US logistical and intelligence support.

And you might think that such a brazen attack on US sovereign property would at least generate an apology or reassuring words about future security. To their credit, the Libyans did this, but not the Egyptians.

However, immediately after the embassy attack there was nothing but silence from the Egyptian government. When, days later, Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi did address the issue, he condemned embassy attacks and promised protection, but no apology was forthcoming. That adds insult to injury when you consider that the US announced its intention to forgive $1 billion of Egypt’s $3.2 billion debt to the US only days before the attack.

It is fair to ask why we are feeding the very government that bites us.

All of this creates a political problem for President Obama 50+ days before the election.

The President generally gets high marks on foreign policy, rooted in his very aggressive drone campaign to kill Al-Qaeda operatives, waged throughout his presidency, and his personal order that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

But the embassy demonstrations/attacks crystallize an unflattering metaphor for the President’s leadership on the Middle East in general, and the “Arab Spring” in particular. This is complicated by newly-strained relations with America’s ally, Israel, and the apparent the inability of the Administration to develop a coherent and credible plan to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb as time begins to run out.

Suddenly, policy drift, indecision and looming impotence seem again to be driving US foreign policy.

No matter the subtleties and nuance of diplomacy, Americans don’t take kindly to their diplomats being murdered on American sovereign territory, or seeing Old Glory desecrated on American embassy grounds, all with apparent reckless abandon. Nor does it help the US cause or the US position for local embassy staff – ostensibly in country representing us – to call for universal free speech rights, except for those that the Islamic protestors don’t like.

Expedient, but short-sighted and ultimately hypocritical.

So there is fertile ground here for the Republicans to plow, if they have courage to make the argument. How effective this will be in the lead up to November 6th will depend on the duration of protests/attacks and the savvy with which the GOP critique is given. Early Romney campaign statements have not been a promising indicator, media bias notwithstanding.

What remains unexamined in this event-driven, piece-meal, politically-charged review of US standing, are the broader policy implications of the Obama administration’s stewardship of US-Arab/Persian relations since 2009, it’s reaction to the “Arab Spring” in 2011 and the very future of US influence in the Middle East.

In 2009, Team Obama effectively substituted the President’s cult of personality, and a policy of “non-intervention” in Arab internal affairs, as the desirable alternative to the Bush administration’s perceived freedom/democracy promotion efforts in the region – “waterboarding American values” on Middle Eastern nations.

The problem with the Obama policy was that the President’s global approval had little relevance to addressing the structural governing challenges in the Middle East, and non-intervention created a values vacuum between autocracy and Islamism.

In addition, while democracy was always a welcome outcome in autocratic nations for Team Obama, such a transition was implicitely left to  local people to decide upon, according to their customs and beliefs. Thusly, Team Obama saw democracy as an end in itself, and when it catalyzed spontaneously in Egypt in early 2011, it appeared to confirm the President’s course.

But to the highly organized and disciplined Islamic political parties, banned in most of the Middle East, democracy was no end in itself, but a priceless means to an end, allowing a popular revolt to topple an entrenched autocratic government, while Islamists filled the vacuum that was created in the aftermath for a people unskilled at party building.

The result has been the rise of a democratically-elected Islamic militantism across North Africa, abetted by the US , that continues in differing forms in Syria’s civil war, to Yemen and other countries on the Arabian peninsula -a sectarian ruling elite that is deeply inimitable to US values and security interests.

Now, to preserve the tattered remnants of the security framework that had once protected Israel, the US must double-down on these new, fragile and uncertain Islamic governments, suspicious of US intentions and hostile to US goals, to prevent even more radical forces in these countries from taking leadership and destabilizing the political system further.

Hardly an auspicious position to be in.

The Arab Spring represents the greatest realignment of political power since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As with the end of the Soviet Union, the US was caught unprepared for the Arab Spring and its strength throughout the region. Unlike the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US was unprepared for the reality of a ready alternative to discredited secular rule, hoping instead that non-intervention would still deliver acceptable results.

Today, we are reaping the consequences of that epic decision.

In fact, values and principles do matter. Moral relativism in the service of mutual respect only generates false hopes and dashed expectations when inevitable differences arise, upsetting strategic balance and undermining supposedly shared interests.

Americans rightly take umbrage that our national good will is repaid with, murder, destruction and dishonor. But the greater sin here has been our inability – bordering on unwillingness – to make the case for American values and principles at a critical juncture in Middle East history.

To act decisively when we had time to act.

The events of Cairo and Benghazi will fade. The reality of a Middle East dominated by militant Islamism is only now beginning to sink in.

This is the legacy of Team Obama. This is the root of the real impotence, indifference and uncertainty in US policy.

It is also part of the tragedy.

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