Confusion In The Ranks - U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

U.S. President Barack Obama's national address to the American people Monday was supposed to be a clarification of why his administration decided to declare war on Muammar Gaddafi. Obama talked about protecting civilians, stopping an advancing army, and preventing a massacre.  He claimed that some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries, but that the United States of America is different.

Obama also indicated that if an effort wasn't made to stop Gaddafi, "the democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power."

In some of his other comments, Obama declared, "We must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed at one's own people; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people."

These declarations and set of core principles outlined in Obama's foreign policy address have subsequently appeared to be problematic for the American people.  Many complain that his policies have not been reliable enough to bring a sense of security and trust, not only to Americans, but to others throughout the world.

Why, for example, did these same principles not apply in 2009? At that time, Obama hesitated to show his support to the Iranian people when they revolted against election fraud and the oppressive rule of President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad and Iran's reigning religious mullahs.  The U.S. was criticized for not coming to the aid of Iranian civilians who were being killed, wounded, imprisoned and tortured as they fought for the same kind of freedoms that Obama now desires for the Libyan people.

What about Bahrain?  On March 15, 2011 when Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf States sent in troops to protect the interests of the Sunni monarchy, the Obama Administration protested at first, declaring the rights of Bahrain's citizens to demonstrate for freedoms and reforms. But, in reality, Obama was defending the rights of the Shiite majority population who were against the rule of the Sunni minority government.  Again, this brought confusion to many in the international community. Why would the U.S. president want Bahrain's Shiites to gain power, especially in light of their allegiance to Iran? The result would be an Iranian attempt to dominate that oil rich country.  

If Iran were able to use Bahrain's Shiites to overthrow the Sunni-led government, it would threaten global commerce.  At least 20% of the world's oil is shipped through the Straits of Hormuz. Interestingly, the Obama Administration must have re-considered that foreign policy objective, because after awhile, there were no more U.S. protests about the Saudi-led Arab Gulf coalition forces sent in to protect Bahrain's government.

In recent days, Syria, one of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East, has used fear and intimidation tactics, along with one of the largest secret police forces in the region, to crack down on peaceful street protests. Where were Obama's western coalition forces when Assad's government was killing and brutalizing the Syrian people?

The Obama Administration will soon go through another testing. The regime of Jordan's King Abdullah II is under fire as protestors in that nation clash with pro-government forces. It could lead to a full scale civil war. Where will America's allegiance fall if and when that happens?

Today, in Israel and throughout the Middle East, the uncertainty of how the U.S. is going to react to civil unrest in Arab countries has led to a sense of confusion. Many are questioning America's ability to consistently lead the world as the #1 superpower. Geo-political analysts claim that Obama's erratic policies are causing havoc, resulting in the waning of U.S. influence here. What is emerging is a lack of confidence in Obama's decision-making. There is also anxiety regarding his intentions towards his loyal allies in the region. 

Furthermore, analysts point to American naiveté in demanding democratic reform for every embattled Arab society.  A continued insistence by the White House and State Department that western style democracy can successfully be imposed on Middle East governments has already contributed to America's foreign policy downfall. While some U.S. citizens believe that western ideals will prevail over those of radical Islam, a majority of the people living in the region think differently.

Significantly, it is no longer a pro-western Arab world. Obama, and European leaders backing his newly formed military coalition, are now perceived as weak players in a rapidly changing region. They have had little ability to persuade ruthless Arab dictators, except perhaps when using military force, as in the case of Libya's Gaddafi.   

In the meantime, though Obama has clearly stated his objectives in regard to imposing the no-fly zone over Libya, there still seems to be no end game for western coalition forces there. Reports are running rampant that some rebel forces may be aligned with Al Qaeda cells. Yet, the American government has not ruled out arming the resistance. In trying to get rid of Gaddafi, the U.S. formed western coalition may be causing more headaches for war-torn Libya and embattled Arab nations.

The steady decline in America's regional influence is causing moderate Arab populations to consider aligning themselves with either Islamists that will enforce repressive Sharia Law; or, with Iran because of its enhanced role in the region. So far, Iran has demonstrated that it is ruling successfully through its Middle East proxies. Israeli analysts believe that a post-Mubarak Egypt, instead of advancing U.S. interests in the region, will actually threaten the core principles that Obama aims to advance.

Dr. Boaz Ganor, Associate Dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy recently spoke to journalists and diplomats at a briefing in Jerusalem. He claimed that the confusion began when Obama gave his infamous Cairo speech in June 2009; and there has not been clarity in American foreign policy since then. "Many of the Israelis are concerned because they think that the approach he is taking is the wrong approach. He is trying to appease the terrorists, to appease the Islamists, the Jihadists."  In addition, Ganor said, "The Americans have sent a very dangerous message to their allies, to the pragmatic axis in the Middle East. Forget about it, you cannot count on us anymore."

According to Ganor, the cold shoulder that Obama gave to Mubarak during the Egyptian uprising led the way to an absence of American leadership in other parts of the region.  In addition, U.S. intelligence officials have been divided over the radical policies of the Moslem Brotherhood. Ganor assesses that some of Obama's staff have already miscalculated the goals of this rising Islamic power in Egypt.  He thinks that the Obama Administration is underestimating the influence of the Brotherhood in the region. In addition, he has taken issue with American leaders in counter-terrorism who have stated that the Jihadists and Islamists are not the enemy.  "Once you, the spearhead of western society, the protector of liberal values in the world, are coming and saying that Islamists and Jihadists are not your enemy, at the least you are sending a confusing message to your allies, worldwide."

Ganor, who serves as an Israeli counter-terrorism expert, has emphatically stated that the Obama Administration has been wrong when defining what terrorism is, and who is committing acts of terror throughout the world. He predicts that a negative trend is emerging in the Middle East. Iran and Al Qaeda are winning the hearts of the people in the region, thereby gaining political ground since the unrest began. "The turmoil maybe was not a direct outcome of American initiative, but the Americans are responsible, in many ways -- in the way they have conducted their policies during the turmoil; when it started; and, even before that."

A delicate line exists between democracy, fundamentalism, and terrorism, and this has not been clearly understood by Western powers studying the Middle East. While most international leaders would agree that a genuine popular revolt against dictatorial regimes started the regional upheaval, what is not clear is how societies will function under new leadership. It is especially vague in Libya, where there are no democratic institutions or foundations that can bring Western style democracy to a tribal society.

So, what about the future outcome? "The outcome is that the U.S. is much much weaker today than the U.S. was two months ago. Egypt was a crucial ally of the U.S. I don't think that Egypt will be an enemy of the U.S. tomorrow morning, but, it will not be as friendly, and as close as it used to be," acknowledged Ganor.

For those living in the only successful democracy in the Middle East so far, Israel has a lot to lose and little to gain during this current regional turmoil. Change in Egypt threatens the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Already, radical Islamists are cooperating with Iran in smuggling massive weaponry into Gaza and Lebanon by land, sea, and air. The prospect of a new Egyptian government, comprised of strong radical figures like the Moslem Brotherhood, has been worrying to the Israeli government. Hamas ties to the Brotherhood could expand the goals of both Iran and Islamists who want to take advantage of the instability on Israel's southern border.  Change in Jordan could threaten the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.  Change in Syria could result in a worse enemy for Israel than the enemy Israel already knows in Bashar Assad.  Change in Lebanon means a greater threat on Israel's northern border from the Iranian-backed Hezb'allah controlled Lebanese government.

Yet, most of all, change in American foreign policy and the weakening of U.S. influence in the region, is causing its major ally to experience increased isolation and uncertainty. Israel is preparing for a future that appears to be worse than what it has had to live through during its 62 years of statehood. As Israel soon celebrates its 63rd year as a modern nation, only time will tell what new enemies it faces. Israeli citizens anticipate the dawning of a new era in the Middle East. At this point, that new era may not be the peaceful tranquility the nation's population is hoping for, but an era fraught with more hostility and violence than it has ever known before.

C. Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, and military issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.