Obama on the Arab Spring

Obama is thinking.  Fareed Zakaria says so, and so does National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon.  Obama had better be thinking, and hard, because as Andrew McCarthy observes, the Obama administration needs to prepare "the political ground" for what many Americans are otherwise going to perceive as failure in the Middle East.  A full dose of this political prophylaxis will be administered on Thursday in a presidential speech at the State Department.  Much rests on how Republican candidates and Americans in general react to the president's explanations.

Essentially, we need to be convinced that takeover in Egypt, and Yemen, and maybe Libya, by Islamic groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood represent a success for American policy.  One Israeli-based website goes so far as to suggest that Obama "has picked the Muslim Brotherhood [...] as his chosen partner for promoting American interests in the Arab world in place of its ousted rulers."  Absent more evidence, it is probably more reasonable to see the administration's apparent acquiescence as an accommodation to a new fact of life in the Middle East precipitated by their misguided policy.  Regardless, it certainly cannot be in Obama's interest for it to be viewed as what it looks like: the triumph of militant Islam in places whose regimes heretofore lent themselves, at least occasionally, to furthering Western interests.

The induced demise of Osama bin Laden can be viewed as a prerequisite for the big speech.  Rebranding is the key.  The implication will probably be that since bin Laden embodied militant jihad, his sleep with the fishes sounded its death knell.  As the always reliable Eugene Robinson put it:

It's hard to overstate the significance of bin Laden's killing. Operationally and psychologically, he defined the Age of Terror -- not just for Americans and other targets of his depredations but also for the terrorists who followed his writ. With his last breath, an era died. The more we learn about bin Laden's life in his Pakistan compound, the more apparent it becomes that even in hiding he remained the central, indispensable figure in international terrorism.

We are supposed to believe that Islamic terrorism died in that squalid "mansion" and that Obama killed it.  He gave us that paramount existential good for all correct-thinking people: closure.  It is time to "move on."  In the gutsiest presidential decision since the Emancipation Proclamation, Obama, like Lincoln (another reluctant warrior), transformed the conflict.  What once was a War on Terror, the administration and their tame press will assert, has become a true partnership in fostering democracy.  Certainly there may be times when, as in Iraq, force may be needed, but the objective will henceforth be "soft."  Now we can enable the democratically expressed will of the people to prevail against the occasional militant hold-out -- clinging to old, albeit thoroughly understandable, grievances and blind to the boundless promise of Levantine Hope and Change.

This fairy tale requires a rebranding of the Muslim Brotherhood as well.  In another piece, McCarthy suggests one plausible line, manufacturing a false distinction between old-fashioned hard-line Salafists and a supposedly moderate Brotherhood.  In reality, he points out, "the Brotherhood and the Salafists are one"; in fact, the Brotherhood was founded by a Salafist who sought to put the ideology into practice.  Meanwhile, everywhere in Egypt, institutions from the police to the Coptic Church to the formerly premier Al-Azhar University are being subverted, intimidated, or overshadowed,  leaving the field almost entirely to the Islamic Brotherhood.  As Barry Rubin has pointed out, even the few levers remaining to us to influence Egypt's course, such as debt forgiveness, go unused.

Many have noted the apparent admission of domestic Muslim brotherhood affiliates into the counsels of this administration.  Some have even charged that the Justice Department has intervened to protect some Brotherhood groups from prosecution.  As Brotherhood-linked organizations and individuals here exercise their apparent influence on policy, we seem to be in the midst of revisiting a fearful time in our history, when well-placed Communists subverted our post-WWII policy regarding the Soviet Union and elites demonized those who sounded the alarm.

Obama's State Department speech on Thursday may be our contemporary equivalent of the 1949 State Department "White Paper," which attempted to sidestep administration blame for the "loss" of China to Mao's revolution -- though in fairness to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, he never took a sanguine view of the event.  Regardless, the White Paper failed in its objective.  The resultant domestic controversy only grew in intensity, and it influenced our politics for decades.  Ultimately, history proved the critics right.  We can only hope that Obama's Thursday speech has the same unintended result.