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The U.S.: Still the protector of Mideast strongmen [Blowback]

January 16, 2012 |  5:13 pm

Obama mideast
Mark Levine, a professor of history at UC Irvine, responds to The Times' Jan. 9 Op-Ed article, "The U.S.: MIA in the Mideast." Levine is also a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, "The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh."
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Has the U.S. really gone MIA from the Mideast under President Obama? Apparently so, if your knowledge of the region comes from its surviving monarchs, autocrats and assorted military leaders.

These are the people to whom John Hannah, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and the author of the Jan. 9 Op-Ed article, has been talking lately, and it seems they are not at all happy with Obama's "lack of resolve" in maintaining the decades-old "Pax Americana" that has been crucial to ensuring their hold on power.

Hannah would like us to consider the failures of Obama administration policy that have led to this perception, including "overblown promises" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "betraying" faithful clients such as deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and failing to attack Iran. But the far more pertinent question is why Hannah is attempting to sell a narrative of American retreat that is so at odds with the realities on the ground.

Specifically, Hannah accuses Obama of being a "willing accomplice in the dismantling of a regional order ... that has been the linchpin of Mideast security for decades." In fact, at almost every turn, the president has done everything in his power to preserve the existing system. Setting aside the assassination of Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and the surge in Afghanistan, Obama has continued and in many cases increased U.S. aid (most of it military) to clients such as Morocco and Jordan, sold tens of billions of dollars in advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies, tightened the economic screws on Iran and refused to punish Israel (and in fact just increased aid) despite its continued settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Most important, Obama has consistently refused to offer more than the weakest support for the pro-democracy forces in the region during the past year of revolutionary upheavals. Contrary to Hannah's claim, Obama never "betrayed" Mubarak. Rather, the sclerotic Mubarak so badly miscalculated the level of public anger at the regime's increasingly oppressive and corrupt behavior that the military leadership was forced to push him from power to protect its dominant position in the country.

Obama has stood behind the Egyptian military since Mubarak's departure despite the junta's deadly attacks on the most fundamental human and political rights of Egyptians. Similarly, the president continues to throw America's weight behind preserving the status quo in Bahrain while refusing to push for a real political transition in Yemen.

More broadly, Obama has deepened American support for the region's corrupt and repressive monarchies. Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries on Earth, is in no danger of being abandoned by Obama, who authorized at least $60 billion worth of arms sales to the kingdom in the last two years. These will, of course, be matched by tens of billions of dollars in extra military aid to Israel and Egypt to preserve the "balance of power" in the region, not to mention the immense profits for U.S. arms makers.

The only country where the United States has been willing forcefully to support anti-government protests is Libya, which was ruled by a longtime nemesis of the United States whose replacement by NATO-backed forces clearly strengthened U.S. interests.

In fact, as the head of a foundation that ostensibly supports the "defense of democracies," Hannah is noticeably silent about the one area where the Obama administration has been woefully MIA -- in forcefully condemning the ongoing abuse of human rights by America's Mideast allies.

If Hannah had chosen to listen to civil society and pro-democracy activists rather than autocratic leaders, he would admit that Obama has remained as engaged as previous administrations in the region, with a similar disregard for how American support for repressive and corrupt governments harms the cause of peace, democracy and development.

But Hannah never once quotes or even mentions a pro-democracy activist or directly discusses the protests that have swept the region. It's as if the last year never happened in his political universe; or, if it has, its implications can only be mentioned obliquely, as a threat to an order whose true nature can't be admitted yet must be preserved.

I have spent the last year regularly meeting with grass-roots activists across the Arab world. In almost a dozen trips, the most consistent message I have heard from activists is not that the United States is in retreat but rather that it remains too supportive of the system many have died protesting. Wherever I've traveled, the goal has been the same, as symbolized by perhaps the most famous chant of the Arab Spring: "The people want the downfall of the system!" ("Ash-sha'ab, yurid, isqat an-nizzam!")

Needless to say, the Obama administration has not listened to such pleas. It has consistently told activists that the U.S. will not abandon longtime military and political allies or a system that has served American interests so well for the sake of human rights and real democracy. 

Sadly, this policy, and not the supposed "erosion" of U.S. power and credibility, as Hannah describes it, constitutes the real tragedy of Obama's  Mideast policy. If the president doesn't change course soon, it will also be among his most ignoble legacies.

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-- Mark LeVine

Photo: President Obama in 2010 with, from left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

Follow LeVine on Twitter at @culturejamming.

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