From Strange to Bizarre: The Mutations of Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

CounterPunch

President Barack Obama and his officials are saying some very strange things about events in the Middle East and Ukraine. The White House was loud in its support for factions who were united only in opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych. The Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s leaked telephone conversation with the American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, revealed much more about how the State Department was secretly plotting for regime change in Kiev before Yanukovych was abruptly removed from power in a political coup in February.

In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington in December 2013, Nuland admitted that the United States had spent five billion dollars since Ukraine became independent following the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991 in “developing democratic institutions and skills in promoting civil society” and what she described as “a good form of government.” Nuland claimed that all of it was necessary to “achieve the objectives of Ukraine’s European.”

After the opposition takeover in Kiev, the referendum in Crimea where people voted in overwhelming numbers to join the Russian Federation, and the wishes of Russian minorities in the east, brought a very different response from Washington. The Crimean referendum was denounced as illegal and a sham. Ukraine remains in turmoil. Russia on one hand, and the United States and the European Union on the other, are locked in a struggle for influence in Ukraine. It is a struggle whose final outcome is far from certain.

In Syria, devastated by three-years of civil war, with external powers pouring oil in the conflict, President Bashar al-Assad has also won an overwhelming victory. Fears of the Crimean and Russian minorities in the new Ukraine are understandable. For Ukraine is a broken and vulnerable state, with armed far-right and left groups dominating parts of the country where anarchy rules. Western governments seem obsessed about freedom and democracy, but we hardly hear about security and welfare of Ukraine’s minorities. In Syria, the civil war has extracted a very high toll. If the western narrative was to be believed, then all Syrians are united against Assad, so any election leading to his victory must be fraudulent.

The Assad dynasty has ruled Syria with the iron fist for decades. The dynasty might well have been overthrown in the uprising which began in 2011 if a better alternative was present. The truth is that many of Syria’s minorities, Christians, Jews, Druze, Kurds and Assad’s own Alawites, are terrified by the cruelty of, and conflict within, Assad’s opponents, foreign Salafists in particular. Three years since the uprising began, Western governments, US, British and French, are in a strange situation of their own making. They have lent moral and material support to the enemies of Assad, but are weary and worried of them, for anti-Assad fighters are no lovers of the Western governments and values they preach. What has happened in Libya is a lesson.

History shows that great powers, instead of learning from mistakes, keep repeating the same follies. Ceaseless ideological propaganda, whatever its origin and nature, makes a feeble cover for real motives.

Assad’s victory was by a whopping margin – he secured nearly 89 percent of the vote. It was a win like any other dictator’s, but there is little doubt that many Syrians were scared of the other side, and preferred Assad. The American Secretary of State John Kerry, smarting from his debacle in the Israel-Palestinian talks which were sunk by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quickly moved on. Syria provided an escape route. Kerry described Assad’s victory as “meaningless” and “a great big zero.”

It gets more and more bizarre. Nearly a year after Egypt’s army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi overthrew the country’s elected President Mohammed Morsi and abolished the fragile political order which had evolved after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, there was another presidential election at the end of May. Thousands were killed and even more thrown into jail in the months before. Sisi took 97 percent of the vote, virtually the whole country, while Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters languish in jail. If Assad’s election was “meaningless” and a “great big zero” for the Obama administration, then think of Sisi’s victory margin?

When a ruthless dictator and America’s proxy is in trouble, Washington is slow to respond to events, hoping that the dictator will eventually overcome opposition and it will be all right in the end. South Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Egypt and beyond, examples are aplenty. More than three decades after the fall of the Shah of Iran and President Jimmy Carter’s bungled handling of the crisis in what was America’s policeman in the Persian Gulf, Barack Obama faced a similar crisis in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak was in trouble. Obama dithered.

Mubarak’s rule collapsed under relentless popular pressure, but while the military had disintegrated with the fall of the shah in Iran, the Egyptian armed forces remained intact. Egypt’s 2011 revolution was incomplete in comparison with the Iranian revolution of 1979. The military-led counterrevolution in 2013 has taken Egypt back to the Mubarak era.

For a country born out of a revolution, the United States is remarkably counterrevolutionary. Now that Egypt is again ruled by a former army chief, the White House has said that President Obama is looking forward to working with Sisi “to advance our strategic partnership and the many interests shared by the United States and Egypt.” The White House claimed that “elections [there] were held in accordance with Egyptian law.”

That Egyptian law, which Obama has so readily accepted as the basis of a closer relationship with Sisi’s government, originates from a constitution which has been heavily criticized for granting the military sweeping powers. The 2014 constitution was introduced after a coup which overthrew Egypt’s freely elected president, abolished parliament and abrogated the 2012 constitution, approved by the Egyptian electorate in a far more relaxed political environment. In cozying up with Sisi, Obama denies that there was ever a coup.

Never mind Obama’s idealism and soaring rhetoric – that was a long time ago, five years ago in fact. Now it is time to build a legacy, so he will do anything. Obama’s foreign policy is a charade.

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Disquiet grows in US over Egypt policy

Middle East Eye

America’s relationship with the military regime of Egypt and President Barack Obama’s keenness to give military aid to that country have created acrimony between the administration and Congress.

The dispute goes beyond Washington, with Obama’s Middle East policy coming under increasing criticism at home and abroad. There are warnings that his administration may be creating more international enemies.

A recent op-ed by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post on 2 May is one example. A leading neoconservative thinker, Kagan was one of the founders of the Project for the New American Century that called for regime change in Iraq and a strategy of America securing global control. Kagan’s wife, Victoria Nuland, is now a senior State Department official in the Obama administration.

Kagan says that far from helping in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s “brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists”. The Muslim Brotherhood did use violence against protestors, he continues, but that is nothing compared with the military’s killing of thousands and jailing of tens of thousands since overthrowing president Mohamed Morsi.

Kagan goes on to warn that the crackdown in which hundreds may be sentenced to death after a trial barely lasting an hour will convince some Islamists to believe that their only choice is to kill or be killed.

His conclusion is that Egypt’s new military strongman, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can never bring stability, no matter how ruthless he becomes. America’s current policy is only bringing closer the day of the next revolution, and that revolution will be a “more radical and virulent anti-American event than the last one”.

President Obama’s intention to send military aid to Egypt and bitter criticism from a leading neoconservative hawk such as Robert Kagan look strange. The White House plans to supply Egypt with Apache attack helicopters, arguing that they are needed to fight “terrorism” in the Sinai peninsula. Obama wants to give $650 million worth of additional aid to Egypt’s military regime. Moreover, the administration says that Egypt is abiding by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

All of this must be music to Sisi’s ears, but represents a sad turning in Barack Obama’s journey from soaring idealism to Machiavellian behaviour. Political expediency and short-termism have triumphed over idealism in this journey.

Congressional unease over Obama’s Middle East policy has turned into open rebellion. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, has told the White House that he would not approve American aid to the Egyptian military.

In particular, Senator Leahy has denounced a summary trial which ended in an Egyptian court sentencing 683 people to death, including the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie. Leahy said that he would remain opposed until he could see “convincing evidence the government is committed to the rule of law”.

Given the Obama administration’s eagerness to supply Egypt’s military rulers with weapons and economic aid, it was odd indeed that the White House expressed alarm over the court’s ruling when the United Nation did so. As severe measures continue against opposition supporters, a powerful insurgency is building up in Egypt. It is especially concentrated in the Sinai peninsula.

The overall character of President Obama’s predecessor George W Bush was distinctly aggressive in military terms. Since the heady days of Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, American policy has undergone a Machiavellian transformation. His pronouncements often do not match facts on the ground.

The Foreign Assistance Act requires that the United States cut aid to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree”. President Obama, however, concluded soon after Morsi was deposed by the military in July 2013 that the White House was not “legally required” to decide whether Egypt’s president was the victim of a coup. An unnamed administration official told the New York Times at the time: “We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say [anything]”.

It was like showing green light to Sisi. With each hint of suspension of aid and every expression of “concern” over Egypt’s worsening situation comes something that gives succour to Egypt’s military junta. More than three years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and a brief democratic interlude, it now looks inevitable that Sisi will be “elected” the country’s new leader at the end of this month.

The election will be an extremely restricted exercise. It will be a reminder of the worst days of the Mubarak era. Sisi will be “endorsed” by an overwhelming majority, with no more than a tiny percentage of votes going against him.

The truth about today’s Egypt is that the real opposition is either in jail or has been forced underground if its supporters have not been killed already. Meanwhile in the United States, influential voices are engaged in a perfunctory exercise to express the mildest of unease with demands that America must ensure that the next Egyptian government “makes good on the people’s demands for a free and prosperous society”, as was written by Evan Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative, in an op-ed piece published by US News and World Report on 8 May.

As Sisi pursues his repressive policies against Islamist and liberal opponents alike, the Obama administration is advised by these voices to “strategically leverage US assistance to incentivize Cairo to adopt vital political and economic reforms”.

Emboldened by Obama’s refusal to acknowledge that Morsi’s overthrow was a coup, Sisi now says that democracy will take at least 25 years to bring to Egypt, and that too if stability can be restored. Bizarrely, he has described the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011 and Morsi in 2013 as major steps towards democracy.

In less than a year since overthrowing the elected political order which had emerged after a people’s revolution, Sisi has moved to crush Egypt’s largest movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. He has outflanked liberals, many of whom are also on his target list. Egyptians are bracing themselves for another long era dominated by a military dictator, who at 59 years of age could maintain his iron grip for a long time. Sisi has President Obama to thank for this gift.

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Another Gaza War

Palestine Chronicle, November 28, 2012

Bombing Gaza

It is important to dismiss some fallacies surrounding the recent Gaza war before we examine the significance and fallout of Israel’s eight-day bombing campaign. One of those fallacies is that Hamas started the fighting by firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, the other that Israel was targeting “terrorists.” A careful analysis of the sequence of events leading to Israeli bombardment proves the former to be untrue. The latter fails scrutiny in view of available reports and casualty figures released by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights based in Gaza City. The vast majority of the more than 150 killed and 1000 injured were civilians, though the Israelis claimed the opposite.

Assuming new powers

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt was widely praised for playing a key role in negotiating the truce between Israel and Hamas. Riding the crest of popularity, Morsi immediately issued a presidential decree giving himself sweeping powers which would be impossible to challenge. He appointed a new prosecutor-general of his choice, granted the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council,  the upper consultative house of parliament, protection from dissolution by the judiciary. He also ordered the retrial of Mubarak-era officials who were accused of killing and injuring protestors during and after the Tahrir Square demonstrations last year.

The presidential decree has stunned the population and sparked a fierce debate in the country. Supporters have hailed it as “revolutionary.” Opponents have condemned it as a “coup.” From now on, all presidential declarations, laws and decrees will be immune to appeal “by any way or by any entity.” There now exists a climate of anger and frustration in Cairo and other cities. Judges, liberals and secularist politicians and activists outside the Muslim Brotherhood circle are furious and offices of Morsi’s party have been ransacked.

On the BBC’s Today program on November 23, Fawaz Gerges, a leading Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, compared President Morsi’s move with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “power grab” in the 1950s, paving the way for dictatorial rule under Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Professor Gerges warned of a “dangerous” situation in the country. For a while it had looked as though Egypt under Morsi would retake its role as the most powerful and effective Arab nation in the Middle East. However, his move to grant himself sweeping powers has upset the delicate political balance in the post-Mubarak era. For Egypt without internal stability cannot play its proper role in the region and beyond.

The roots of conflict in the territory called Palestine are as ancient as an interested party would profess. But claims that Hamas rockets began the latest Gaza war are false. The blockade, the humiliation of Palestinians who must pass through the Israeli crossings regularly, the Israeli army’s incursions and rockets from Gaza are part of everyday life.

What appears to be true is that for about two weeks there had been a lull, broken on November 8 when Israeli soldiers entered Gaza. In the ensuing fighting a 12-year-old Palestinian boy playing soccer was killed. In retaliation, Palestinian fighters blew up a tunnel along the Gaza-Israel frontier injuring one Israeli soldier, followed by the firing of an anti-tank missile which wounded four Israeli troops.

On the same day, an Israeli tank shell landed in a field killing two teenagers. Thereafter, an Israeli tank fired on a funeral. Two more Palestinians were killed and many more injured. On November 12, Palestinian factions offered a truce provided Israel ended its attacks. Two days later, the Israelis assassinated Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas military chief, and at least eight others, including two Palestinian children. It was this sequence which triggered the war. Was it self-defense on Israel’s part, or provocation?

Itching for war

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been itching for war with Iran in recent years. He may have succeeded in launching a military campaign which could lead to a broader Middle East conflict but for President Obama’s reluctance to go down that route. This is why Netanyahu wanted a victory for his friend Mitt Romney, who appeared eager to take military action against Iran and its allies, Hezbollah and Hamas.

President Obama’s opposition, Romney’s failure to win the American presidency and serious doubts from influential voices within Israel’s own military and political establishment thwarted Netanyahu’s ambition to attack Iran for the time being. But Netanyahu was not happy with his present grip on power. He would like to strengthen it further and for that he called fresh elections. A war would show him to be Israel’s “strong man,” improve Likud’s election prospects and a win would give him a longer period in office. However, those who play the game of Russian roulette must be ready for unexpected consequences.

In the aftermath of another Gaza war, two realities confront each other. On one hand, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has taken the lives of more than 150 Palestinians, many of them innocent civilians, for a handful of Israeli lives. Netanyahu can continue to display hubris; his offensive in Gaza may improve his prospects in the coming elections, or may not; and President Obama has to go on expressing public support for Israel, though his private views may be different.

Escaping for cover

On the other hand, Hamas rockets of Iranian design have travelled longer distances than before; thoughstill crude and incapable of precisely targeting anything, they are enough to cause more alarm in Israel than before; Hezbollah has shown that its drones can fly over Israel now; and the movement’s leader Hasan Nasrullah openly taunts the Israelis and the Americans in his speeches. One side, all powerful, is struck by fear and paranoia. The other, armed with primitive rockets, professes its willingness to make whatever sacrifice there is to be made. No ceasefire can last.

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