Feb 1st 2011

Limited Options in the Face of Turmoil

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
Across the Middle East dramatic events have been unfolding in rapid-fire succession, confounding U.S. policy makers.

First, Tunisia erupted in mass protest leading to the abdication of that country's President and the dissolution of its ruling party. While developments there were fermenting and still unresolved, attention was diverted to al Jazeera's much hyped release of leaked notes recording conversations between Palestinian negotiators and their American and Israeli counterparts. As revelations go, the "Palestine Papers", as they were marketed, didn't amount to much. However, as an effectively orchestrated and well-timed political attack designed for maximum impact, they proved quite devastating.

That manufactured story was all the rage for a few days last week, only to be eclipsed by the upheavals in Egypt which upended most everything else in the news. Dramatic scenes of mass mobilizations calling on President Mubarak to step down, clashes with riot police, and burning government buildings, proved too enticing to the world's media. As a result, other major unfolding stories across the region were either pushed to back page coverage or completely off the page. Thus during the past few days there has been scant mention of: the inauguration of a new Hizbullah-backed government in Lebanon, raising fears of new sectarian tensions; anti-government demonstrations across Yemen and Jordan challenging the rule of two other U.S. allies; and a still unsettled situation in Iraq with the formation of a "new" government being compromised by continued violence and sectarian and factional disputes.

The pace, the extent, and the consequences of all these events have confronted U.S. policy makers with a difficult set of challenges. While America remains, at least rhetorically, committed to human rights and political freedom, the imperative to protect national security interests often trumps other concerns. This is especially problematic in the current unrest since all of the countries boiling over are led by governments that have been close allies of successive U.S. administrations or are viewed as important to regional stability or broader national security objectives. As a result, in almost every instance, the U.S. has very little leverage (or even contact) with the opposition groups in question and/or little ability to impact the outcome of the ferment. Furthermore, at this point, with the exception of Lebanon and Palestine, much of the dissent rocking the region has nothing to do with the U.S. Despite the fact that we are closely identified with the governments in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen, protesters in those countries have, for the time being, ignored the U.S., since they have bigger fish to fry.

This has complicated the policy-makers' dilemma. There is concern that too much of an embrace of the protesting movements would appear unseemly or even risk being rejected. On the other hand, it is impossible and equally unseemly to ignore the unrest, the social, economic and political conditions that created it, and the horrible repression with which it was met. At the same time, about all that full throated support for the protests would do is pull the plug on regional allies - opening the door to the unknown.

This is not Eastern Europe, where the Soviet occupation regime was our enemy and the democracy movements were our allies. In Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq, the hostility of opposition groups to the US is known. In the other states in question, too little is known about the forces driving the protests and even less is clear how any post-regime scenarios would evolve.

What has been unnerving during this entire period has been the contradictory and in some instances hypocritical way some in the U.S. have seized upon these rapid-fire developments. In Congress and the media, new champions of Arab democracy have been born overnight. In too many instances, however, I suspect this celebration of the "Arab street" is born more of an anti-Arab animus, than of a real commitment to Arab democracy.

Those, for example, who call on President Obama to break with the Egyptian government and suspend U.S. assistance to Egypt's military, would recoil in horror, should a new Egyptian government emerge and, following the will of the people, cancel the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel and/or open ties with Hamas in Gaza. And what would the reaction be were the new Tunisian government to suspend anti-terror cooperation with the U.S?

Evidence that this support for revolution is based more on what these folks don't know mixed in with a dash anti-Arab sentiment can be seen in how they deal with the democratically elected Arab leaders or governing groups they do know. There is no cheering, for example, from Congress or the Washington Post editorial pages for the new Hizbullah-backed government in Lebanon, the Hamas-led Gaza Strip or the emergent Sadrist bloc currently at the center of the Iraqi government. In the case of Lebanon and Gaza there is a taboo placed on any engagement with these groups and calls to suspend all American assistance programs - all of which appears to undercut the professed commitment to democracy.

One final observation on the Palestine Papers" - since discussion of the full impact of their release was aborted by the all-consuming story from Cairo. It is not so much that there is anything new in the leaked documents - despite al Jazeera's hype. Most of the compromises offered, or the behaviors or attitudes manifested, have been known for years. Nor does the release of these inter-office Palestinian memos represent "the final nail in the coffin of the peace process", as some have suggested. That nail was driven in months ago. What these documents do shine a light on, however, is the belief that the Palestinian leadership is "out of touch" with their constituency and a bit too desperate in their dealings with the U.S. and Israel. They also make clear the degree to which the U.S. has been insensitive to Palestinian needs and impotent in the face of Israeli intransigence.

The bottom line here is that the complexities of these multiple challenges and the uncertainties associated with each of them have placed a real burden on an already weakened Obama Administration. Two years ago they came into office generating high expectations throughout the Middle East. But during the past two years U.S. policies vis-a-vis a range of regional issues (Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, etc) have appeared more a continuation of the failed past than hoped for change. As a result, today the Administration appears exhausted, distracted and flat, creating a massive let-down across the Arab World.

Recognizing this is important since it establishes the reality that the U.S. has diminished credibility, capacity, and few good options. Critics, both liberals and conservatives, who are demanding "bold leadership" from the President, ought to remember their earlier support for "deposing the Iraqi dictator". Not understanding the consequences of that move or the factors driving Iraqi society in the post-Saddam era and having little ability to control the disasters that followed (despite having 150,000 troops on the ground), should give these pundits pause. Therefore, it is advisable for policy makers to dismiss the critics and proceed, as they have, with carefully calibrated messages that affirm both principles and interests.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "