Micah Zenko

Decline Is Not a River in Egypt

Why does the Arab world still think America is all-powerful?

David Silverman/Getty Images
David Silverman/Getty Images

I was fortunate to spend last week in Cairo and Dubai speaking with academics, policy analysts, public officials, journalists, and activists from various Middle Eastern states. As someone who is interested in how U.S. policymakers and pundits debate, describe, and defend the role of the United States in the region, my trip provided an informed — though admittedly selective — window into how engaged citizens perceive U.S. foreign policy. In particular, four points stood out.

First, there is a broad desire for political leaders to actually lead — either individually or cooperatively, through regional bodies like the Arab League — on major regional issues, from the Palestinian situation to chronic water shortages. On Sunday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi warned: "Everyone should remember, the peoples of the region are different than before. The leadership in the region is different." However, few people held out much hope for this new leadership for three complimentary reasons:

1) There is tremendous skepticism of all forms of state authority, regardless of religion, ideology, or how the leadership came to power. As a young Egyptian activist noted: "This is an era of suspicion, and we don’t trust our own leaders."

2) The most plausible contenders for assuming a greater leadership role were Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. However, it remains to be seen whether the political leaders in those countries are up to the challenge — with particularly acute disappointment over Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s habit of overpromising and underdelivering.

3) The pathology of helplessness and abdication of responsibility from past and present political leaders in the Middle East is hard to overstate. Many people seemed to believe that they possessed little agency over their personal and political trajectories, while acknowledging that this was a soothing excuse for inaction.

Second, there is a broad acceptance and understanding that the United States should have a continued role in the region, particularly regarding development and diplomacy. Leading foreign policy thinkers from the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) repeatedly demanded immediate foreign aid and argued that the United States should implement a Marshall Plan for Egypt in return for its decades-long support of Hosni Mubarak. In addition, they believed that the White House could produce billions of dollars of unconditional aid within the next few months. Given that the FJP experts had all lived or studied in the United States, it was surprising how little they knew about the appropriations process or the limited appetite for increasing the foreign aid budget.

(For all of its attention in domestic politics, no one was aware of the potential impact of the so-called fiscal cliff on the U.S. ability to sustain its commitments around the world. It seemed implausible that American officials would allow such a thing to happen, or that the United States could run out of money.) 

Third, to broker diplomatic outcomes to enduring conflicts in the Middle East, many ascribed a level of power and influence to the United States that would make even the most ardent of neoconservatives wince. For example, although few believed President Obama would make a serious effort to facilitate an Israel-Palestine peace agreement, most believed he could so quickly if he prioritized the issue, since Tel Aviv supposedly takes direct orders from Washington.

On Syria, dozens of people explicitly said that the United States (not the Arab League, Gulf states, or the European Union) bore direct responsibility for the suffering of civilians caught in the civil war. This blame was framed with versions of the same question: "If Libya, why not Syria?" Nine days into the Libya intervention, deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough famously observed: "We don’t get very hung up on this question of precedent. Because we don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent. We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region." 

When I attempted to translate the Obama administration’s careful and deliberate decision-making over Libya, it was dismissed as a hypocritical excuse for inaction. Moreover, President Obama’s only "red line" on Syria — "a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people" — was perceived as self-serving and irrelevant to the needs of the Syrian people. In the words of an Arab-language media executive: "All Obama cares about in Syria is WMD, WMD, WMD. To us, this sounds just like Bush in Iraq."

When pressed for specifics on what exactly President Obama should do with regards to Syria, absolutely no one thought the United States should intervene militarily, including via no-fly zones or safe zones. Allegedly, the United States should work with the UN Security Council, (despite the failed efforts to do just that over the past 18 months) to endorse an UN-sponsored mediation effort — exactly what long-time diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is doing today. If this route failed (as it is), then the proposed "Plan B" was a UN Security Council resolution authorizing a limited military intervention to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian services, but not to support the armed opposition. A former foreign minister said that President Obama could compel Moscow and Beijing to change their votes on such a resolution "if he wanted."

Finally, nearly everyone raised the issue of the U.S. use of drones to conduct targeted killings. The bad news — from the perspective of the Obama administration — was that even those with a general understanding of U.S. drone strikes were not aware of their corresponding justifications by American officials. When I would describe the (rhetorical) justifications, many were surprised that the United States had made any public defense of drone strikes. Roughly half the people accepted that the United States needs to use drones, but virtually everyone believed that it is impossible to discriminate between militants and civilians. In short, the narrative that U.S. drone strikes cause civilian casualties was much more pervasive than the rationale for targeted killings. In addition, no one was aware that the United States received either the explicit (in the cases of Yemen and Somalia) or tacit (Pakistan) consent of the governments where the attacks occurred. It was widely assumed that the United States acted as an aggressor state without any permission.

Beyond the impact that drone strikes have on perception of the United States, I was struck to learn that targeted killings are the lens through which many view all counterterrorism activities. The very word "counterterrorism" was derided as an excuse for the West and tyrannical rulers (most notably Bashar al-Assad) to use violence against legitimate political protesters. Several military and intelligence officials hoped that President Obama would transition to treating terrorism as more of a law enforcement issue, rather than hewing to what many viewed as a drone-first, ask-questions-later strategy. That said, these same people acknowledged that they hoped to expand their own drone fleets, if only they had the money to do so.

The overarching theme was that the previous, longstanding U.S. strategy of achieving its national interests in the Middle East via bilateral relations with authoritarian rulers has been rendered obsolete. The Arab uprisings, specifically their demands for social and political justice, demonstrated the need for U.S. policymakers to take into account (and not just rhetorically) the aspirations of the majority of the people. If the United States hopes to secure its enduring interests — assuring reliable energy supplies, countering the rise of regional hegemons, sustaining a close relationship with Israel, and facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement — it must make this strategic shift. But few thought that it would.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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