Clear Minds, Not Politics Needed in Middle East

September 22, 2012

The unrest and violence that has erupted in more than a dozen countries across North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia has refocused Americans’ attention on two different but not disconnected historical movements in the Muslim world. The first is the campaign of terror launched by Osama bin Laden and an alliance of militant Islamic warriors who have sought to expel the West from Muslim lands, oust pro-Western dictators and unify those lands as a single Islamic nation for over 15 years. This movement, initially supported by America and its allies when it was used to dislodge the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the 1980s, metastasized into the Al Qaeda terror groups that eventually attacked the United States on 9/11. The toll in American blood and treasure has been over 10,000 lives and trillions of dollars in damages and the cost of U.S. led wars.

The second is the so-called Arab Spring, a mass movement of protests and revolution that swiftly spread across the region a year and a half ago. It was inspired by economic, political and social conditions in many Arab states that left large segments of their populations desperate and hopeless. A series of UN development reports measured the problems and concluded by 2009 that “many more Arabs now see the spectre of want approaching their door. In some Arab countries, more than half the population now lives in poverty, with no means to provide for their families or secure the essentials of human dignity.”

Less than two months after a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in protest of police harassment in December 2010, the president of the country, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was out. The unrest spread and weeks later Hosni Mubarak, the 30-year ruler of next-door Egypt, and an American friend, was on the ropes. The fires and fury spread and few Arab countries seemed immune. Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Libya and more were wracked by protests and crackdowns. In the case of Syria the protests evolved into a bloody civil war that has seen tens of thousands of savage deaths, at least half civilians, and the conflict remains at a seemingly irresolvable high boil. Bahrain emerged as a major test case of American policy. Home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, guardian of Western interests in the Persian Gulf and deterrent against a bellicose Iran, the diminutive island state’s tenuous relationship between the ruling minority Sunni Muslims and the majority Shia sect broke down into deadly riots in the streets and a severe crackdown. It remains a balancing act for U.S. policy makers – American goals of spreading freedom and liberty versus practical national security considerations. By the end of 2011 the unrest in Libya had led to full-scale armed conflict between revolutionary militias and the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi. Western militaries, including the United States, aided the militias, hoping to avoid the bloodbath Gaddafi had vowed to visit on cities held by the rebels. He was toppled in the end and a secular Western looking regime came to power. However, a host of militias and radical elements continued to hold sway in some parts of the country. Meanwhile in Egypt the army, which ruled the country in the aftermath of Mubarak, grudgingly gave way to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist party that had been the major opposition faction in Egypt for decades. Newly elected President Mohamed Morsi has been faced with the challenge of presiding over seething, chaotic factions while trying to restore economic hope to a desperate constituency, the largest population in the Arab world, and a key strategic partner of the United States.

The scene was set, the fuel was in place across two continents, for a shadowy producer in California to dupe a movie cast and crew and then dub a provocative dialogue into a very poor quality film, the “Innocence of Muslims,” that lampooned and denigrated the Prophet Mohammed, the most highly revered figure in the Islamic world. All it took was that source of ignition to be applied by elements in the Islamic world to seize the moment – the distribution of the film, redubbed in Arabic, through Youtube – to incite an anti-Western backlash focused on American diplomatic posts in more than a dozen countries. The unrest provided cover for a radical militia group in Libya, believed to be an Al Qaeda franchise, to launch a terrorist strike that took the lives of the US ambassador and three other Americans at the Benghazi consulate. A positive development in Libya, however, has been the Libyan leaders’ and public’s outrage and backlash against the militia that struck the Americans. On Friday a pro-American, anti-militia movement attacked the terrorists’ compound seeking to end the threats to a stable, progressive Libya. It’s a start. However, the unrest, the breaching of embassy walls, and the loss of lives shocked Americans as it seemingly came from nowhere for a public that, to its own peril, pays little attention to foreign affairs and U.S. interests abroad.

What is the upshot of these troubling developments? Many complicated questions. How to balance America’s strategic interests in this broad swath of the world amid obvious security concerns? How to deal with emerging leaders and governments who must balance important relationships with the West with demands of increasingly desperate populations? How to disarm provocateurs on both sides of the divide to prevent them from relighting the fires of anarchy? How to build bridges between moderates to prevent the East-West frictions from becoming a mass conflagration?

What will make it difficult if not impossible to reach good foreign policy choices in these troubling circumstances? A shallow, headline-driven approach. You cannot expect to put out a fire by ignoring the source of the fuel. It will take clear minds, not political agendas, among American leaders and citizens to assess and tackle these challenges.

This column appeared in the Sunday, September 23rd, 2012 issue of the Herald-Citizen, Cookeville, Tennessee, USA.

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