Raghida Dergham Headshot

America's Partnerships With the Arab People

Posted: Updated:
TUNISIA
AP

The Obama administration has drafted the features of its new strategic policy resulting from the "Arab Spring" with an effacing pencil as it is still at the stage of reacting and responding to events. There is not yet what would be called a "blueprint" for a strategic framework for broad American policy towards the Middle East, as if ink would tie down the hands of President Barack Obama at a time when he needs flexibility for electoral reasons. He decided not to become proactive where there is danger or a thorny road ahead. What he wants to do now is celebrate what has been already achieved, embrace it and build upon it as much as possible, while keeping away from developments that are still taking shape, also in as much as the events allow. This is why the Obama administration seems to some like the Mahatma Gandhi of championing reformed relations with Muslim people all over the world; while to others it seems like the Che Guevara of advocating change in the Arab region.

Clearly, this administration has opted to be populist, breaking away with traditional U.S. foreign policy, whose cornerstone was developing relations with states and governments. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear in her speech at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Washington this week that the radical change at the heart of foreign policy under Barack Obama resides in "partnerships with people, not just governments."

She said that standing with the people of Egypt and Tunisia, as they build their democracies, and supporting "the aspirations of people across the region" are easy for the United States, as "on this, our values and interests converge."

Such words are not always coupled with deeds everywhere. The Obama administration looks hesitant, and sometimes seems lost, as reflected in its policy towards Yemen and Bahrain. Other times it seems afraid to get "implicated," as is the case in Libya and Syria. This is all while it repeatedly acts with extreme caution when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict and peacemaking between Palestinians and Israelis in particular.

There is a dire need for a more profound sense of analysis of Arab uprisings within American policymaking circles. Egypt, for example, seems like the easiest link, and the most complicated one at the same time.

Most observers of the Egyptian uprising against a regime that continues to rule the country sum up the most difficult and most dangerous challenge for Egypt's future in one word: "bread." Freedom is wonderful, but bread is an essential need in this overpopulated country.

Perhaps the transitional phase in Egypt is the most dangerous in the entire region for numerous reasons, given the size of the economic and social explosions that would occur in case the transitional phase fails to achieve the passage to safety.

The administration seeks to encourage the private sector to help Egypt and to provide large sums of money. Yet the immediate American government aid announced by Clinton has remained below $150 million. This aid is not only "civilian" but is meant to be "political" as well.

The World Bank too is reinventing itself, as its president Robert Zoellick spoke this week of broadening the traditional scope of dealing exclusively with governments to explore the Bank's ability to deal with organizations and NGOs. This includes perhaps emerging political parties under the umbrella of democracy building -- Islamist parties included. This is new, unprecedented, and qualitatively different.

In theory, and perhaps also in practice, there is a certain logic for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to adopt a long-term strategy towards Egypt, one aimed first at saving it from regression and perhaps deterioration during the transitional period; and secondly, enabling it to turn into a free market economy in a democratic environment.

This is so Egypt can be a model for the aspirations of peoples and for achieving returns on investment in change.

Perhaps the Obama administration should exert some effort with the countries of the GCC in order to achieve such a goal. Washington will not donate U.S. funds generously in view of its economic situation and as a matter of principle: that the Arab countries able to donate (major countries in the GCC) are the ones that should shoulder the burden in the case of Egypt.

There are numerous obstacles to achieving this, most prominently the following two: First, there are countries that wish for the vacuum in Egypt's regional leadership to persist because they want to fill such a vacuum -- and Qatar is in the forefront. Second, several of the GCC counties are upset at the stance taken by the caretaker government in Egypt towards Iran, at a time when tension grows more acute between the GCC countries and Tehran.

Realistically and constitutionally, a caretaker government does not have the right to formulate a new strategic policy that reverses the policy of the previous government. Political wisdom requires not adopting a policy that embraces Iran at such a time, because it in effect means to stand by its side in the midst of its battle against the GCC countries.

The reasons for this are practical as well as political. Egypt remains an Arab country first and foremost, and Iran is not the party that will rush to help Egypt during its transitional phase.

Egypt has abstained from playing its role towards its neighbor, Libya, under the pretext of fear over its million and a half workers present in Libya turning into "hostages." But such an excuse is weak because Egypt could help in many ways if it wished to emerge from the vicious circle of vacuum in leadership.

Qatar has led the military initiative towards Libya and is now at the forefront of efforts for marketing the Transitional Council's oil. Of course, the role played by Qatar in encouraging the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's regime was clear and patent, just as it is active in the issue of Yemen and aims to support the opposition in removing Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.

Qatar finds a special role for itself to play at this stage in the region's history: first, by filling the current vacuum in regional leadership; second, by correcting and reforming the bilateral relationship with the United States; and third, because Qatar views itself as holding the instruments of change thanks to its abundant funds, its passion for playing roles and its colossal ambitions in proportion to the size of the country and the size of its population. Qatar takes risks and daring steps with careful calculations.

Just like the U.S., Qatar also walks a tightrope when it comes to Iran and Syria. Its enthusiasm against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and alongside the revolutionaries and the opposition in Libya has no parallel when it comes to the uprising of the Syrian people or the reformist revolution in Iran.

President Obama issued a statement in which he condemned the violence perpetrated by the Syrian government against protesters demanding their rights and their freedom. Hillary Clinton pointed to that statement in her speech before the US-Islamic World Forum, which was hosted by Washington and organized by the Brookings Center for Strategic Studies, in collaboration with the Qatari Foreign Ministry and with the participation of the Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu. She pointed, but stopped at pointing, while news of escalating violence and the fall of civilian casualties kept coming in during the days that followed Obama's statement.

The pretext raised by some Americans is that neither the League of Arab States nor the Gulf Cooperation Council have taken the initiative of turning the spotlight on the events in Syria, and neither has the Organization of the Islamic Conference. It is therefore not necessary for the Obama administration to take the initiative, from this point of view.

Opinions are divided in Washington over Syria. There are those who say that the regime has begun to waver. And there are others who say that the weakness of the regime in Damascus today represents a window of opportunity that must be seized upon in order to pull Syria out of the hold of the Iranian regime. This also means severing relations between the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, which might allow for peace between Syria and Israel.

Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has drawn attention with his comments before the Brookings Forum. He spoke of Libya with overwhelming confidence that Muammar Gaddafi and his regime will be toppled through an embargo of weapons and through selling Libyan oil on behalf of the Transitional Council. Kerry defended abandoning Hosni Mubarak, quickly saying that America had no other choice but to heed the call of the Egyptian people and to respond favorably to it. Yet when it came to Syria, Kerry spoke with his well-known admiration for Bashar Al-Assad, nearly describing him as a model of reform whose progress was being impeded by the difficulties faced by the peace process between Syria and Israel.

It is said that Kerry wants to be the sponsor of peace between Syria and Israel at any cost. This reveals double standards towards the Syrian people to begin with, and there is no base for a Syrian-Israeli peace deal at this point.

A high-ranking Israeli envoy was recently in Washington to encourage the administration and Congress not to pressure the regime in Damascus because Israel does not want change on that border and does not welcome an alternative on the basis of the devil you know.

And then there are those who resort to raising fears of any change in Damascus, because, according to them, it will lead to a civil war in Lebanon as a result of Hezbollah losing its ally. This twisted logic aims at frightening the Lebanese instead of respecting the decision of the Syrian people and allowing them the right to self-determination.

Recent developments in Syria should be an opportunity for the regime to focus on its internal affairs instead of focusing on regaining its hegemony over Lebanon. Indeed, the reform required must necessarily be domestic reforms and ceasing to interfere in the affairs of other countries in the region.

There is in the air a hint of something new on the level of peacemaking between the Palestinians and the Israelis, one that would come in the form of an initiative by the U.S. president in the coming few weeks. The most important thing the Obama administration should pay heed to is neither to fall into the trap of playing the blame game, in which past administrations have fallen, nor the game of anticipation for the sake of containment, after which everyone returns to the same vicious circle.

The Palestinian Authority intends to move forward to implement Obama's "hope," which he expressed as he wished that he would head to the United Nations next September with the state of Palestine having been already established. The Palestinians are serious about building Palestinian state institutions and about establishing their state. They must be taken seriously, and their views must be respected. After all, these views fit within the climate of the "Arab Spring."

There must not be another Oslo episode to delay and evade what must be done. The features of the two-state solution must be clarified using the U.S. president's permanent ink, not with an effacing pencil. And this is in the interest of the United States, the Arabs and Israel alike.