Friday, December 21, 2007

Now Is the Time for Your Friendship to End?

Matt Duss wrote yesterday of some of the less publicized - though extremely important - blowback from the Iraq war:

Negar Azimi explains how, rather than continuing to pressure Egypt on human rights and democratic reform, the Bush administration has reverted to supporting Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship, treating it as an ally in the "war on terror" and a bulwark against the growing Iranian and Islamist influence which has resulted from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Isn't that wonderful? By agreeing to be a recipient of extraordinary rendition detainees, you too can get the heat off your authoritarian regime.

There's no overstating how deeply dispiriting this sort of thing is to Arab political reformers, or how strongly it confirms al-Qaeda propaganda about American methods and intentions in the Middle East. Ayman al-Zawahiri was himself radicalized [ed note: a link to Chez Nadezhda!] by the torture he endured in Mubarak's prisons, and now, after a head fake in the direction of political reform, the U.S. is back to underwriting that torture. Ring, freedom, ring.

Actually, it is US support for these regimes that, in many ways, led al-Qaeda to attack the US in the first place. al-Qaeda's central mission is to overthrow the "apostate" totalitarian regimes in the region (such as Egypt, which is Zawahiri's white whale of sorts) and replace them with a puritanical Muslim caliphate spanning from Indonesia to southern Spain. al-Qaeda determined, however, that it could not overthrow these regimes while they were being propped up by the US government. Thus, the plan was to bloody our nose sufficiently enough (9/11) so that we would either: cut off our support and withdraw from the region - leaving the ruling regimes vulnerable and ripe for usurpation, or overreact in such a way that would drain us of the resources and/or regional leverage needed to continue to provide the vital backing (we didn't go for the former, but Bush's misadventure in Iraq has steered us dangerously close to the latter).

The skewed priorities that lead us to support these regimes with stifled criticisms (from lucrative oil arrangments to cooperation with the torture and indefinite detention of detainees) despite their brutal and undemocratic impulses badly impacts our image in the region (above and beyond al-Qaeda's specific strategy). Matt Yglesias illustrates the dynamic by pointing out how Putin's own support for certain undemocratic yet friendly political forces in neighboring states like Georgia and Ukraine impact Russia's image:

It's widely understood, for example, that insofar as Vladimir Putin backs unpopular undemocratic pro-Russian leaders in the "near abroad" this is likely to make Russia even less popular in Russia-skeptical elements of the population of those countries. The analog of this, that staunch American support for unpopular undemocratic pro-American leaders in the Gulf and in Egypt is a significant source of anti-American sentiment is, by contrast, completely absent from the national conversation.

Going back to the Dussian concept of the "free passes," this report (warning pdf) on the identities of foreign fighters in Iraq compiled by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center provides evidence for what has been obvious for some time: most of the foreign fighters in Iraq hail from the environs of our close friend and ally, Saudi Arabia (41% in fact). Yet, oddly enough (or not), rarely, if ever, is Saudi Arabia mentioned when the Bush administration publicly chastises those of Iraq's neighbors that are said to be interfering in Iraq to deleterious effect. That is usually a list of two: Iran and Syria, or Syran as the neo-kids like to say. I wonder at the explanation for this selective opprobrium.

Contrary to the stridency of the post title, however, I do not believe that the US should completely sever ties to the regimes in question, but we should be doing much more to pressure them to make democratic reforms and provide breathing space so that those nations' nascent and struggling civil societies can grow. At the very least, we should not be backsliding in the ways that the piece cited by Matt Duss describes. In terms of using our leverage more productively, Shadi Hamid and Stephen McInerney give us a good place to start.

(hat tip to Lorelei Kelly for the West Point link)

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