Is America Feared Enough in the Middle East?

(Sipa via AP Images)

Protesters on the road leading to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo's Tahrir square

The past decade should have permanently cured Americans of the idea that we can dictate events in the Middle East. So it’s hard to take seriously some of the conservative claims and criticisms regarding the continuing anti-American demonstrations in the region.

Senator John McCain has insisted that the Obama administration’s policy of “disengagement” led to the attacks on U.S. embassy outposts last week.  "We're leaving Iraq. We're leaving Afghanistan. We're leaving the area,” McCain said on Face the Nation. “The people in the area are having to adjust and they believe the United States is weak, and they are taking appropriate action." McCain characterized the protests as part of “a fight, a struggle in the Arab world between the Islamists and the forces of moderation. And they want America disengaged.”

Liz Cheney believes the problem is that no one is scared of us anymore. “In too many parts of the world, America is no longer viewed as a reliable ally or an enemy to be feared,” she wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Ask the mobs in Cairo who attacked our embassy, or the Libyan mobs who killed our diplomats at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Ask the Iranians, who make unhindered daily progress toward obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

As the blog the Daily Dolt noted, “There were twelve terrorist attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities abroad during George W. Bush’s tenurethe most of any president in history.” Presumably, when America was invading and occupying Iraq we were “engaged,” as McCain would define it, and yet our Middle East woes were worse. And there’s no overstating the extent to which America’s rash and incompetent adventure in Iraq undermined our international partners’ view of us as a reliable ally. As Bush left office, Freedom House released its annual survey, which noted that 2008 marked the third consecutive year in which global freedom suffered a decline” after years of precisely the sort of “engagement” that McCain and Cheney favor. Yet all of this seems forgotten.

A more interesting critique is offered by David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who gave the world the phrase "Axis of Evil," who suggests it may have been a mistake by the Obama administration to accept the entrance of Islamist parties into the political fray of the Middle East. “The central test of the engage-political-Islamists policy is post-Mubarak Egypt,” Frum wrote. “Nobody remembers now, but after Mubarak's fall there was much debate whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed to participate in Egypt's new political system. It is hardly illiberal to ban a party that aims at the overthrow of a liberal state.” Perhaps, but to which liberal state is Frum referring? Not Egypt, which spent the majority of the last fifty years under an emergency law which sharply limited political activities and saw thousands of political activists imprisoned. And note Frum’s use of “allowed” here, as if it were possible, in the wake of Mubarak’s exit, for the U.S. to simply deny political access to the country’s best-organized and most deeply rooted movement. Despite the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, these critics still haven’t shaken the idea that America can simply pull levers to create outcomes that we like.

Taking a step back, it’s important to keep these protests in perspective. Monash University professor Susan Carland tweeted a chart looking at the actual number of protesters, concluding that they represented a whopping 0.01 percent of the combined populations of the countries where the protests occurred. This in no way diminishes the tragic loss of American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya last week, but these riots do not exactly represent a sweeping referendum on America.

McCain, Cheney, and Frum were all high-profile supporters of Bush’s freedom agenda. Their criticisms raise a question: Just what did they think greater freedom and more democracy in these countries was going to look like?

In reorienting American policy after 9/11, one thing Bush got right about the Middle East was that supporting dictators came at the cost of fanning anti-Americanism, and that this was a bad bargain. (That one could have found a similar critique among leftist academics for years was a little remarked-upon irony.) Therefore, it was in America’s interest to more robustly support political reform leading to greater accountability and legitimacy. Unfortunately, the freedom agenda was quickly overshadowed by a wave of anti-Americanism and extremism driven by anger at the occupation of Iraq, causing the Bush administration to dive back into the embrace of the same dictators.

But the basic truth of the critique remains: More-legitimate governments—that is, governments that are seen by their own people as accountable and serving their interests—are, in the long term, better partners than less-legitimate ones. It’s just going to be bumpy getting there. The question is whether or not we are willing to commit to aiding the creation of durable democratic political institutions, understanding that these institutions may empower forces less sympathetic to American goals and values, or if we will go back to pursuing an always-tenuous regional stability, eschewing democratic values in the process.

This is perhaps not the way anyone wanted democracy come to the Middle East, but this is how it is happening. The violent anti-American protests that have occurred over the last week in a number of Middle Eastern countries underline yet again what a difficult period we face as these nations deal with complicated transitions after years of unaccountable, unrepresentative governments. Following decades of supporting repressive governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, we’re not going to change deeply ingrained perceptions overnight. When it comes to the American image, though, one of the best things we can do is model liberal democratic practices.

Just like we did in our response to the anti-Muslim YouTube video that sparked these demonstrations. Last week, the Obama administration asked YouTube to review the clip “Innocence of Muslims” to see if it violated the company’s terms of service, and could be taken down. YouTube did so and concluded that the video did not. It remains online. And that was the end of it. Whatever one thinks of the Obama administration’s decision to make this request, in many other countries, this would not have been a request. This concept—that private citizens have rights that the government can’t abridge—is still revolutionary. 

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