Anybody who’s been following the 2012 campaign for any length of time has most likely been inundated by pundits from the left and the right with the idea that this year would be a reprise of Bill Clinton’s 1992 classic “It’s the economy, stupid” and to a large extent this has been the case. A Gallup poll from the first week in September found that 72 percent of Americans feel that the nation’s economic problems are the most important issue facing the nation. That being said, recent events across the Middle East including the ongoing Syrian civil war, the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo by an angry mob, have (rightly so) renewed America’s focus on the state of our foreign policy in the Middle East. To address each of the laundry list of challenges the United States faces in the Middle East would be time consuming and would probably induce a case of carpal tunnel. The focus of this post, therefore, will be narrowed to just a few of the important events in recent weeks and how these events inform our foreign policy in the region.
Many of the protests sweeping across the Muslim world in the past few weeks appear to have been a result of outrage over a “movie” posted on Youtube which mocks the prophet Mohammed (an egregious offense for many Muslims) portraying him as a fraud and a womanizer, among other things. A distinction that needs to be made however, is that the assault on the consulate in Benghazi which resulted in the deaths of four Americans does not appear to have been related to the controversial Youtube video or to the protests it ignited, despite the best efforts of a certain Republican candidate for president’s best efforts to conflate the two. The attack in Benghazi was a fairly sophisticated four-hour assault involving a large amount of small arms fire, in addition to mortars and RPG’s. This would seem to indicate the involvement of an organized militant group, although precisely who is to blame for the attack is still a matter of some contention. The protests in Cairo and as far away as Yemen, Malaysia and Pakistan (some of which did become violent) produced no known American casualties and appear to have been a somewhat more (though still not entirely) organic outburst.
It is also important to note that blaming the protests entirely on the Youtube video does not do the issue justice, although it is probably safe to say that the vast majority of Muslims would be offended by it. Many of the countries where protests (ostensibly over the issue of the Youtube video) have sprung up, including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, are countries where just last year the people rode the wave of the Arab Spring and overthrew their governments. These governments were largely dictatorial and yet most of them were counted as key U.S. allies in the region, Egypt foremost among them. In fact the United States spent a good portion of the last 20 or 30 years propping up the very dictators that the people of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen overthrew in the course of the Arab Spring. These countries are only now beginning the long and messy process of forming democratic governments which will, hopefully, stand the test of time. While many Americans applaud the democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring nations, the situation has created somewhat of a diplomatic pickle for the United States. Previously, whenever the United States had a problem in any of these countries the President could pick up the phone and basically tell one of the various dictators what to do and that dictator would exercise their unilateral authority to make it so. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the United States is now faced with a cadre of new governments who cannot be as easily controlled nor can they control their own people as easily as Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Qadaffi might have been able to. Some of these governments also blame the United States, not without justification, for propping up the very dictators who oppressed them creating a further rift between the U.S. and its former “allies”.
The question still remains, however, where does the United States go from here? Some might even ask: How do we, as a nation, react to the evolving situation in the Middle East in order to best protect our interests? That is entirely the wrong question. The United States needs to stop viewing the Middle East in terms of how it directly affects us. An example of this mentality is the elections in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood won a closely contested election. Immediately following the Egyptian elections, several commentators (mostly from the right) took to the airwaves to express their dismay that the United States government had allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power in Egypt. Now whether the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt is good or bad for America or whether it matters at all is entirely irrelevant. The realization that Americans need to come to is that the United States cannot unilaterally shape the Middle East in whatever fashion it chooses. The very point of a democratic nation is the idea of self-governance and to interfere in a sovereign nation’s elections to further American ambitions violates the very principles of liberty and freedom Americans love to preach ad naseum to the Muslim World.
That being said, the role of the United States in the formation of a democratic Middle East cannot be understated. The United States is in a unique position to help these emerging democracies confront the same challenges America faced when it was first created and still confronts to this day more than 200 years after our founding — the role of a free press, the scope and scale of military and executive power, how best to form a judiciary to interpret the law, to name just a few. The United States can be a friend and an ally to the Middle East but before that can happen, America’s leaders need to realize that although they can help navigate the treacherous waters of nation building, they are, ultimately, not the ones behind the wheel.