US Middle East policy: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil… just act surprised

None of the Arab Revolts of 2011 have played themselves out as yet. So it will be a while before the Obama Administration can assess the damage to its interests: a set back or a debacle?
Rob Prince
10 February 2011

Many years ago – 43 to be exact – Phil Jones and I, both Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Tunis at the time, walked into a reception in the garden of the US embassy there where Hubert Humphrey was doing his best to give a pro-Vietnam War pep talk, trying to explain how the February 1968 Tet Offensive wasn’t a U.S. military setback despite Walter Cronkite’s suggestion on national television that indeed it was. As Humphrey launched into his remarks, Jones and I, somewhat nervous and uncertain as to our impending fate, took out our anti-war posters from under our sports coats and held them high in the air.

According to `an informed source’, present at the historic event (and still this side of the great divide), Humphrey was quoted as saying: `”I can’t even give a talk to the embassy staff in Tunis, for Christ’s sake!” The vice president immediately cancelled the talk and left the embassy as did everyone else. Left alone in the garden we looked at each other, placed our posters in an orange tree there in the embassy garden and casually left. Much later I learned the purpose of Humphrey’s trip was to canvas European and North African allies as to the political advisability of the United States using nuclear weapons against the Vietnamese. So much for Hubert Humphrey as the ‘gentle warrior’” as some anti-war liberals once described him.

No one, including Tunisia’s President Habib Bourguiba, supported a US nuclear escalation. Many warned that if the United States proceeded in that direction, that their own political futures might be jeopardized. Soon thereafter, hamstrung on all sides, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for another term of the presidency. So much for nuking Vietnam, although `conventional’ weapons – napalm, agent orange, phospherous and cluster proved that with modern weaponry effects as devastating can be achieved without triggering much moral outrage.


At the time, the US embassy, then one of the largest buildings in Tunis, sat on Avenue de la Liberté, close to downtown. We Peace Corps volunteers didn’t visit the embassy often, but it had a snack bar/restaurant and especially during the first few months when I was still dreaming of cheeseburgers, I did indulge. During the June 1967 Middle East War, the Tunisian military was out on the streets in force (as were enormous crowds in solidarity with the Arab cause). Soldiers with bayoneted rifles stood every 25 feet or so. I was told – never able to confirm or deny – that their rifles lacked ammunition and that the ammunition was instead stored for safe keeping (from whom?) in the very same U.S. embassy. Rumour for sure, but one that suggested the growing influence of the United States in Tunisian affairs, welcomed to a certain extent by the then President Habib Bourguiba as a counterweight to French diplomatic clout, still strong some ten years after Tunisian independence.

Much later, in 2002, just after 9-11, the US embassy moved from Ave. de la Liberté, not far from the center of the city, to a large complex in La Goulette , a Tunis suburb. A sprawling building with very much of a post 9-11 embassy-bunker appearance, it occupies a vast space that, besides the current ambassador, Gordon Gray and his staff, also houses the offices of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the latter being little more than a way to entice Middle East nations to accept World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs by offering them a few pennies of aid in return, short term gain, long term crisis.

From this description alone, one gets a sense of its political significance and influence in both the country and the region. If not as extensive as the US embassy complex in Baghdad, that, nothing less than a city within the city, the Tunis embassy is imposing enough, a modern version of a crusader castle. Given its array of Crusader-like castle-embassies throughout the Middle East equipped with super duper modern communication systems, stuffed with various intelligence agency personnel both on the ground and in the air, with the inordinate amount of money and energy spent on `protecting U.S. interests’ (code for insuring the security of oil transit routes) it is logical to believe that the United States was well prepared, `in the know’ about the situation on the ground in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan and that they somehow anticipated the uprisings that the world is witnessing.

Add to this the fact that the signs of the political explosion which began in Tunisia a bare six months ago and has now spread region-wide have been long in the making. Long before WikiLeaks, 13 years ago, a US ambassador to Tunisia warned of the dangers of spiralling unemployment rates, particularly youth unemployment. A series of reports – the Arab Human Development Reports – early in the millennium spoke of the dangers of growing youth unemployment, corruption and political repression. The fifth of these reports, published as recently as 2009, raised the same concerns in more worried and urgent language as does the 2010 version. These voices went essentially unheeded. A number of scholars, among them, Georgetown’s Stephen Juan King and CCNY’s David Harvey, have, in their work documented the erosive effect of World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs on Middle Eastern economies. Others, Chalmers Johnson, Tom Engelhardt, Michael Schwartz, Immanuel Wallerstein have warned that US Middle East policy, with its support of regional dictators, is unsustainable.

But who in this or former White Houses listens to academics, especially if their knowledge/insights fly in the face of Washington policy? It happens only during those rare moments when the carefully contrived Washington consensus collapses, as it has now in Tunisia and Egypt, that these more critical voices are, temporarily heard before being unceremoniously shipped back to their former academic anonymity.

Truth of the matter is that the Obama Administration, essentially blind-sided by the protest wave, is in deep trouble. Its main goal in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and wherever else protests break out is in all cases - buying time:

-  time to limit damage to U.S. strategic and economic interests (centring mostly around regional oil and gas flows),

-  time to find suitable replacements for the regional dictators Washington has long backed,

-  time to find figures who meet those increasing difficult standards – having mass appeal on the one hand, but willing to continue its military ties with Washington and not renege on World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs which have caused so much economic damage throughout the region. It’s not that the Obama Administration is unaware of the underlying socio-economic structural crisis which has plagued the entire region for some time now. Rather, it simply didn’t know how to read the map or interpret events.

Instead Washington glossed over the simmering social storm about to break, and magnified Tunisia’s achievements while systematically playing down its growing failures. There seemed to be a consensus in Washington (and in Paris) not to see what was going under the surface. 

In Tunisia’s case, this was achieved until recently, with a little help from a Washington public relations firm, the Washington Media Group. The Washington Media Group, which had to have known about the human rights violations in Tunisia, cancelled its contract with Tunisia on January 6, 2011. A question of principle or just a case of covering their butts? Tunisia’s `positive p.r.’ in Washington gravitated around two themes: Tunisia’s women’s rights policies (somewhat exaggerated by the way – it is something less than equal rights) impressed U.S. legislators. The more secular nature of the regime (also somewhat overstated) played well to American audiences inoculated since September 11, 2001 (and probably before) with the great fear of radical Islamic fundamentalism.

It seemingly never occurred to US policy makers that secular regimes, even ones that to a certain degree support women’s rights, can be otherwise pervasively oppressive. But then, that just doesn’t fit the State Department’s cookie-cutter radical fundamentalist model. So how bad could it be? Nor has the Washington establishment provided much of anything in the way of offering solutions to the crisis. Pretty impressive ostrich approach all in all. It is scurrying to put together an approach to the changes sweeping the region that in many fundamental ways were triggered or exacerbated by U.S. security and economic policies, to mention two specifically – the war on terrorism and US-encouraged World Bank and IMF structural adjustment policies.

Even as the Obama Administration suddenly tries to distance itself from Mubarak, and nudge him from power, the fact remains: he was the US man in the Middle East par excellence. It is not only his regime which has been discredited, but 32 years of U.S. support of that regime. Don’t think that the people on the streets of cities all over Egypt are unaware of this fact.

From Sidi Bouzid to Tunis and Sfax, from Ma’ad to Cairo and Alexandria

As the revolt has moved east from the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Sfax and Tunis in Tunisia to Ma’ad, Alexandria and Cairo, its center of gravity has shifted to the very edge of the Middle East oil producing region. And now the world’s military heavies weigh in:

- NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggests that the current Arab revolt puts both the world economy and the world order `at stake’. (This is a bit of an overstatement, suggesting the degree to which NATO was `ambushed’ by events)

- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen related that due to the events in Egypt the U.S. Army has been `put on alert’, and that “ and also that we’ve got our military ready, should any kind of response or support be required,” he said. “That isn’t the case right now, but I’m very focused on that.”

The stakes for the United States (and Israel) in Egypt are considerably higher than in Tunisia. For Washington Ben Ali is expendable. The Obama Administration did little to help him in `his moment of need.’ Indeed there are some reports (in the French press) that the Tunisian Chief of Staff Ammar was in telephone contact with the head of AFRICOM, U.S. General William Ward at a rather sensitive moment in the Tunisian crisis.

But Egypt is an entirely different matter. If Tunisia got $20 million in military aid over the course of Ben Ali’s time in power, Mubarak has received $2 billion annually since 1979 – most of that for military purposes. Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now with the Brookings Institute Vice President is certainly right to underline the many services that Mubarak has provided US strategic interests in the region.

Key elements of the strategic relationship include:

- keeping the Suez Canal open and safe for oil tankers from the Persian Gulf heading for Europe (and the Americas).

- assuring the flow of oil through oil pipelines from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean through Egypt

- cooperating with Israel on the blockade of Gaza.

- actively supporting the United States in the war on terrorism, participating in extraordinary rendition

- in making peace with Israel at Camp David in 1978, Egypt essentially permitted the Israel’s to tighten their grip over the West Bank and Gaza, and concentrate their military ambitions elsewhere – Lebanon, and perhaps sometime in the future, Iran.

Finally, although it is sometimes forgotten, Egypt is not only Israel’s neighbour, it is also Saudi Arabia’s. Mubarak may not yet have joined Zine Ben Ali in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) but Aqaba, where he seems to be hiding out at the moment, is a five minute walk into Saudi territory. While both the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea separates Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the distances (especially across the Gulf of Aqaba) are minimal, the point here being that the kind of revolt taking place in Egypt will invariably have echoes in Saudi.

Right now, without much of a roadmap, the main US goal  is to buy time to insure damage control, to slow the processes of change everywhere in the region, hoping to minimize the damage to U.S. strategic interests (meaning specifically its control of the region’s energy resources).


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