Saturday, 12 February 2011

The negative influence of American diplomats in Egypt and the Middle East

Michael Rubin highlights in his Commentary article the less than positive influence of American diplomats, who supported Mubarak and other Middle East autocrats while opposing George W. Bush ´s freedom agenda:

As Bush held firm, Mubarak wavered. Arab heads of state may have disliked Bush, but they respected him. After Bush not only ousted Saddam but oversaw Iraq’s first free elections in January 2005, they understood they could not dismiss his resolve. It is ironic that while American pundits tried to paint the Iraq war as diminishing American influence in the region, even Muammar Qaddafi’s own advisers ascribe the Libyan leader’s nuclear about-face to a combination of fear and respect for Bush after the Iraq invasion. As for Mubarak, in March 2005 he not only ordered the parliament to amend the constitution to allow contested elections, but he also freed Nour.
Still, Mubarak’s embrace of reform was neither open-ended nor sincere. His strategy then—just as it would be facing protesters in Tahrir Square—was to wear down opponents. Mubarak believed he could outlast Bush. No sooner had he announced reform than he eviscerated it. After blessing contested elections, he shortened the campaign to prevent his opponents from getting their message out. State-controlled media devoted round-the-clock coverage to Mubarak but refused to broadcast his opponents’ speeches and campaign events. Security forces harassed crowds seeking to attend opposition events and rallies. On election day, police cordoned off ballot stations in opposition strongholds. Mubarak won more than 88 percent of the vote; Nour received 7 percent.
In his efforts to undermine reform, Mubarak found a surprising and disappointing ally in the State Department. With the insurgency gaining strength in Iraq, Bush deferred management of Middle East reform to Foggy Bottom. Diplomats crave stability, not change. Not only did many career diplomats wish to punish Bush for launching an Iraq war they deeply opposed, but most ambassadors also believed that Arab autocracy rather than democracy better ensured American national security. Their arguments gained ground in January 2006 after Hamas won the Palestinian elections in Gaza. (The problem in Gaza, however, was not the elections but the State Department’s willingness to bless the participation of groups who sought to enforce their will through the barrel of a gun.)

Rubin suggests that American diplomats change their way of working:

The Egyptian turmoil should lead to greater introspection at the State Department. Even though Cairo hosts America’s largest embassy after Baghdad, and hundreds of the State Department’s most promising Arabic linguists have passed through its language school in Tunis, no diplomat foresaw this revolution. This should raise questions about how diplomats do their jobs. Too often American diplomats report on meetings with officials in their host countries. In the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, Clinton should demand that America’s representatives spend more time socializing in slums and frequenting working-class coffeehouses rather than elite clubs. They should produce fewer memoranda about conversations and more holistic reports on the state of society. This will require better language skills, higher standards for tenure, and less-comfortable circumstances for America’s representatives, but the stakes for change have never been higher.
In the months to come, Obama must be more president than pundit. He cannot substitute statements for decisions. His choices will reverberate for generations. If he chooses wisely, he may usher in a true Arab spring in which Arab leaders will give priority to their society’s betterment rather than seeking to distract society with external hatred. But if Obama chooses poorly, the damage he will do to American national security will last decades.

Read the entire article here.

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