The Middle East is once again shrouded in the abaya of upheaval. Given the Byzantine nature of Middle Eastern politics, it’s difficult to predict whether the region will emerge from the current disarray with an improved push toward freedom, or a reactionary plunge toward Islamic fundamentalism.
The game may ultimately be the same — the quest for wealth, or power, or both — but the Middle Eastern version is played with far too many wild cards. In Tunisia, a self-immolating street vendor set the government alight. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial attitude, combined with a resurgent Islamofascist element, has become a perfect storm of destabilization.
While he’s no friend of freedom, Mubarak has been a redoubtable ally to the United States over the last three decades. Westerners who point to his autocratic manner tend to forget that truly democratic and/or republican leaders outside the Western world are as few and far between as truly democratic and/or republican countries; despite the overwhelming number of nations with names including one or the other adjective. And as wholly unprepared as President Barack Obama was for Tunisia, the situation in Egypt may become a far larger stain on his already-tarnished foreign policy legacy.
In 2009, as brigades of young people took to the streets of Iran in search of liberty, Obama hemmed and hawed. He proffered platitudes about Iran’s potential march toward freedom. But when Iran’s hard-line Islamofascist clerics, fronted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the Persian Ringmaster, unleashed their own version of Tiananmen Square, Obama lost the notes to his “Iranian Freedom” speech.
And the collapse of the Lebanese government, thanks to the machinations of Iran- and Syria-backed Hezbollah terrorists, has gone essentially uncommented-upon by Obama. Beirut, once nicknamed “the Paris of the Middle East,” is headed back to being the “Beirut of the World.”
This, then, would be the “Obama Doctrine.” George W. Bush’s cowboy diplomacy, a one-off of Ronald Reagan’s enormously successful style, is horrendously expensive. But Obama has turned too far in the other direction, instead emulating Carter, the losing admiral in the Battle of the Chattahoochee Bunny.
Lebanon and Tunisia, followed by Egypt, are potentially bad signs. Should fundamentalist Islamic groups like Hezbollah and Muslim Brotherhood gain control, they could destabilize — for example — the already-shuddering regime of King Abdullah II of Jordan. To cement the idea of Abdullah II as non-threatening, keep in mind that he’s such a fan of Star Trek that he once took a walk-on role on one of the spin-off shows (set phasers on AWESOME!) Hardly the stuff of jihadi dreams, considering the Enterprise fires photon torpedoes, not B-40 RPG’s.
Just to the east of Jordan sits the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are enormously wealthy and have territorial control over the heart of Islam. However, they’ve spent decades pacifying extremist Muslims with money and concessions, while maintaining friendly-ish relations with the West. Essentially, the House of Saud has been robbing Peter to pay Mohammed. If that camel lurches to a halt, the offshoot would be both economically and politically devastating.
Elsewhere in the Middle East there sit a variety of monarchies and oil-soaked baronies which would soil their dishdashas if the bad guys moved in heavy. Morocco is a fine spot, but it’s only geopolitically noteworthy for attracting filmmakers and Western tourists who want to say they’ve “been to the Middle East” without actually having to go to the more “shooty” parts. Scattered around the rest of the region are golf resorts like the United Arab Emirates, and tiny oil drums like Qatar and Bahrain: Allies, but with militaries which couldn’t stand up to a determined Girl Scout troop during cookie drive season.
Vice President Joe Biden recently told Jim Lehrer: “I would not refer to (Mubarak) as a dictator.” Imagine the response of every Tom, Dick and Akbar on the street. Obama has repeatedly been behind the curve on foreign policy. It’s high time he gets out in front, and ensures friendly relations with whatever rises there.
Let me leave you with this caveat: If Obama doesn’t encourage them to play nice, the Israelis (thought I’d forgotten them?) will definitely try. If you think the situation in the Middle East is bad NOW — just you wait.