Politics & Policy

Obama Abandons Arab Moderates

We need stronger support for democrats and real condemnations of Islamist despotism.

There is a battle under way in every Arab country between moderate forces, which seek progress toward real democracy, and Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood groups or affiliates, which seek power so that they can begin the process of imposing their views. As we have just seen in Egypt, when these latter get power they use it.

It would seem obvious that the United States has a great interest in seeing moderate forces prevail. Those forces — consisting often of groups that are liberal and secular, or moderate and non-Brotherhood Islamic groups, or religious minorities such as Christians or Druze — are natural allies of the United States and look to our Constitution and political values as guides. Moreover, their struggle is by no means doomed. In Egypt’s presidential election last June, the Brotherhood won only by the margin of 51 percent to 48; the victor’s power grab has instigated widespread protests; and moderates won in the Libyan elections.

The second-worst mistake the United States could make today would be to abandon the moderates; the worst mistake would be to cozy up to the Islamists and treat them as friends. It appears that we are making both mistakes right now, and that this will be a central feature of Obama’s policies in his second term. In July, soon after President Morsi took office, Defense Secretary Panetta visited Cairo and declared that Morsi was “his own man,” suggesting that he did not really have Muslim Brotherhood goals at heart. How does that one stand up today?

Panetta also said during that visit that “President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together toward the same ends.” That was six weeks before Morsi removed Tantawi, another demonstration that American officials engage in happy talk about the Brotherhood and its leaders without knowing much about what is happening in Egypt. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also visited Cairo last summer and came away “encouraged” — this despite the fact that during her visit many Coptic leaders refused to meet with her and hundreds of moderate protesters took to the streets because they felt the United States was abandoning them.

And consider the recent Morsi power grab: The denunciations from Europe were far stronger than ours. The State Department said it was “concerned,” one of the weakest words available in the diplomatic lexicon. While Egyptians are in the streets trying to force Morsi to backtrack at least a bit, we refuse to add to the pressure. Think what that means for the morale of liberals, moderates, Copts, judges — everyone in Egypt who wishes to see the “Arab Spring” bring democracy and the rule of law.

How do Arabs who do not wish the Islamists well see this new American policy? One can find new insight in a column published this week in Gulf News, an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, by Abdulkhaleq Abdulla. A well-known political-science professor in the UAE, Abdulla holds a Georgetown Ph.D. In the article, “US, Islamists and Arab Gulf states,” he argues as follows:

Throughout the region, especially among some Arab Gulf states . . . there is a general apprehension towards Washington going the extra mile in empowering the Islamists and treating them as new political allies. The message coming from Washington is that political Islam is the now darling and the choice of the moment. . . . The Obama administration sees political Islam as a moderate force capable of taming the angry Arab, bring back political stability and preserve the status quo. Washington seems to think that the region stretching from Afghanistan to Morocco is essentially an Islamic region and should be ruled by Islamists.

Abdulla argues that the Islamists are far from moderate, and that they are far from persuading all Arabs to back them:

For the US to think that Islamists are the only credible force around is ridiculous. The post-Arab Spring landscape is full of political dynamism and forces of change such as liberals, secularists, nationalists are far from being politically defeated or marginalised. Above all, there is also the vast majority of independents, mostly Arab youth, who played a pivotal role in ending decades of political stagnation in the Arab world.

Abdulla is on to something here: It does appear that President Obama sees the Islamists as the wave of the future, the authentic voice of Arabs, and all the more authentic if they are anti-American. It is a flashback to Jimmy Carter’s policies in Latin America, which saw groups like the Sandinistas as the popular voice, and abandoned the moderates who wanted an end to dictatorships but favored moderate, pro-American governments to follow them.

What can we do for Arab democrats? It’s obvious that we cannot fight their battles for them, and that they must get far better organized. But there are two things we certainly can do: stop pretending the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are democrats or moderates, and start speaking out when their governments restrict freedom of press, speech, or assembly, restrict judicial independence and the rule of law, or undermine human rights. A State Department expression of “concern” won’t cut it; the president and secretary of state must speak out strongly for American values. We cannot guarantee victory for Arab democrats, but our interests and our principles both mean we cannot abandon them during their struggle.

— Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, will be published in late December.

Elliott Abrams was special representative for Iran in the Trump administration. He chairs the Vandenberg Coalition and is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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