Middle Eastern Politics 
America and Political Islam

Why US foreign policy has shifted from supporting dictators in the Middle East to supporting their foes

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza via Flickr.

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza via Flickr.

Why attitudes changed

For too long, United States administrations have supported dictators in the Middle East. Their support is primarily driven by their fear of radical Islamists, who were dealt with brutally by those dictators. Another key driver of that support is the strong ties between the United States and the state of Israel and the commitment of the former to the sustained safety and security of Israel. These concerns led past and current administrations to support Egypt’s Mubarak all the way to the Egyptian revolution. Mubarak was staunchly pro-American, and when President Obama called on Mubarak to step down it was a major shift in a decades-old policy. Why would the US administration abandon such a strong ally in the Middle East so easily?

According to the New York Times, John O. Brennan, chief counter terrorism advisor to Mr. Obama, said that the President saw that there was an inevitability to it. Mubarak was going to lose that battle, and the United States didn’t want to be on the losing side. While that argument has considerable merit it doesn’t help explain why the Obama administration then softened its approach towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Another argument could be that US diplomats saw this as an opportunity to de-radicalize some of the more radical Islamists in Egypt and beyond by supporting the rise of political Islam. This approach was made infinitely easier when the Muslim Brotherhood stood firmly behind the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty with Israel as it decided to put forth a candidate for the Egyptian presidency.  From the Obama administration’s perspective, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood is today’s winning strategy. Some would argue it is the only strategy; directly challenging the brotherhood either by restricting the US $1.3 billion annual aid or by challenging their choices and decisions publicly might risk the ever more fragile peace between Egypt and Israel. This is of particular importance given the strong relationship between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in Gaza and the recent mediation by Egypt’s President Morsi during the conflict in Gaza last November. Besides, with a bit of luck Egypt can become a prosperous Islamic democracy like Turkey – right? There is one small problem with this strategy, however: it just won’t work. Egypt will not be Turkey; supporting Islamist governments will not reduce the number of the “right” kind of radical Islamists; and most importantly, it is time that the US administration understood that the best interests of the American people are in making friends with the 1.6 billion Muslims that live around the world, rather than just the state of Israel.

Why it won’t work

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), while Islamist, is ruling a country that has a staunchly secular constitution. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern Turkey, the new constitution was written to uphold secular morals. Generations of Turks have lived in peace and prosperity under those ideals. This restricts how much the AKP can mix religion with politics, both because of the constitution and because of the will of the Turkish people who benefited from Attaturk’s vision. In contrast, the new Egyptian constitution was written by the Muslim Brotherhood, who are far more Islamist than the AKP. This gives Egypt’s Islamists the freedom to do as they please, and pursue their agenda of building an Islamic state. It is much more likely for Egypt to take the path of Iran – a pseudo democracy where Islamist extremists vie for power. Politicising Islam in Egypt will also not attract the radical and once violent Islamists of Egypt and will not be a model for other majority Muslim countries to follow. The idea that an Islamic government could help de-radicalise Islamists by politicizing their “struggle” and taking it from the literal battlefield to the political battlefield is feeble. The Muslim Brotherhood’s model is ironically not conservative enough to appeal to the Malian, Somalis and Afghani Islamists. It’s not even conservative enough to be accepted by Egypt’s Salafis, most of whom have already renounced violence. Supporting a more radical Islamist governance model would be beyond feeble. It would be utterly disastrous. Having the political clout and military firepower of sovereign states under the authority of that type of radical Islamists would create a world where Somalia is the least of our worries.  Finally, supporting groups like the Muslim Brotherhood because they stood firmly behind keeping the peace with Israel is a tried and failed strategy, as well as part of a bigger problem of how US foreign policy priorities are arranged. For years, successive U.S. administrations supported Middle Eastern dictators who also promised a form of peace with Israel. However, that peace has been cold and shaky at best. Moreover, there is very little evidence to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamist government would improve upon the status quo: if anything, it seems as though relationships are gradually deteriorating.

A policy shift

Ultimately, it is imperative that the US realises that the safety and security of the state of Israel cannot be guaranteed except by appealing to Muslims the world over. US administrations need to realign their policy to begin winning favour with Arab people and Muslims around the world. Realigning their priorities to win the support of Arabs and Muslims around the world is also in the best interest of the American people and their safety and security. A better repertoire with Muslims means fewer people would be willing to dedicate their lives to Jihad against America and the “imperialist” west. Strongly denouncing some Israeli actions and ensuring that they have consequences, for example imposing trade restrictions in response to the continued construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, would be a good step. Supporting the legitimate efforts for the establishment of a Palestinian State would also improve America’s rapport in the region. However, not supporting political Islam in Egypt and other Arab Spring nations would be a relatively easy task that will help the United States build some enduring new friendships. Supporting the rise of true and transparent democracies in the region that will focus on the important issues and raising the prosperity of their people, and not on who must wear a hijab and why men can’t wear shorts, is a much better way of protecting Americans and Israelis than supporting dictators, Islamist radicals or Israeli settlers.