The National Interest - online edition 2006-09-05 So much attention has been paid to the Bush Administration's dramatic confrontations with its enemies in the Middle East that there is little consideration of how it treats its Arab allies there. In its rush to dispose of perceived threats to U.S. interests in the region, the White House has neglected its relations with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, while accommodating an increasingly autocratic Egypt. And the White House, not to mention the "expert" commentary on the Middle East, fails to distinguish differences between Arab governments and groups-and the U.S. interests at stake with each.
Washington has empowered Islamist groups, particularly the local chapters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, that are bolstering their political and theological franchise by fanning fears of a U.S. war on Islam. The nature of U.S. hegemony, embodied in the ever-tightening relationship with Israel, has made it impossible for moderate Arab regimes to cooperate with Washington-contributing to the leadership vacuum that was so achingly apparent during the month-long conflict between Israel and Lebanon's Hizballah. And while the White House neglects the House of Saud, it overindulges Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and overestimates the staying power of the Mubarak dynasty.
The Egyptian leader is unwittingly plotting his regime's demise by refusing to recognize rising and potentially destabilizing discontent and to neutralize it through an open political process. Mubarak's re-election last September in Egypt's first free-albeit hardly fair, according to a legion of impartial monitors-national ballot raised hopes that the Bush Administration would pressure Cairo to allow opposition groups to mobilize as political parties. Such a move would have not only put into tangible effect Bush's signature rhetoric on democracy, it would also have created for Mubarak an escape valve for tensions.
Then, in May, when violent demonstrations erupted amid high-level charges of official vote rigging and voter intimidation, many reformers believed Mubarak, with American prodding, would finally relent. Instead, he locked up protestors and rejected a legal appeal from dissident Ayman Nour, who in January 2005 was convicted and jailed on spurious forgery charges. U.S. diplomats in Cairo were stunned by the move, since they had been assured by senior authorities that Nour, a diabetic in poor health, would be released.
Not only did Washington fail to check Mubarak's excesses, it hosted his son and rumored heir apparent, Gamal, at a "secret" meeting in the White House. On the streets of Cairo, the timing of the encounter-it took place just as the demonstrations were gaining momentum-was taken as a White House endorsement of not only Mubarak's tactics but also his filial succession. Indeed, Egyptians see President Bush's pledge to spread democracy throughout the Middle East as fraudulent as the election that returned the 78-year-old Mubarak to his fifth and most certainly final term.
The United States gets little in return for subsidizing Mubarak's brutality. True, Egypt has provided tactical assistance-"rendering" suspected terrorists for interrogation, for example, or negotiating the release of journalists held hostage in Gaza. But Mubarak has studiously avoided playing a constructive role on the issues of overriding, strategic importance to the United States: ending Israeli-Palestinian violence and helping to pre-empt a conflagration over Iranian nuclear ambitions. As the leader of what is widely regarded as the most influential Arab state, Mubarak has chosen to insulate himself amid Arab-world equivocation. Are these the results that Bush, the most unilateral of U.S. leaders, hoped to achieve? Either way, the Middle East is poorer for it.
And what happens at the end of Mubarak's term? Though widely tipped as his successor, Gamal has earned no power base of his own and will most likely flee Egypt should his father die suddenly or become incapacitated. Odds are better that Mubarak will transfer power to a military man in exchange for his own and his family's protection, to spare them the fate that Anwar Sadat meted out to Gamal Abdel Nasser's inner circle after the latter's death in 1970.
Or, Mubarak could be succeeded in free and fair elections by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, widely considered the most capable political organization in the Arab world today, with an unparalleled network of patronage and community services. Absent secular competition, the Brotherhood (which is banned as a party but fields candidates as independents) has enlarged its bloc in Parliament to 88 seats, making it the largest opposition group in Egypt. A Brotherhood victory in Egypt would shake an already tremulous Middle East. It would complete the transition of political Islam from the fringes of power to its epicenter, with unknown consequences. And absent some tough love from Cairo's "friends" in the White House, it just might happen.
Conversely, Jordan's King Abdullah II has little to show for his close ties to a U.S. government regarded by most of his subjects with contempt because of its unconditional support for Israel dating back to the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000.
Jordanians, who now includes tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees as well as long-disaffected ethnic Palestinians, are already impatient with a government considered increasingly corrupt, ineffective, and out of touch with its needs. The Islamic Action Front, which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, is expected to do well in municipal and Parliamentary elections due later this year and in early 2007. Should the IAF capture a significant bloc of legislative seats, the Bush Administration will be faced with the by-now familiar Hobbesian choice of either accepting an Islamist group's electoral success in a key Arab state that does not recognize Israel, or repudiating it. If history is any guide, the Bush Administration will miscalculate, choosing the latter option at Abdullah's expense.
Saudi Arabia is also estranged from a deeply unpopular Bush Administration after decades of close cooperation with America. Well before he was made king last August, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud and foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, moved to diversify Riyadh's diplomatic portfolio away from an increasingly pro-Israel Washington by opening the Saudi energy market and other sectors of its economy to foreign investment. Today, the kingdom is enjoying an economic boom and has strong ties with countries such as France and China, which are often in opposition to U.S. foreign policy.
The U.S. embassy in Riyadh, meanwhile, is a near-empty shell. Following terrorist bombings on foreign residential compounds in Riyadh more than two years ago, the State Department recalled all but its most essential personnel from Saudi Arabia and many U.S. businesses in the kingdom, including Citibank, closed their doors. Among the foreign companies enriching themselves off of Saudi Arabia's $300-billion windfall in oil revenue due to record-high crude prices, American corporations and investors are miserably under-represented.
At the same time, the number of Saudi visitors to the United States, either as students, businessmen, or tourists, has plummeted due to post-9/11 visa restrictions. Many of those that do visit the United States complain of harassment from U.S. immigration officials.
The degradation of U.S.-Saudi ties is all the more regrettable in light of the many ways that Abdullah has distinguished himself as a natural ally of the Bush Administration's struggle to manage the Mid-East chaos-uncorked to a large degree by the White House itself. Since the May 2004 bombings, the king's vigorous counter-terrorist campaign against Islamic militants has been effective. He has revealed himself to be an assertive (by Saudi standards) proponent of political and economic reform. And he is regarded as a statesman for the land-for-peace deal he presented at the March 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut, which was all but ignored by the United States and Israel.
The Bush Administration cannot neutralize its adversaries in the Middle East without first giving its friends there an incentive to assist it. That means quietly persuading hardliners like Mubarak that gradual but quantifiable political reform is of existential (political and possibly physical) importance. It also demands the revival of Washington's role as an honest mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which despite White House denials remains at the core of Middle East instability. Salving that wound would help to restore America's image on the Arab street and enable its traditional allies to once again embrace U.S. leadership in the region. And it would undermine Islamist groups, which nourish themselves on popular anxieties over U.S. hegemony in the heart of the Muslim world.