Keep Calm and Carry On

The Arab world needs our help; it just doesn't know how to ask nicely.

The other day I was on a talk show where the host asked me, "Are we better off now than we were before the Arab Spring?" And I said, "Who is we?" The furious attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in the Middle East have left many Americans feeling that the neighborhood was a lot safer when it was patrolled by pro-American generalissimos. But for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen -- the countries where citizens overthrew those hated rulers -- the demonstrations were a sideshow, if a mortifying one. The tumult offered a forceful reminder that "good for us" is not the same as "good for them."

I have always assumed that a more democratic Middle East would be good for the United States in the long run, but bad in the short run. George W. Bush was right when he said, in his second Inaugural Address, that "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands" -- or at least he would have been right if he had said something less resonant, like "our security depends on legitimate government in the Islamic world." In the long term, good for them is good for us. In the mean time, however, freedom releases poisons as well as noble aspirations. One of those poisons, of course, is anti-Americanism.

Of course, there's nothing new about explosions of hostility to the United States in the Arab world; what's new is how far they're allowed to go. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was always prepared to stoke popular anger at Israel or even the United States, but his thugs would have broken up a demonstration long before it threatened the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The new government of President Mohammed Morsy, however, not only lacks the fine mechanisms of control available to Mubarak, but cannot afford to side with Washington against an outraged populace, as a dictator could. One quarter of the seats in Egypt's genuinely free parliamentary elections this past January went to Salafists with an explicitly Islamist agenda, and Morsy cannot ignore them as Mubarak ignored the more moderate Islamists in his own parliament. Ergo, the U.S. embassy gets trashed.

It would be nice, and of course it would be just, if leading figures stood up to the raging crowds, as Tom Friedman has demanded they do. But such honesty is likeliest to flourish where the political or personal costs are tolerable. Few public figures criticize the blasphemy laws in Pakistan because extremists have shown that they will kill people who do so. Libyan National Congress President Mohammed al-Megareif may have felt able to forthrightly criticize anti-American violence, as Morsy did not, because Islamists were roundly defeated in Libya's elections, and Salafists are a far less organized force there. And, despite the organized assault which led to the deaths of four Americans there,  Libya is the only country in the Middle East where the United States has earned enough goodwill by its actions to override the inveterate anti-Americanism produced by long U.S. support for dictators or the widespread belief that the West is somehow responsible for everything bad. That's not going to change for a long time; what happened last week will happen again, with different provocations producing much the same ugly effect.

The temptation for the United States to disengage from the Arab world could become overwhelming. Look at Pakistan, where, despite $18 billion in military and civilian aid over the last decade, the United States is widely hated (and where the government declared a "Day of Love for The Prophet Muhammad Holiday" so citizens could wreak their fury without missing work). Only Pakistan's necessary role in the war in Afghanistan has prevented those funds from being drastically reduced; as U.S. troops draw down, so, inevitably, will the aid. A group of conservative Republicans has drawn up legislation requiring the Obama administration to submit a report on the embassy attacks in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen prior to a vote on aid to those countries; one of them, Rand Paul, has been holding up an omnibus spending bill over demands that the U.S. cut aid to Pakistan. So far, President Obama has not shown any sign of having second thoughts; and the administration, to its credit, has agreed to provide $1 billion in debt relief to Egypt, and has supported a $4.8 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

That money matters not because it will buy the U.S. goodwill -- it won't -- but because it can help stabilize the nascent democracies of the Arab world. The greatest threat to the infant regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen is not religious extremism but economic failure. The Arab Spring has made Salafists more visible, more ambitious, and arguably more dangerous. But it has made many of them more pragmatic. Like the more moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists have formed political parties and begun, if grudgingly, to practice the arts of political engagement and compromise. Al Nour, Egypt's chief Salafist party, accepts the concept of a civil state, albeit with an "Islamic reference."

Religious extremism could still derail democracy, but we may give it too much weight because it is so obviously "bad for us." The frustration and embitterment of tens of millions of unemployed and currently unemployable young people is a more insidious danger. It is these young men who serve as eager recruits for a mob, and often for jihadist armies. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar, has suggested that the crowd trying to set fire to the U.S. embassy in Sanaa was drawn from Musayk, the dead-end neighborhood which lies below the embassy and some of the city's finest hotels. Sanaa, wrote Johnsen, overflows with young men looking for an outlet for their rage; last week's attack was "frustration and anger masquerading as protest."

Mitigating that frustration and anger has to be the long-term goal both of the nascent governments in the region and of U.S. policy. I don't know how much hope there is for Yemen, a desperately poor country rapidly exhausting its natural resources and plagued by both domestic rebellion and an American-backed war against an al Qaeda mini-state.  Yemen looks like Afghanistan writ small. Still, President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi is trying to serve as a bridge among the country's warring factions; and it's worth noting that two days before 5,000 people stormed the U.S. embassy, a crowd estimated (by one of its organizers) at 200,000 marched through the streets demanding the repeal of legal immunity for the despised former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. That would argue that Yemenis care more passionately about political justice than about illusory affronts to their religious faith.

Yemen is going to be very frail for a very long time; but economic assistance can make a more immediate difference in Egypt and Tunisia. (Libya will soon have enough oil revenue to stand on its own feet.) Of course, outside help will not matter nearly as much as domestic economic policy: the Morsy government will have to dismantle the bureaucratic and regulatory regime which has stifled economic life in Egypt, and ultimately challenge the insidious role of the military, which dominates much of the country's economy. Washington has a role to play here as well: Last month, a team headed by Robert Hormats, a senior State Department official, visited Cairo to discuss reforms in advance of final negotiations over the terms of the IMF loan.

President Obama probably deserves more credit than he has received for reacting calmly to last week's events. It's characteristic of him that he would be overly cautious about embracing the Arab Spring, but also steady in the face of heavy weather. (A Romney advisor has said that a President Romney would attach conditions to debt relief for Egypt.) Right now, Obama has all the political space he needs from an American public whose mind is completely elsewhere. It would become a lot harder for him, or Mitt Romney, to stay the course if the Middle East has another bout of temporary insanity. Is it too much to ask for American crackpots to hold off on the Islamophobia until, oh, 2013?


Terms of Engagement

The Tragic Optimism of an American Diplomat

Remembering Ambassador Chris Stevens and reflecting on the power of the United States to shape the new Middle East.

In July, in the course of writing a column about Libya, I spoke by telephone with U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, then in Tripoli. Libyans had just gone to the polls to elect a National Assembly, and he was feeling optimistic. The moderate National Forces Alliance had defeated an Islamist coalition, and the Islamists had accepted their defeat. The country was still in the grip of militias, but Stevens said that the security situation was "not bad," and getting better. "The Libyan public attitude to the U.S. is quite positive," Stevens said. "This is a great opportunity for us."

I cannot help wondering, in the wake of Stevens' murder by a mob in Benghazi -- where he had spent months working with the transitional council that served as the political wing of the forces fighting Muammar al-Qaddafi -- if I should understand his optimism about the U.S. role in Libya as a ghastly irony. How many times have I heard American diplomats talk about what the United States was doing or could do or should do, in Egypt and Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world to improve its image? Americans are optimistic by nature, and so are American diplomats. I am, too: I incline toward hopefulness, though perhaps by now experience should have taught me otherwise. At the time, I wrote, "Libyans are generally well disposed towards the United States thanks to the Obama administration's role in the NATO bombing."

From his very first day in office, when he gave an interview to Al-Arabiya and called Arab leaders, President Barack Obama has tried to make gestures, and shape policy, that would change the feelings of people in the Islamic world toward the United States. He delivered his celebrated speech in Cairo in June 2009 in the hopes that by offering a new posture based on "mutual interest and mutual respect" he could end the "cycle of suspicion and discord" governing U.S. relations with Arab publics. Obama's speech sparked a wave of euphoria -- and then, as it became clear that he had offered a new tone of voice but not a new policy on the Palestinian Territories, or on America's autocratic allies, a new wave of disappointment. A third of respondents in Muslim countries viewed Obama positively in 2009; now a quarter do.

So much effort has gone into the campaign to pull the United States from the ditch into which it had sunk in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world. The late envoy Richard Holbrooke insisted that U.S. aid to flood-ravaged Pakistan carry the Stars and Stripes in order to ensure that Washington got the credit it deserved among Pakistani citizens. But billions in civilian and military assistance have had the opposite effect. Since 2009, the fraction of Pakistanis who view the United States as an enemy has risen from 64 to 74 percent.

President George W. Bush tried to win Arab publics through democracy promotion; Obama, through deference and respect. Bush made things far worse, but Obama didn't make them much better. Perhaps it's not their fault. Resentment of the United States -- of which the most toxic form is the rage which fuelled the crowds in Libya and Egypt, and before that in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- serves political and psychological purposes that make it very hard to uproot. Blaming the West, and above all the United States, allows leaders to distract attention from their own failings, ordinary citizens to live with their sense of humiliation, and Islamist and anti-Western parties and factions to burnish their "resistance" credentials. Of course, if  that's true, then nothing the United States does matters -- not even using force to help the Libyan people free themselves from their hated dictator, or sending an experienced and dedicated diplomat to prepare the rebels for the burden of governance. Libya is the test case for the belief that Washington can change the way it is seen in the Middle East by doing the right thing.

I am not convinced that the burning of the Benghazi consulate, and even the demonstrations that have followed, show that Stevens and other hopeful folks were deluded. What they show is that a government that does not exercise a monopoly over force cannot stand up to armed extremists eager to exploit religious or nationalist passion. To state the obvious, Stevens was killed not by "Libya" but by a handful of people in a crowd of several hundred. It's unclear whether, as administration officials have reportedly begun to conclude, the violence was premeditated, or whether it was an opportunistic response to the gathering of an angry crowd, but a consensus has begun to form that the attack was carried out by Ansar al-Sharia, a militant group.

So what does "Libya" think? As my colleague Marc Lynch has noted, both Libya's leaders and Libyans taking to social media have condemned the attack unequivocally, and have spoken of their high regard for Stevens. Willliam Lawrence, North Africa director for the International Crisis Group, who is now in Tripoli, says that even Salafist groups have vocally condemned the killing, and Ansar al-Sharia has distanced itself from the rogue elements said to have carried out the violence, inviting Libya's militias to hunt them down and bring them to justice. But in Cairo, Marc points out, Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi has been silent about the violence. Egyptian public opinion remains fervently anti-American, and Morsi may fear mounting a public defense of the United States. Libya's leaders had no such restraint.

So, yes, we should stipulate that Obama was almost as naïve as President Bush in believing that he, personally, could bring about a sea change in Arab public opinion. The resentment of the United States is very deeply rooted, and only partly connected to U.S. behavior. But that part matters, and it is not naive to believe that deeds can make a difference. The Arab Spring gave the United States a new chance to do the right thing. It did so in Libya. One of the arguments for more actively siding with the rebels in Syria is that doing so will give the United States standing if and when the rebels triumph.

I don't want to misrepresent my conversation with Stevens. He was much more interested in what the Libyans were doing for themselves than in what the Libyans thought about America. The reason for his optimism was that Libya had gone to the polls and rejected both separatists and Islamists. The Higher National Election Commission had done a creditable job. Ex-rebel leaders forming the new army were open to advice, whether from the United States or the United Nations. For Libyans, he said, the United States was appealing above all as a model for their own country's development.

Libya's National Assembly has just chosen a new prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shagur. In the course of the all-day balloting, says Lawrence, "there was a rallying against the prospect of chaos" that swelled support for the moderate candidate Mahmoud Jibril, who lost to Shagur by two votes. Lawrence suggests that the tragedy might serve as a "coming-together moment" for Libya's very fragile democracy. If that turns out to be so, then Chris Stevens will not have died in vain.