Saeed Naqvi | 27 FEBRUARY, 2015
US and the Arab World: Doublespeak and Trust Deficit
US President Barack Obama in Saudi Arabia
The appointment of Rashad Hussain, an American of Indian origin as the new coordinator of counter terrorism communication, popped up in the course of a three day summit at the State Department on violent extremism. President Obama went out of his way to correct the impression that the US was at “war with Islam”. That, he emphasized, in an “ugly lie”. A Home Ministry official represented New Delhi at the Summit.
The President’s panacea for all nations present at the meeting was to put an end to violence by “expanding human rights, religious tolerance and peaceful dialogue.”
Peter Baker and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, have in an analysis in the New York Times quoted Elisa Massimino, President of the advocacy group Human Rights First who attended the meeting: “We’re sitting in that room with representatives of governments who are part of the problem – if the President believes what he’s saying, then the actions that these governments are taking are undermining our supposedly shared agenda. That has to stop. Or we can have summits every month, but we’re not going to win.”
There is another problem. Autocratic regimes have taken advantage of the war on terror by settling scores with their internal opponents in the guise of fighting the war. The obvious example is the Egyptian military regime cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood. The reverberations of such a crackdown will be felt wherever there is a sizeable presence of the Brothers – Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, Gaza. Recruiting agents of the ISIS then go into action.
Prominent among Obama’s audience was Bahrain. It has a mind boggling human rights record. The regime treats 90 per cent of its population as the “opposition”. Years ago, about the time that the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, US diplomats had brought about a possible rapprochement between Bahrain’s Crown Prince and Shaikh Salman, leader of the Shia opposition. Before an agreement could be inked, Saudi Armoured Personnel Carriers rolled down the 37 kms causeway linking the oil bearing Qatif region of Saudi Arabia with Bahrain.
It must be billed as an important Summit, but the White House will have to cope with a degree of credibility deficit with whatever US says on the Arab world these days. Misadventures in Iraq, Syria, Libya have all left US reputation in tatters.
Consider Syria for a moment. The Syrian opposition was falling apart and there was still no sign of the promised regime change in Damascus. Having learnt a hard lesson in Iraq, the US, one thought, would be realistic in Syria. Instead we had the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, demand with an imperious wave of the hand, “Assad, move out of the way”.
The US had occupied Iraq for a decade, destroyed all the instruments of the State, killed Saddam Hussain, only then was it able to depart, leaving a once perfectly, efficient dictatorship in a disgraceful mess. How then did Washington imagine that fierce and brutal cross border terrorism alone would affect regime change in Damascus?
Last June when the ISIS appeared with the suddenness of revelation, why did Obama drag his feet? Asked why he delayed taking action against the ISIS, he did not mince words. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, had fallen foul of the US because he would not sign an open ended agreement exempting US troops from Iraqi law. He had to be shown the door. ISIS was at that stage advancing unchecked towards Baghdad. “Our strikes against ISIS at that stage would have relieved pressure on Maliki.” Military action against the ISIS picked up only after Prime Minister Haider al Abadi had replaced Maliki. Did the ISIS for that brief spell become a political tool? So, under certain circumstances terror is a diplomatic asset?
Then why blame Prince Bandar bin Sultan who for sheer audacity takes the cake. Having failed to affect regime change in Damascus, he turned up in Moscow on a hush-hush mission. He took Vladimir Putin’s breath away with his blandishments – take everything under the sun but give me Assad’s head. Then he made diplomatic history. The President of Russia would be able to hold winter Olympic games in Sochi without any fear of Islamic terrorism. Most terrorist groups, Bandar promised Putin, were under his control.
The incorrigible Prince’s continued excesses caused the Kremlin to leak the confidential minutes to a Lebanese newspaper.
Clearly, one purpose of the Washington summit was to focus on ISIS, Al Qaeda and other Salafi groups as the principal targets for his Arab coalition. There has been some dithering on who the real enemy is. Obama would like to settle this matter. He has administered something of a fait accompli. This would preempt his bete noire, Benjamin Netanyahu’s arrival in Washington to address the US Congress, completely bypassing Obama. Netanyahu has found a willing partner in the Speaker of the Congress, John Boehner, who, in fact, has issued the cheeky invitations.
A foretaste of what the US Congress will hear was available to a select audience in New Delhi. Israeli Defence minister Moshe Ya’alon spent the evening persuading his listeners that all the world’s problems emanate not from ISIS or Al Qaeda but from that fount of all evil, Iran. This when there are rumours galore that a nuclear deal with Teeran is on the cards.