Viewed through the Turbulent Middle East Telescope
After three years in the White House, US President Barack Obama has finally assembled a national security team which matches the values he seeks to propagate in his external policies, his vision of America's outreach to the Muslim world, his political philosophy and American realpolitik objectives as he sees them.
From July, Central Intelligence Director Leon Panetta takes over as Defense Secretary, passing the CIA mantle to Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Toward the end of the year, Gen. James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff, takes the chair from Adm. Mike Mullen.
Thursday, former Clinton administration official Steven Simon was tapped as the National Security Council's senior director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Still missing from the lineup is a candidate for replacing Hillary Clinton herself as Secretary of State. She has made it clear that she is not seeking a second term and would prefer to step down before or just after the 2012 presidential election.
The holder of this post is of secondary interest to Middle East leaders. Many of them, if not all, view President Obama and his present CIA Chief as heading the team responsible if not for the initial upsurge of the Arab revolt in December 2010, then at least for the stage it reached after a month or two, in January and February 2011, to become a catalyst for the removal of old Arab rulers and regimes and the rise of new powers.
Muslim forces inch towards power on secular protesters' backs
While the US and the West depict these uprisings and revolutions as a victory for indigenous young, liberal, pro-democratic forces, the picture is different when viewed from inside the region: As the authorities lose control of the streets, this vanguard of the protest movement is seen as being pushed aside and leaving Muslim elements, some of them radical, to win a place in the sun.
Even in places like Tunisia, where the uprising's mainspring was the drive for a better life, moderate Islamic elements are gaining ground. By the time the transition to new forms of government is consolidated, Islamic radicals will be ready to take over.
In Egypt, the process is slow but sure: The steady rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as the strongest and most cohesive political force in the country can only be checked if it is challenged directly by the Egyptian generals ruling the country with the help of the army. (See the item in this issue about the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate).
However, the military rulers in Cairo cannot rely on the army obeying their orders and so they are left with the sole option of cutting Muslim leaders down by physical measures that would amount to a military coup.
Running their eye down the roster of the non-survivors and beneficiaries of the wave of Arab unrest, Middle East leaders see a paradox: Washington seems to be pushing Muslim elements forward while moderate Muslim rulers find they must hold on for dear life against being swept away by the onrushing current.
Saudis accuse Washington of helping Muslims reach power
Either deliberately or out of naïveté, the US administration has promoted protest movements which carry Islamist forces forward to points within easy reach of power in their lands.
Incumbent Arab rulers hold the members of Obama's new security team responsible for wreaking much of the havoc while serving in the jobs they are about to leave. As one Saudi official sarcastically put it, there is no chance of the US President asking those incoming office-holders to correct the mistakes they made in their present jobs; he will only want to know how long the Muslim takeover of the Middle East should be allowed to go on, whether it should be stopped and if so, at what point.
In the region's capitals it looks very much as though any ruler cooperating with Washington is doomed to fall, whereas the Arab rulers antagonistic to America are fostered and protected by the Obama administration.
As proof of this perception, they point to the diverse fates of the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria and Egypt.
Saudi King Abdullah has chosen to distance himself from that template by embarking on security and foreign policies in the Middle East and Gulf region, which are not only independent of, but also completely disconnected from, Washington's plans.
He has carried fellow Arab Gulf rulers along with him in the belief that breaking away from Washington offers their only chance to save themselves from extinction and the fate which befell other rulers, notably Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak.
In this process, the oil kingdom has also snapped its strategic give-and-take relationship with Western Europe, leaving only the ties which bear on practicalities and shared interests such as trade.
The change of faces of most concern to some Middle East rulers is the appointment of Gen. Petraeus as CIA chief. The general has won the reputation of super-expert in covert warfare in Arab and Muslim countries. He has an even record of success: His tactics worked in Iraq and failed in Afghanistan.
Questions are being asked in the region about whether he will apply his expertise in his new job and, if so, in which arenas. Will the President direct him to aid the protest movements, or help the Arab rulers challenged by the unrest and drawing away from the United States?
Washington diversifies its treatment of despotic rulers
The Arab Gulf's alienation from the West is one of the most striking consequences of the Arab Revolt.
Saudi and Bahraini royal rulers, no longer sensitive to Western criticism, allowed a Manama court Thursday, April 28, to hand down the first death sentences against Shiite ringleaders of an anti-government protest movement which came close to overthrowing the Bahraini throne in a successful coup.
The condemned men belonged to a movement patronized by Washington and Europe.
Libya's Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, denigrated by the West as an unrepentant tyrant, is seen in the Middle East as doing what he had to do to save himself. Some leaders maintain that without resorting to a military campaign against protesters and rebels, Qaddafi would have been overthrown. And after that, the victorious opposition would not have let him and his sons escape with their lives. His resolve to take on the US and West Europe as well as his domestic opponents and insurgents is seen as his only way to survive.
The same is said about Bashar Assad, the Syrian president who on April 24 made the fateful decision to bring the full force of his army to bear on the burgeoning protest movement for a quick, brutal assault on the rebellion in the cities where it was gaining the upper hand and to cut down the unrest rising in other parts of the country.
In Assad's case, Washington and Europe are showing exceptional indulgence for atrocities that dwarf Qaddafi's worst excesses.
Seen from Washington, the three leaders of Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria are all using armed force to repress the Arab Spring which the Obama administration champions. The fact that they are mutually hostile and ready to cut each other's throats will not make life easier for Obama's new security team – only more complicated.