A letter from Washington (April 2011) - Skip Kaltenheuser


President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo put him on history’s lucky right side when relatively non-violent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt arrived. True, warnings that straw was piled too high on Egypt’s overloaded camels should have been heeded earlier, and initial White House reactions might have been more acute. But soon, the right notes were hit. History looked promising.

Related links


Then, fickle fate fire-hosed the region, toppling regimes both hostile and friendly. A malicious mad hatter, the King of Kings of Africa, entered the party. As we go to press, Gaddafi pushes his luck, under fire from western powers backed, amazingly, by the Arab League, shelving the endless Washington discourse on Muslim reaction to US involvement. Even better, action is spearheaded by former colonialist powers Britain and France, each quite capable of handling Gaddafi forces strung out along Libya’s long coastal road.

That’s the cover the Obama administration needs to avoid backlash from the perception of a US engineered intervention as Gaddafi shocks a world fed up with his shockers. The Obama Administration, via Secretary of State Clinton – flipping her initially wary position - and Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, have worked fervently behind the scenes to get Arab nations on board, as well as UN backing. An overworked US military and Defense Secretary Gates were understandably wary of walking into more Middle East quicksand, but now the US is not shackled to Libya’s end game. Moreover, gone is the issue of losing the entirely homegrown image of reform movements. If you’re Libyan resistance and Gaddafi’s mercenaries are coming to blow your head off, do you really worry about branding?

Early on, critiques of Obama suggested he abandoned steadfast ally Mubarak to unknown consequence. Then critiques shifted, typical of Senator Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.): if Obama doesn’t act decisively he will own Gaddafi’s 2011 actions. Imagine that, it’s all up to Captain America again, and our bad whatever happens. The setup was, if Gaddafi prevails and exacts a bloody revenge, critiques of Obama will pile on, fair or not. The Republican National Committee sent out press releases citing Obama’s lukewarm support for a NFZ as a leadership failure. Such drumbeats were echoed in a Washington Post/ NBC poll showing Republicans outscoring the President on leadership, 46 to 39.

Try your luck assessing the national psyche. A precarious economic recovery walks through foggy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with two thirds of Americans saying the latter isn’t worth it. Bewildering tragedy in Japan proves our fragility against nature, and how our technologies can betray us. Politics look broken, big money’s edge grows as the middle class wobbles, and Wall Street gets away with mayhem. In short, America’s psyche is maxed out. Not the underpinnings for bold moves.

We’ve also been spoon fed regional stereotypes for years until we see entire populations as monolithic. Conditioned by dealing with the Taliban – perhaps the most ignorant club on the planet - and Al Qaeda - one of the craziest and most vicious - we are ill-prepared to embrace the nuances of a very complex region.

Consider Congressman Peter King, who warned of ‘an enemy living among us’ and stated 85% of the leaders of American mosques hold extremist views. And Muslims, says King, do not work with law enforcement. Never mind that 40% of thwarted domestic extremist plots were blocked with the help of Muslims. The new chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, King recently conducted hearings on the radicalization of Muslim Americans, promising more to come.

It’s still a minefield throughout the region. Bahrain and particularly Yemen’s brutality against protesters make them dicey friends. There is fear of Egypt backsliding, with recent unsettling reports of peaceful demonstrators arrested and tortured by the army. Egyptian- American Dina Guirguis, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, worries about a quickly scheduled vote on a controversial constitutional referendum that includes banning those with dual citizenship or with non-Egyptian spouses from running for president, ensuring the status quo. Voting should be delayed, as should eventual votes for parliament and president, says Guirguis, until better preparation for clean elections, and better voter awareness. A top priority – push quickly for civilian control of the army.

Egypt is the most influential nation in the region and the best balance against Iranian hegemony, says Guirguis. Get reforms right, as ‘stability comes from the consent of the governed.’

Washington’s fears about US help backfiring later are misplaced, says Aly Abu Zakouk. A former Libyan professor who came to the US after being arrested and tortured in 1976, he co-founded the National Front for the Salvation of Libya and now operates LibyaForum.org. Despite Gaddafi’s comeback, his days are numbered, says Zakouk. Western nations risk a great regional disillusionment with them if they fail to speed Gaddafi’s departure before he spills more blood. ‘Keep western troops off the ground,’ says Zakouk. ‘Knock back Gaddafi’s air advantage and weapons edge. Provide the resistance with weaponry and supplies, paid for out of frozen Libyan assets. Libyans are very educated, both men and women. Their priority is moving their lives forward, not religious extremism or Iranian style government. To gain freedom, which is so dear, a high price is paid to gain it. Libyans aren’t looking to betray those who support their exit from a brutal regime. We have the means for our own nation-building.’

Washington politics are never more cynical than when the peace process comes up. ‘Tonedeaf’ was redefined when Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak described recent events as ‘a historic earthquake...a movement in the right direction, quite inspired’, after which he sought an additional $20 billion in US security assistance, and Israel approved building hundreds of new homes in West Bank settlements. Whatever support that gets in Congress, its not apt to win the hearts and minds of cash-strapped Americans weary of Middle East intrigue and having to do budget triage on teachers.

‘There’s no issue more intrinsic to winning or losing hearts and minds than unequivocal US pressure for a fair deal between Israel and Palestinians,’ says Prof. Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Moreover, Landis believes this the opportunity to defuse much of the tension with Syria by brokering back the whole Golan, Syria’s prime concern. This would also undercut the reason for Syrian support of Hamas and Hizbullah.

Serendipity’s wild cards remain in play throughout. If they break favourably, President Obama may be back on the lucky side of history. Maybe we all will.

To discuss this article click here.


Skip Kaltenheuser is a freelance journalist and writer. He can be contacted at skip.kaltenheuser@verizon.net

Back to top