Home inContext “Hope and Change” in the Middle East

“Hope and Change” in the Middle East

Shoshana Bryen

In his State of the Union address, President Obama used the allusion that the tide of war is receding in the Middle East, suggesting that the U.S. has strengthened its position in that vital and volatile part of the world. He is wrong. The United States is receding from the Middle East, but the tide of war remains.

Absent the stabilizing hand of American troops, the Iraqi government has been arresting its opponents, exacerbating political tension while a new period of sectarian bloodshed has ripped the country. On one terrible day in December, coordinated explosions ravaged Baghdad, killing more than 70 people and injuring more than 200. In January, scores of Shiites were killed and hundreds wounded across five days of pilgrimages during a holy period. Almost every day bombs go off somewhere, engendering fear among the people that their brief experience with relative freedom and relative openness is ending.

But, says the president, the war is over. “Ending the Iraq war has allowed us to strike decisive blows against our enemies. From Pakistan to Yemen, the al Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America.”

Killing Osama bin Laden was a major success for U.S. Special Forces, and the president as Commander in Chief is entitled to reflected glory from his troops. But the majority of the “decisive blows” against al-Qaeda have been struck by drones in Pakistan, killing civilians, engendering enormous ill will toward the United States, and shaking the foundation of the Pakistani government that is supposed to be our ally in this fight.

“We’ve begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan…This transition to Afghan lead will continue, and we will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan.” Our part of the Afghan war is winding down; the Taliban part of the war remains. The American attempt to bring the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the Pakistani government together in Germany failed, and U.S. negotiations with the Taliban — once secret, now public — have been only reluctantly accepted by the Karzai government. How the U.S. plans to maintain an “enduring partnership” with the elected government while withdrawing our troops and negotiating with its open enemy is unclear.

“A wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana’a to Tripoli,” said the president. It is a wave, sure enough, but it has installed a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, an Islamist government in Tunisia, and emboldened Hamas. It has shaken the King of Jordan — one of America’s best regional allies. The ouster of Moammar Qaddafi of Libya, to which the president proudly pointed, has permitted al-Qaeda operatives to sit in the power council in Tripoli.

And while President Obama appears certain Bashar al-Asad in Syria will soon be gone [“I have no doubt (he) will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed“], Russia’s adamant support of Syria, including the delivery of arms and idling a warship in Syrian territorial waters, make it clear that neither Asad nor Putin is planning for imminent or quiet change in Damascus.

Most disconcertingly, while President Obama is distancing the U.S. from countries still fighting the battle, he asserts, “We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings—men and women; Christians, Muslims and Jews. We will support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty.”

But unfortunately, we cannot stand in places we’ve left and tyranny may be more than a match for our absence.