Why Sound Bites Won't Cut It
By: Bruce Riedel for Al-Monitor Posted on October 19.
The Arab world is in the midst of its most profound revolutionary change in a century. For America, this transformation is a challenging mix of opportunity and danger. It will require an agile and complex policy which often appears to be inconsistent — because it will be inconsistent. Sound bites and slogans are not a solution.
About This Article
The Arab Spring presents the US with a complex landscape of opportunities and dangers. Bruce Riedel writes that American policy makers will need to be agile to capitalize on the opportunities while avoiding the pitfalls, and that sound bites alone won't cut it.Author: Bruce Riedel
Posted on: October 19 2012
Categories : Originals Security
The Arabs have undergone periodic revolutionary upheavals since the Ottoman Empire was destroyed in 1918. In 1979, for example, after the fall of Iran's Shah, revolutionaries tried to topple the House of Saud by seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca. In 1980, Shia rebels tried to oust then-president Saddam Hussein in Iraq; in 1981, a jihadist cell assassinated the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, as part of a revolutionary coup attempt and in 1982, Sunni rebels seized Hamah to topple Syria's then-president, Hafez al Assad. In every case, the regime survived and the secret police destroyed the rebels.
Today is different. Dictators in three counties have been toppled (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya), a fourth has lost his presidency although he won’t leave the capital (Yemen), a fifth has survived due only to foreign intervention and occupation (Bahrain) and a sixth is fighting a brutal civil war to hold onto power (Syria). Trouble is brewing elsewhere — in Jordan, Algeria and even Saudi Arabia.
In many ways, today’s Arab awakening is about decades of pent-up Arab anger at living in mukhabarat, or secret-police states. Decades of being humiliated by the secret police finally produced revolutions. Arabs lived in societies where the leader was above the law and his secret police were unaccountable and untouchable. There was no rule of law and no justice. Only the president, king, sultan or emir was untouchable.
The mukhabarat has dominated every Arab state for decades, sometimes brutally and cruelly as in Iraq and Syria under the Baath or in Gadhafi’s Libya, and sometimes perhaps more benignly as in Jordan and Oman. But even in Jordan, the head of the mukhabarat is always the second-most important man in the country. Just as King Hussein did in his time, King Abdullah takes his spy master into the meeting with the president in the Oval Office, not his prime minister or foreign minister. The spies also always got the messy and sensitive job of dealing with Israel.
For decades, the United States supported the secret police of the Arab world. Omar Suleiman, who passed away this year in a Cleveland hospital, was our second most important interlocutor in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak for twenty years. As head of the mukhabarat in Egypt, Suleiman knew everything worth knowing and could do anything he and Mubarak wanted done. He delivered in the war against al-Qaeda and other terrorists. America was not alone; Israel, the United Kingdom, France and virtually everyone else dealt through Suleiman to get things done. The other Arabs worked with Suleiman, from the Saudis to Hamas. It was no surprise that Mubarak belatedly made him vice president in the closing hours of his regime.
It is not so easy to end a mukhabarat state, as Egypt has shown. Even the Muslim Brotherhood needs an intelligence and security apparatus. In fact, they may need it even more than the ancient regime did. Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers hate the Brotherhood almost as much as they hate America. The new leader of al-Qaeda, the Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri, has spent most of his life denouncing the Brotherhood as too timid and docile. He has written a book about it, entitled The Bitter Harvest. Their success in governing would be a nightmare for Zawahiri.
Chaos has followed the revolutions, creating many empty spaces in Sinai, Cyrenaica, Mali and across Syria, where al-Qaeda and its allies are thriving. In Sinai, Zawahiri’s supporters want to provoke an Egyptian-Israeli war; in Syria, they want a base to operate in the Levant.
So the United States needs to help the new revolutionary states succeed. Only if they can build the rule of law and create accountable security services will they truly be stable and sustainable governments. After all, these are the values we believe in. It is what we are. So behind the televised scenes of the formal dialogue between ambassadors and presidents with journalists, there will need to be a more clandestine dialogue between security services. Counter terrorism will need to go on without Omar Suleiman, but with the rule of law. Ambassador Stevens' killers must be brought to justice.
This will not be easy. The Brotherhood and other Islamic groups do not trust the CIA. They see it as their old enemy. I have had dozens of conversations with Brotherhood leaders since retiring — usually in Doha — and they find it hard to talk even to a former American intelligence officer about broad political issues. Talking about arresting and interrogating suspected terrorists will be all the more difficult — but all the more important.
In many ways, the covert talks with Islamists will tell us much more than the formal diplomatic dialogue. If we cannot agree on a common enemy, then we will really have very little to talk about. We need to engage the Islamists to find out if they are truly interested in combating extremism and violence, or only want to play lip service to fighting terror.
We should expect less-than-perfect cooperation. But we get-less-than perfect cooperation from most liaison services. Look at our relationship with the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, which is occasionally among our most important allies against al-Qaeda and always our most difficult one. Even Omar Suleiman could be a difficult partner sometimes. So our expectations should be low at first. Only time and persistence will see if cooperation can become mutually fruitful.
At the same time, we will need to continue our decades of partnership with Saudi Arabia and other old allies. It is vital to fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; the Saudis foiled al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s last two attempts to attack the American homeland. The Saudis are central to containing Iran and critical to the global energy supply. We have tacitly accepted their intervention in Bahrain and have no plans to withdraw the Fifth Fleet from Manama. So here we back at the counter revolution.
Saudi policy is also inconsistent. They will not tolerate revolution against the monarchies of the Gulf or in Jordan, but they support it in Libya and Syria. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar is sending guns to Syria even as he hires more Pakistani mercenaries to police Bahrain.
There is no end in sight to the Arab awakening, and no likelihood it will become any less complex a problem for America. We must help the revolutions succeed in North Africa and now in Syria, yet we have a great interest in keeping close ties with the world’s last absolute monarchy: the Kingdom.
Articulating this policy is hard, especially in public. President Obama did not even mention Saudi Arabia when he gave his most expansive speech on the revolutions. On Monday night, Oct. 22, we will hear the president and Governor Romney debate foreign policy. We deserve a thoughtful and insightful conversation about what each would do in context of the Arab awakening.
Bruce Riedel is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center and a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. A specialist on the Middle East, he served in the CIA for thirty years.
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