When Tom Donilon told Charlie Rose that the Obama administration has restored America’s credibility and leadership in the world - not just globally but within the Middle East - we assumed that he was stumping for 2012.
In a poll-obsessed White House, President Barack Obama’s National Security Council must have seen the abysmal numbers collecting under Washington’s biased response to the Arab Spring. Overriding them with repetition expedited the sale of a faulty product. This same design may have just unraveled in the State Department, but we’re now less certain that the administration isn’t wallowing in sincere ignorance. At the end of Thursday’s State Department briefing, spokesman Mark Toner was confronted with James Zogby's Arab Attitudes: 2011.
The poll, as the reporter explains, “shows that the U.S. Administration’s approval rating less than 10 percent in the Middle East, which is basically worse than the previous administration. After two and a half years, how do you view - why do you think that your approach and policies in Middle East -”
Might as well cut off the speaker if you don’t know the answer.
“I haven’t seen the poll,” Toner interrupts, “so it’s difficult for me to comment on its findings. We have – this President, this Administration, the Secretary of State have sought a cooperative relationship with the Middle East. And it is a region clearly undergoing tremendous change, whether it be in Syria, in Egypt, and elsewhere – in Bahrain, other countries, and the Secretary has spoken very clearly about the need for many of these governments to reform and to work with their populations to offer them economic promise and political openness. And we’re going to continue to press those messages. We think that those are the correct messages to send to the Middle East, regardless of poll numbers.”
While this statement is riddled with falsities, none pack the sheer force of a two-week delay between action and reaction. The State Department took the next week off following Zogby’s poll, but Arab Attitudes: 2011 was released on July 13th, when Toner was still giving briefings. Iran even came out ahead of America despite its own tanking image. This type of material would make for good vacation reading, but Toner returned as clueless as ever. Slow reaction gave way to no reaction, leaving the reporter in disbelief.
“Right. There is not only one poll, actually. There is – there are other polls, like Gallup poll from a couple weeks – a month ago. You obviously – your Administration has been pro-change and, as you describe it, supporting the protesters. So certainly, there should be a reason. I think there is no disagreement about that Middle East has a negative view on your approach. Going forward, do you have any plans to change any policies –”
“No,” answers Toner. “As I said, we’re going to continue to stand for universal rights, as we have thus far in the Arab Spring, and continue to work with these countries that have already, as we say, turned the corner and are on a path towards democratic transition, because we believe it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing for them and it’s the right thing for the world and for the region.”
In other words, America will continue standing for partial rights based on U.S. interests, and continue working with compliant allies to avoid regime change. Toner has blown propaganda for months so he can easily sink to such deception, but what if he actually hasn’t seen any of these polls? Is this not his job? Who in the State Department - and White House - is monitoring popular opinion in the Middle East? Perceiving the difference between real and feigned ignorance may be an impossible task.
Either could be true when Toner declares that America is standing up for democracy in Egypt or Bahrain, where the U.S.-Saudi counter-revolution hit hard.
“Look, the U.S. stands ready to support the Egyptian people,” says Toner, when many Egyptians feel that the Obama administration jumped on their revolution too late, only to handcuff them to an unresponsive military council. After defending the military’s role during the revolution and applauding its leadership post-Mubarak, Toner “confirms” that, “our position is that we offer – continue to offer our assistance as they – both in terms of the Egyptian economy but also other facets of this transition.” Either Toner is tracing Donilon’s steps, or he really didn’t catch the June Gallop poll that revealed 75% disapproval for Western financial aid.
According to this particular poll, whose findings match a growing body of statistics, 88% of respondents do not view America as a political model for Egypt.
Meanwhile Bahrain’s silence represents an even greater disconnect from universal values. The monarchy’s sham “National Dialogue” opened with great fanfare from the administration - and many protesters still imprisoned - only to drop completely off radar as it crashed and burned. Saudi-backed Bahraini forces continue to violently suppress those demonstrating against the dialogue, while Manama’s “Hospital of Death” has escaped the U.S. spotlight. Yet when rumors surfaced of a proposed relocation of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, currently stationed on a U.S. naval base, the State Department shot them down immediately.
Of course Yemen’s absence silences speaks for itself, and updates of the revolution will be posted over the weekend. In discussing U.S. policy with local actors, we’ve received an overwhelming response that Egyptians “didn’t need U.S. support to overthrow Mubarak,” and thus have no need America to topple Ali Abdullah Saleh either. Most Yemenis haven’t just lost faith in Obama personally, but despise U.S. interference in their country. Some literally cannot believe that America has and continues to support Saleh's regime.
The White House is alienating the same populace that it claims to host the greatest threat to America, the most backwards area of U.S. foreign policy.
Throughout the Arab Spring Hillary Clinton has spoken “very clearly about the need for many of these governments to reform” - in Syria and Libya. She and Obama have been MIA in Bahrain and Yemen, disconnected from Egypt, and all of these revolutionaries (with the possible exception of Bahrainis) seek nothing less than total regime change. The reaction to U.S. policy is negative for this reason; that a substantial majority of respondents believe the opposite of Toner’s statements is no polling anomaly.
We still can’t split the edge between deceit and delusion, but neither champions universal liberty in the Middle East.