Although The Trench is primarily concerned with asymmetric warfare and conflict between state and non-state actors, we find a debate on U.S. engagement of emerging global powers just as stimulating. Not only did Tom Donilon fail to deliver in this regard, the Obama administration’s National Security Adviser went on Charlie Rose with ulterior motives - and not just to campaign for 2012.
Before commending all areas of U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama, Donilon states that he isn’t “prone to hyperbole.” His interview melts down at this very point. In blaming Iran at seemingly every turn for “taking advantage of the Arab Spring,” Donilon disconnects from the revolutionary wave sweeping in the Middle East. If he wasn’t deployed to blackout the Arab Spring, he has no idea what he’s talking about.
“America’s Rising Image”
Either Donilon is stunningly disingenuous or he truly hasn’t checked the numerous polls flat-lining Obama’s image in the Muslim world. Interviews are scripted by definition, but Donilon’s Styrofoam remarks and buzzwords rub off extra-scripted. At the beginning, during and after his interview, Donilon resorts to hypnosis by informing the audience, as if it were fact, that Obama’s foreign policy has restored America’s global credibility. With rising powers sensing weakness and Middle Eastern opinion collapsing to new lows, Donilon may have better served Obama by avoiding the obvious.
Yet his over-reliance on deception illustrates the level of foreign policy apathy anticipated by White House.
Syria’s Lucky Opposition
The Obama administration, for instance, expects the American people to ignore the fundamental similarities between Syria’s opposition and less fortune revolutionaries. U.S. officials routinely defend an inconsistent policy by arguing that each situation is “different.” Of course each state weighs different ethnicities, religions, tribes, finances and age demographics. Each nation of revolutionaries has also experienced similar hardship from their governments, and quickly learned from and became inspired by each other’s struggles.
U.S. officials contradict themselves by first hailing the Arab Spring’s unifying potential, then dividing them into categories based on U.S. interests.
The main consistency of Obama’s response is this hypocrisy - the vivid clash between Libya and Syria, and Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. The blanket ignoring of minor protests in Iraq, Jordan and Algeria, three areas of U.S. interest, further solidifies this pattern. We cannot automatically fault the White House’s response to Syria because here Obama has decided to “get tough.” Not tough enough - al-Assad deserved no second chances - but his administration has vocally berated and sanctioned Syria’s strongman. Here (and in Libya) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has concentrated all of her fire. After several attempts to force a dialogue on the opposition, Donilon conceded to Rose that al-Assad isn’t serious about negotiating or reforming, and reiterated his “lost legitimacy.”
At several points Donilon clarifies that he will explain the difference between Syria and Bahrain. He never does.
Bahrain's "Special Circumstance”
What we do “know” about U.S. policy in Bahrain, “thanks” to Donilon, is that only “dialogue” can generate stability on the divided island. This response is false enough on any July day, as King Hamid’s contrived “National Dialogue” stumbled out of the gate and triggered repeated alarms from the Shia opposition. But al Wefaq had already dropped out of negotiations and Wa'ad was considering its own future by the time Donilon’s interview had been taped. Thursday night’s interview soon give way to Friday morning, when al Wefaq rallied en masse to denounce the “National Dialogue” as a “joke,” according to its chief Sheikh Ali Salman.
This “dialogue,” the very same found in Syria, launched under U.S. fireworks and went out in cold silence. Donilon acts as though none of these developments have occurred, and what need of reason when fear will do the job quicker? Evidently Iran is to blame for encouraging Bahrain’s uprising and trying to take advantage of the situation, an ambiguous reference to funding al Wefaq. What, though, has al Quds given to youth protesters in the streets? Those same protesters who demonstrated against al Wefaq’s participation in the “National Dialogue?” Did Tehran marginalize them until they were ready to blow?
The uncoordinated use of Iran simply exposes America’s double-standard. In Syria, Iran is propping up the government and must be opposed. In Bahrain, Iran is propping up the opposition and must be opposed. The common denominator is U.S. interests, not the universal value of freedom so often invoked by U.S. officials.
Israel - "Better Than Ever”
Donilon squeezes as much straw as he can out of Iran’s scarecrow. Having been accused of foreign intervention in Syria and Bahrain - cover for Washington’s own interference - Tehran then finds itself torn down as Donilon builds Israel back up. The contrast, presumably, aims to divert attention from a stubborn Benjamin Netanyahu, while also draining the energy out of the Palestinians’ bid in the United Nations.
Instead of concerning himself with Netanyahu’s posturing and inability to negotiate in good faith, Donilon employs a special rhetorical device to ignore these obstacles: insist that America and Israel are “closer than they’ve ever been,” as if they had actually separated!
Is he not aware of continuing arms deals, the coordinated politico-military assault on a besieged Freedom Flotilla, or America’s veto in the UN? The notion that Obama “stood up” to Netanyahu and pushed the allies apart is a product of Netanyahu’s own government, conservative Israelis and U.S. policy-makers, Jewish Americans, and the U.S.-Israeli lobby. Donilon falls into the last category.
He then applies similar rhetoric to the peace process (or lack-thereof) by claiming that Obama has “put a tremendous amount of energy” into his “plan.” Many Palestinians and Muslims in general disagree; a healthy majority of Palestinians believe that Obama’s policy aligns with Israel’s. Time and effort has also lagged far behind his campaign promise. Rather than engaging the conflict from day one, the Palestinians have been forced to seek UN refuge under a hail of U.S. and Israeli criticism.
Perhaps a veto will “rebuild” their trust.
Saudi Arabia’s "Fundamental Fundamentals"
Although Donilon’s rhetoric collapses at multiple points, his denial of the Arab Spring naturally leads him to replay his Israeli card in Riyadh. Asked about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, Donilon replies that the two governments are “closer than ever.” A widening gap between Washington and Riyadh is more realistic given their squabbles in Egypt and Libya, but the capitals have managed to stay on the same page in Bahrain and Yemen. Thus far the Obama administration displays no willingness to challenge Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolution.
This counter-revolution must be the “fundamentals” that America shares with the Kingdom. Donilon never clarifies them beyond global economics (translation: oil and arms), but countering Iran’s regional hegemony serves as another “fundamental.” So do Saudi troops in Bahrain, also blamed on Iran. Donilon’s “fundamentals” might include Riyadh’s debated “anti-terror” law, a proposed set of punishments that would mandate 10 year sentences for criticism of the King. Saudi officials deny that the bill is aimed at “dissidents, not terrorists,” but do not dispute its contents.
America and Saudi Arabia do share “fundamental” interests - a desire to play kingmaker in the Middle East.
The Ghost of Yemen's Elephant
In closing his interview Rose mentions the Arab Spring one last time, prompting Donilon to immediately blurt out the word “al-Qaeda.” Once he finishes celebrating U.S. counter-terrorism, Donilon argues that the Arab Spring has dealt equal damage to the group. True, al-Qaeda’s global ideology has eroded from the rise of legitimate democratic movements, but U.S. policy has also reaffirmed al-Qaeda’s narrative of corrupt Western dictators.
Despite numerous references to al-Qaeda’s offshoots, clearly with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in mind, Donilon fails to mention Yemen once in 53 minutes of “in depth” conversation. His avoidance of the revolution strikes to the heart of U.S. policy in Yemen, considered (and still considered) a forward military base by the Pentagon before it was sucked into Riyadh’s counter-revolution. The lack of a political response from the Obama administration indicates not only a lack of will, but the lack of any strategy whatsoever. The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative is no strategy and neither is stalling.
The latter, however, is an ironic “fundamental” shared by Washington and Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Needing no outside assistance, Yemen’s blackout exposes Donilon’s final repetition of “restoring America’s credibility.” Even with Indonesia and Saudi Arabia’s relative support, Obama’s personal rating with Muslims is hovering between the single digits and teens. Conservatives accuse of him of being too cozy, for apologizing or bowing down to Muslims. Obama’s administration has done no such thing, and Yemen warrants its own chapter in the history of U.S. foreign policy failures. The U.S. government has treated the Yemeni people with open hostility, brazenly promoting meager humanitarian aid as the Pentagon supplies Saleh’s regime. Unlike al-Assad, he doesn’t need to worry about UN sanctions against his family of commanders.
Within Yemen, apparently, lies the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland, and Washington has done everything in its power to antagonize the populace. This is the reality of the Arab Spring - no wonder Donilon tried to escape.