Yesterday in Miami, President Obama spoke to a group of Jewish donors about events in the Arab world. Among his comments was this:
All the forces that we see building in Egypt are the forces that should be naturally aligned with the US, [and] should be aligned with Israel.
That is far from a self-evident claim. Was Obama talking about the Egyptian protesters who shouted “Jew, Jew” as they stripped Lara Logan naked and beat her with poles? Regardless of whether the “building forces” in Egypt “should be” aligned with the U.S. and Israel, I am not confident that they are. Not “all” of them, anyway.
Sounding a similar note, yesterday’s Washington Post reported that the administration is “preparing for the prospect that Islamist governments will take hold in North Africa and the Middle East.” The administration emphasizes the diversity of seemingly similar strands of Islamic politics:
The White House’s internal assessment, dated Feb. 16, looked at the Muslim Brotherhood’s and al-Qaeda’s views on global jihad, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States, Islam in politics, democracy and nationalism, among others.
The report draws sharp distinctions between the ambitions of the two groups, suggesting that the Brotherhood’s mix of Islam and nationalism make it a far different organization than al-Qaeda, which sees national boundaries as obstacles to restoring the Islamic caliphate.
Not everyone will find it reassuring that the gamut of prospective regimes runs all the way from the Muslim Brotherhood to al Qaeda, a Brotherhood spin-off. But our old friend Paul Pillar, now retired from the CIA, reinforces the Obama administration’s optimism:
Paul Pillar, a longtime CIA analyst who now teaches at Georgetown University, said, “Most of the people in the intelligence community would see things on this topic very similarly to the president – that is, political Islam as a very diverse series of ideologies, all of which use a similar vocabulary, but all quite different.”
Pillar’s point, apparently, is that when the Muslim Brotherhood says “Jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu akbar!” they mean something “quite different” from what al Qaeda means by the same words. We can only hope. Pillar continues:
“The main challenge President Obama will face is a political challenge from across the aisle, and one reinforced by Israel,” said Pillar, whose portfolio included the Middle East.
One is left speechless. Turmoil in the Middle East promises a set of new regimes; the optimistic scenario, apparently, is that they will be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood rather than al Qaeda. And the main problem this will pose for the President will come from the Republicans! And, of course–but why?–those pesky Israelis. We can describe this charitably as a remarkably Washington-centric view.
All of this reinforces the sense that the Obama administration and the foreign policy establishment are without a clue and without a plan as they watch events unfold.