As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, the West in general, and America in particular were targeted by the jihadist movements. Some consisted of Al‑Qaeda and the Taliban, and others consisted of a different type of jihadism: the Iranian regime.
At the time of the USSR’s collapse, the American public knew about Iranian and Hezbollah threats. There had been attacks on American targets since the early 1980s — such as those in Beirut, Lebanon, and the Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia — by America’s Iranian «allies.»
What Americans did not know much about, however, were jihadist Salafi movements – even after two declarations of war by Osama bin Laden: the first in 1996, and again in 1998. If Bin Laden’s first declaration of war was not clear, his second statement was — a 29‑minute‑long speech in Arabic, publicized on Al Jazeera.
The next day I thought, «Surely the President of the United States is going to rush to Congress and say, ‘We are at war with Al‑Qaeda.'» But it did not happen that way. What did happen was that the New York Times, on page 7,000, said there was a Saudi dissident who declared war against America. The newspaper had its own explanation: «He is a Saudi dissident. He is frustrated with the Arabian royal family. He is a reformer, and he is really not happy with us backing that regime.»
That was also the explanation given at the time by the Middle East Studies community in American universities. American scholars looked upon the jihadists who came back from Afghanistan as frustrated, disenfranchised, and then they criticized — themselves.
What we have as foreign policy today, in blaming America for everything,was actually the stance of academia in the 1990s.
It was stunning to see, coming to this country, that members of the U.S. academia were not informing their students about reality, especially about who these jihadist movements are and their goals. When, in 1998, bin Laden finally declared a war against Jews, Christians, crusaders, infidels, and Americans, the reaction in the mainstream media was… almost no reaction.
But people in the media are produced where? In the classroom. They graduate, then go from the classroom — to the newsroom. Graduates then also find their way into — the courtroom. This pattern reveals why we also have judges who do not understand how to distinguish jihadists from non‑jihadists. The problem, however, does not end in the classroom or the newsroom or the courtroom. It eventually ends up in the war room.
This was a war of ideas and our entire elite had been misinformed, miseducated and misled on the forthcoming terror.
The 1990s also bore witness to the rise of civil society in the Middle East. People saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and understood the liberation of Eastern and Central Europe. In the late 1990s, I began to look at websites and deal with NGOs. In Beirut, I had a magazine, Mashrek International. [Mashrek means «The East.»] That magazine, founded in 1982, focused on the struggle of these minorities.
The first type of civil society that arose basically consisted of marginalized minorities who were bringing to light the issues facing ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East.  There was a world of minorities moving — pushing back against both oppressive regimes and against jihadi regimes.
While examining these ethnic and religious minorities, we found other segments of society that were also frustrated and suppressed, such as women in the Middle East and the youth.
What had made these minorities more visible was technology.
On the eve of 9/11 — the end of the 1990s and into the next decade — the internet had become available to more and more people, so more writings about these changes were becoming available, along with the ideas of the people writing them.
Immediately after the attacks of 2001, the few who were working on this problem were called upon by members of Congress to «come up with answers.»
Most will remember that after 9/11 there were many questions. One was, «Where are the moderates?» Others included, «Where are the anti‑jihadists? Why don’t they express themselves?» My argument at the time was that we needed to «meet them halfway.» That experiment had been tried in Sudan and Lebanon, when I had worked with the administration on UN Resolution 1559, passed by the Security Council, to ask the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon. But by 2010, a lot had changed in the Middle East. Civil societies had reached a level of intolerance regarding their suppression.
By early 2010, civil societies — youth and minorities and all of those who are anti‑jihadist in the region — saw several developments which, ironically, prepared them for both the good news and the bad news that came from the Arab Spring. First, when the U.S. brought down the Taliban and Saddam Hussein (we can have a long discussion if this move was «good» or «bad,» move, but that is irrelevant here), and its military was able to maintain a status quo — meaning that we were not militarily defeated in Iraq or Afghanistan, although we would eventually assure defeat by withdrawing from both — the real question became: «What do we leave behind us?Who do we leave behind us? Who will replace us and continue confronting the terror forces?»
When the Taliban was removed, not everything in Afghanistan turned rosy.
We do not have a democracy in Afghanistan. But in the eyes of many other people in the Middle East, instead of the Taliban, there is now a parliament where women are allowed. To us, this change is not significant. But to those in these societies, that change is most significant.
In Iraq, instead of having one political party, that of Saddam Hussein, we have now a parliament where people choose among multiple political parties, maybe even throwing shoes at each other. Iraq has changed, and is changing.
Two more events were going to convince many youths in the region that they needed to act. One was the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005, when from 1.5 to 1.8 million people took to the streets of Beirut. They were nonviolent; they were from diverse communities; they included many women; they represented many languages. But there was one desired outcome: To get the Syrians out of Lebanon.
This revolution became known there as the Texting Revolution, after the mobile phone text messages that allowed one million people to come together.
The Cedar Revolution may not have been successful — Hezbollah continues to control Lebanon. But four years later, in Iran, came the Green Revolution. Another two million people took to the streets. The numbers were revealing: 60% of those who demonstrated were under the age of 20. The regime understands what that means. The future was rising up. These were not senior citizens demonstrating, nor the allies of the Shah. These were people who were born two regimes after the Shah. One‑third of those under-20-demonstrators were girls and women, at least in the first few days of the revolution. Of course, when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard took to the streets against them, they fled.
That revolution was known as the Twitter revolution. Without the means, there can be no mobilization. Ideas may be present and strong, but the means and the networking were crucial.
In mid-2010, I wrote a book, The Coming Revolution. When we spoke to, the publisher, he said, «Are you sure? This is a very daring title.» I said, «Yes, the revolution is coming. I don’t how it is coming or when it is coming. But it is coming.» You could read the chat rooms, follow what the Egyptians, the Tunisians, the Lebanese, and the Iranians were talking about. They were actually waiting for an opportunity. I thought, perhaps, the revolution might begin in Algeria with the Berbers. One could see that there was a thin wave of civil society that would rise up. It might not be effective, it might not win — and in the West, especially in America, we have a microwave mentality: it has to be quick, it has to be successful, or it will not be on TV.
There are some rebellions — efforts at revolution — that will come and that will not be successful, but even those open the path for a massive change. In Egypt, the Copts would be the trigger. It was, in fact, a Coptic student demonstration in Cairo after a blast against a church that came first. This bold move encouraged the non‑Christian youth in Egypt to begin their own demonstrations. It also triggered a Facebook page highlighting the response in Egypt. In three days, the page got 85,000 «Likes.» From those 85,000 Likes, thousands took to Tahrir Square.
When the first waves of revolution hit Tahrir Square, or Tunisia, or Libya, or Syria, there was a moment in which the United States — if it had had the right leadership or a leadership that wanted to act, or at least a leadership that did not want to partner with the other side — could have aided the cause of freedom tremendously. If we had sided with civil society, it might have stood a chance.
In 2011, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria — and Yemen to a point — were all experiencing revolutions or civil wars. Tunisia changed quickly, but in Egypt, the first 80,000‑100,000 people were in Tahrir Square and they did not leave. That had never happened before.
In Washington and around the United States and the West, many were arguing, «We should stick with Mubarak.» My closest friends were telling me, «It’s too risky to abandon Mubarak.» My view, however, was if the Islamists are the ones who are rising, yes, of course, we will stay with Mubarak, but if members of the civil society are rising, then we had better immediately link up with them so that if we let go of Mubarak, they are not overwhelmed later by the Islamists.
Unfortunately, the administration did just the opposite. So, when those youths took to the streets and the international community said, «Okay, it is acceptable,» the Muslim Brotherhood, who were watching, simply waited — and actually said on Al Jazeera, «We did not go until we made sure that Tahrir Square is protected, that Mubarak is not going to launch his army.»
This made sense: the Muslim Brotherhood had a long history of being suppressed by Mubarak. The administration was basically siding with the Muslim Brotherhood. We were watching those demonstrators growing in the tens of thousands. The narrative coming from the White House was, ‘We are going to wait and see how this is going to settle down.'»
It was only when members of the Muslim Brotherhood moved from the edges into Tahrir Square and secured themselves as part of this demonstration that the statements changed in the White House and the State Department, and they finally said, «Mubarak, you leave.»
The entire administration may not even have known what was happening, but those who are in charge of the Egypt situation or the State Department’s Egypt Desk knew exactly what they were doing. They wanted to secure the future leadership of Egypt after Mubarak as one made up mostly of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The same scenario occurred in Libya and Syria, where the situation turned immediately into civil wars — again because of miscalculations or false calculations from the administration.
In Libya, in the early weeks, secular ex‑Gaddafi bureaucrats, judges, former diplomats, and military men — and students –rose up against Gaddafi. With them, on their side, were also jihadi Islamist militias, some of whom were actually released by Saif al‑Islam, Gaddafi’s son.
In Washington, both the administration and, unfortunately, some members of Congress said, «Well, these are the rebels, so this whole party must be ‘the rebels.'» The U.S. did not distinguish, within the rebels, who were the potential partners we needed to work with,and who were the jihadi Salafists.
In Libya, we beat Gaddafi’s forces so quickly that the only organized force on the ground was that of the Salafist jihadists. They seized the eastern part of Libya and parts of Tripoli, and that, strengthened by even more forces averse to U.S. interests, is where Libya is today.
In Syria, the early waves of revolution that we saw on TV were made of demonstrators from Daraa in the south, to Aleppo and Damascus. So, between March 2011 and January of 2012, we really had a popular uprising. This was a golden opportunity to do something about Syria.
There are sometimes windows of opportunity that if missed, force you to wait for another. The opportunity was there simply because we were in Iraq. By looking at a map, one can understand that by being in Iraq, the U.S. served as a wall, disconnecting Iran from going into Syria. So as long as we and our allies were in Iraq, the Iranian regime was not yet able to connect strategically with the Assad regime.
Also, Hezbollah was not yet heavily inside Syria for the first six to seven months. Al‑Qaeda had not yet penetrated deep into Syria. A better policy would have been to use situation — even if we might have had to stretch our presence in Iraq a few more months — to leave Iraq with an ally force and Syria with a non‑Assad regime. Instead, we had to stick with the schedule — the very political schedule — of leaving Iraq on December 31 at midnight, regardless of what might happen later.
The Iranians, of course, could and would wait for us to leave. What were they going to do on January first and second and third? Start connecting strategically with the Syrian regime. When the Iranians moved in, Hezbollah moved in. When both moved in, Al‑Qaeda moved in. When everybody was in, that was the end of the civil demonstrations.
Those events take us to 2012, the midst of a presidential campaign: «We do not do foreign interventions.» Nobody wants to risk anything unless it will be completely successful in three days and then they can take the credit through to November.
This scenario did not happen. In 2013, once the elections were over, everything in Syria had changed. The map had changed: Iran was in Syria. A short while ago, there was a statement by the head of the al Quds force, the Iranian central force, and the President of Iran, saying, «We cannot leave Syria. We cannot let Assad go.»
Hezbollah is also now deeply entrenched in Syria, and Al‑Qaeda has seized, probably, about 40% of Syria’s opposition. The Russians — now even more than before — have put in their veto, and the Chinese have as well.
Remember when the administration was considering striking Syria for using chemical weapons? That was the final test. We urged Assad, and then we threatened Assad not to cross the red line. He crossed the red line. We ordered our battleships to go — and then we stopped and asked the Russians to take the problem to the United Nations.
What was behind that, as far as I learned, was that the administration asked the U.S. military and the national security group of analysts, «What is going to happen if we engage or if we strike against the chemical weapons system?» The reports came in: «There is no such thing, in this configuration of forces, as a limited strike.» A limited strike in Vietnam did not work, right? We had a 20‑year war against three Communist nations: North Vietnam, China, and Russia. A limited strike in Syria in 2013 or 2014 could mean possible retaliation by four regimes: the Assad regime, Hezbollah, Iraq’s Maliki regime, and Iran.
The message was: «President Obama, if you want to do a military strike in Syria, you will be fighting four regimes.» In 2011, the U.S. was encircling Assad; he was almost gone. But as soon as the U.S. lifted that option into an agreement with the Assad regime — which gave Assad every green light he needed to continue his warfare and has actually aggrandized Al‑Qaeda further — ten or fifteen days later, Washington announced that it had an «interim deal» with Iran.
When the president was considering striking Syria for using chemical weapons, what did he do? He sent that decision to Congress. Since when does a president send his decisions on national security and defense to Congress? But when he cut a deal with the Iranian regime — after 31 years of the standing U.S. policy, Republican and Democrat alike, of isolating of that regime — he did not send it for review in Congress.
It seems now, however, that the reason the administration did not strike Syria is not just that it meant engaging those four regimes.
The decision had already been made, a year ago, in the discussions with the Iranian regime, that a deal would be cut with the Iranian regime. If one has a deal to be declared with the Ayatollahs, one is not going to enter a war with the allies of the Ayatollahs. That would kill the deal.
It seems now that the administration, since 2009, had two tracks for its Middle East policy. Track number one, from Morocco to Gaza, would be to partner with the Muslim Brotherhood. On what grounds? Because the academic elite and the advisors for the administration have convinced senior decision makers that the Muslim Brotherhood is a force for «change.» This is how the administration sees the Brotherhood. The people of Egypt see the Brotherhood as Fascists, as neo‑Nazis, but to the elite here — the academic elite — which, by the way has been generously funded by the Brotherhood, or at least inspired by the petro‑dollars coming under the office of the Brotherhood — it makes sense that the Brotherhood is a force we can count on. The Brotherhood will secure all of this space, and then civilized business can be done with them, and then they will be secured as a loyal wing.
The other track would run from Beirut to Syria to Iraq to Iran — if the behavior of the Iranian leadership can be successfully changed.
That these were the current Middle East politics tracks is based on information not hard to find. It is in the papers of the academics who are advising the administration. It is simple to go to the libraries and read what the advisors have been writing for so many decades and then deduce what the current policy is.
These advisors and the pro‑Iranian lobby in Washington are not made only of Iranians, as some of my colleagues believe. They are made of financial interest groups who have been waiting to do business with Iran because for all these years, there has been the idea that if we cut a deal with the Iranian regime, the Iranian regime will stabilize Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Thus the grand design becomes apparent.
And where were the first indicators of that grand design? Look at the 2008 Obama campaign and read what the contributing intellectuals were saying about the Middle East. And then in June of 2009, the president went to Cairo and delivered his speech. Actually, one of the speechwriters went to Egypt and bragged that she was part of the writing of this speech — and that she has been an advisor in the White House and close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The speech was designed to tell the Muslim Brotherhood that the United States will eventually be changing its policy and that there will be a new day.
All these words were in the speech. The speech was designed not just for the Muslim world, but for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose representatives the White House invited to sit in the front row.
|President Obama waves to the crowd attending his June 2009 speech in Cairo. The White House invited Muslim Brotherhood representatives to sit in the front row. (Image source: The White House)|
There was also a letter, sent in early June to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, in which was expressed an intention to engage in dialogue. There is nothing secret about this policy. From the early stages of the administration, there was an approach to partner with the Muslim Brotherhood, even before it came to power, and to unfreeze the relationship with the Iranians.
The Arab Spring seems to have come as a surprise to the administration, although many of my colleagues are now saying the administration was behind the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring caused the administration to scramble in choosing which partners they were going to be working with in North Africa and, of course, later on, in Iran.
The administration did not predict the Arab Spring. When it happened, the U.S. corrected its own policy to meet the partners it really wanted to work and cut a deal with. Now, one of the administration’s policies, the partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood, is essentially being dismantled — not by us, but by the Egyptian people.
On June 30th, 2013, 33 million Egyptians rose up. Many in Washington, especially in the administration, immediately called the change of regime in Egypt a «coup.» If 33 million demonstrators are a coup, we have to change political science. No, it was not a coup; it was a revolution. Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Field Marshal Tantawi or any leader without 33 million people on the streets would have never conducted any change, would never have dared tell Mr. Morsi, «stay at home.» They would have been removed immediately; the United States would have called them rebels, and they would have been taken to The Hague. Even before the revolution, there had been a petition signed by 22 million people in Egypt.
In the Middle East studies field, academics have been saying, «But Morsi was elected.» Well, Benito Mussolini was elected and Adolf Hitler was elected. Half of the voters for Morsi were simply protest voters against the other candidate, who was a relic from the previous regime. Actually, the number of voters for Morsi was about six million. But 22.5 million signed a petition. That is a recall. If I were Morsi, I would have resigned or asked my government to resign. That is what is done in liberal democracies. Think France. If there is an election in France, and the president loses the majority, what happens? The government changes.
But that is not the whole story in Egypt. Early this year there was a referendum. In international law, the last referendum is the last reflection of what people want. 22.5 million showed up for the referendum and rejected the proposed Muslim Brotherhood constitution. This referendum was what opened the path for presidential elections and parliamentary elections. This is the path Egypt is taking.
In Tunisia, the Ennahda party, the Islamist sister-party of the Muslim Brotherhood, was smarter. Its leaders understood what happened in Egypt. The opposition in Tunisia is even stronger. They are also secular. Women in the opposition are strong women. The labor unions are strong. Tunisia is a bit more advanced than Egypt.
It seems that the Ennahda government got advice from Europe and from the U.S. to make concessions, to allow changes, to have a national unity cabinet, and to go again for elections. That saved their skin. Those are smart Islamists. Ennahda did not reform. Ennahda conducted a tactical withdrawal. My recommendation in dealing with Islamists has been that the measure by which you know the Islamists have transformed themselves into something else — Muslim Conservative, Muslim Democrat, etc. — is that they declare, within their own party, that they have changed, just as when the Communist Parties declared that they were now Social Democrats. We do not usually believe them, but at least they make these declarations.
Nothing of this sort has happened in Tunisia. And in Syria, every day, it is still just going from bad to worse.
Today the region is still witnessing a race between the Islamist forces and the secularists, moderates and liberals.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been struggling to maintain its influence in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, as well as within the Syrian opposition in Jordan and in Iraq.
In the Levant, the Iranian Khomeinists have the upper hand in Tehran, and, through the Baghdad government, in Damascus and in Beirut. In the other camp, a diverse web of NGOs, secularists, women, and minorities are struggling to advance pluralism and democracy.
This race has been affected and will continue to be impacted by Western and U.S. policies and preferences. If Washington continues to give advantage to the Islamists, the Islamists will resist reform, and civil societies will have hard time implementing change toward progress.
But if the U.S. and its Western allies lend their support to civil societies, the culture of reform could take root in the region.
It is my projection that civil societies and secularists will eventually shift the balance of power towards their ideals, but it may be generational. As we see in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the secularists are pushing forward. In the Iranian-dominated Middle East, opposition is also growing against the Ayatollahs. So far it has been a lost Spring, but this is only one season. Another is coming soon, and we need to be prepared for it.
Walid Phares, born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, is a professor and lecturer in the U.S., and the author of six books, the most recent of which is: The Lost Spring: U.S. Policy in the Middle East and Catastrophes to Avoid.
A slightly different version of this article was was delivered as an address to the Gatestone Institute in New York City earlier this year.
The Lost Spring: U.S. Policy in the Middle East
by Walid Phares
July 3, 2014 at 5:00 am