My latest column, which appears in today's print editions of Gulf News and is now available here at MideastAnalysis.com, takes President Obama's coming trip to the Middle East as a starting point and asks Arab readers (and readers who care about the US-Arab relationship) to think what, exactly, they would like to see from the US administration in the next few years.

As I say in the piece, however, there's a caveat: I'm interested in attainable goals - difficult is fine, but attainable - not wish lists. Please don't tell me that the US must alter its entire attitude toward Israel and the Palestinians because that simply is not going to happen (one could further argue that with Netanyahu in power an about-face wouldn't do much good anyway - but that's a separate discussion). Let's think about things the Arab World can ask of America that America might - just might - be willing and politically able to do.

 
 
As my latest column for Gulf News outlines, the really fascinating thing about last week's Hagel hearing, for me at least, was the evidence it offered that America's Vietnam-bred political demons have not been vanquished... they have merely evolved.

Not only was it depressing to hear so many of the real issues facing the next SecDef get any airing, but the essential backward-looking nature of the day was just sad.


 
 
I’m a Middle East wonk, but watching the final presidential debate one really has to ask… no mention of the economic crisis in Europe? China mentioned only in passing in reference to currency manipulation? No real discussion (a passing reference by Obama aside) of the Obama administration decision to shift America’s overall military priorities toward Asia? No discussion (a passing reference to Mali by Romney aside) of Africa – despite the fact that the US military has been expanding its footprint there throughout the Obama administration (this, to be fair, goes back into the Bush years – but it still needs to be talked about)? No attempt at a serious discussion of Russia? Pakistan discussed only in reference to its nukes – no mention of how that ties into our deepening relationship with India? Burmese Rohingyas? BRICS? Nuclear proliferation not involving Iran? Did anyone even say the words “North Korea”? Latin America in general? How, exactly, was this a foreign policy debate?

I’ve spent most of my career dealing with the Middle East. I appreciated the discussion of the Arab Spring and the fall of Mubarak. Iran got its due (and we learned that Romney is a bit geographically challenged when it comes to Iran), as did Syria. Even if the discussion of both countries never really went beyond boilerplate it at least happened. The who-loves-Israel-best discussion was a bit tiresome, but ultimately par for the course.

Among the topics that actually did get discussed the glaring hole was in Afghanistan. Both candidates avoided the obvious unraveling of our current strategy and paid lip service to the idea that we’re doing an excellent job of training Afghan troops, utterly ignoring the growing problem of those same troops opening fire on their trainers.

The real tragedy, however, was that the Middle East (broadly defined) so utterly dominated these 90 minutes. It’s my patch professionally, and on one level I appreciated the attention. We really, however, needed a broader discussion of so, so many issues tonight that, for some reason or other, simply did not make the cut.

 
 
We are now only a few hours away from Presidential Debate #2. Unlike the first debate two weeks ago this debate will use a town hall format and foreign as well as domestic policy will be on the agenda. With that in mind, please take a look at my latest column for Gulf News, which looks at the ongoing controversy surrounding the attack on the Benghazi consulate and the way both Obama and Romney have handled it.

Also noteworthy: this piece, published yesterday by Bloomberg noting that Morsi's administration in Egypt is now considering new measures to outlaw "political thuggery' - a term which appears to start with blocking traffic and takes off from there.
 

NYT on Morsi

10/10/2012

 
This piece from arabist.net's Issandr El Amrani is a very useful update on the state of the Morsi administration. The basic premise - that Morsi's honeymoon is pretty much over - is an important one, as is the observation that the Egyptian leader is trying to perform a delicate balancing act: building a national base of support even as he rallies his core supporters for elections that are peobably only a few months off.
 

Or Not

04/10/2012

 
OK, I was wrong. There was no mention of Libya last night and only one passing reference by Romney to the Middle East - and that as part of a longer riff on his part about (perceived) Obama policy failures. Perhaps Romney felt he did not have to bring it up. After all, most of the evening seemed to go his way.
 
 
My latest column, which appears in the Wednesday print editions of Gulf News, looks at Wednesday's first U.S. presidential debate.

Please read the column at the link above and return here, to the home page, to leave comments.

One note to add - in the 36 hours since writing this I have revised my view about foreign policy and the coming debate. Sunday night (which is when the copy needed to be finalized) I still believed that Libya would be excluded from this week's debate on the grounds that this first session is supposed to be restricted to domestic topics. Now I'm not so sure. It seems more and more likely to me that Romney is going to try to find a way to inject Libya into Wednesday's meeting. The issue simply looms too large for the GOP at the moment for him not to find a way to mention it.
 
 
Hello, and welcome back. After being dormant for far too long it is time to get MideastAnalysis back up and running!

We'll begin with my latest column for Gulf News. This appeared on the newspaper's website a few hours ago and will be in the paper's print editions on Wednesday.

I am, of course, eager for any and all feedback and will work hard to make MideastAnalysis a go-to source for thoughtful commentary on the US and the Middle East.

Again: welcome back.

grr


TASK CUT OUT FOR ROMNEY AND MURSI
By Gordon Robison

Gulf News (Dubai); online 18Sept / print 19Stpe

Let us begin by acknowledging that Mohammad Mursi and Mitt Romney occupy very different places on the power spectrum. Romney merely hopes to become a president. Mursi already is one.

Each politician, however, is being watched closely — both within their respective countries and by the outside world. Each is still trying to convince doubters that he is up to the job. Last week, each found his leadership tested in a crucial, yet predictable, way and each, in turn, failed that test.

First, Romney.

When violence broke out in front of the American Embassy in Cairo and, far more lethally, its Consulate in Benghazi, the correct path for Romney was clear: Express concern and remind reporters pushing for a reaction that it would be inappropriate to comment on a delicate, still unfolding, foreign crisis. It’s not that criticising a sitting president on his handling of overseas troubles is bad, but timing does matter.

Instead, he rushed out a highly critical statement about the Barack Obama administration’s handling of events, even as these were still unfolding. When the statement proved to be wrong about numerous things, Romney refused to retract it and, instead, repeated his false accusations.

Throughout the crisis, it appeared that Romney was thinking only about the immediate news cycle and the opportunity it offered for scoring points on Obama. That he appeared petty and decidedly unpresidential appeared not to cross his mind.

What made it worse was that it was all so predictable. Foreign crises happen often enough that any sensible opposition presidential candidate needs to be prepared to react to them and the script (offer vague support now, criticise once the storm has passed) is a well-established part of US politics.

To be clear: I am not saying that Obama’s handling of last week’s events is beyond criticism; merely that, as a political matter, challengers ought to withhold their criticism until after a foreign crisis has passed. Their ability to do so is an important test of whether they possess the temperament and maturity that the presidency requires.

That brings us to Mursi.

Like challengers seeking to replace incumbents, representatives of long-repressed political movements, suddenly thrust into power, bear some special burdens. They need to demonstrate to the wider world that they are aware of the rules governing relations among nations and are willing to abide by them.

This is not an indictment of Islamists or the Muslim Brotherhood per se. Evo Morales’ peasant-based political movement faced many of the same questions when it took power in Bolivia in 2006. So did Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in 1994.

Obviously, Mursi’s first concern is Egypt. At home, he must work to keep his promises to voters while facing political challenges from a military he does not really control and from Salafists who, unburdened by the responsibilities of government, have little to lose by embarrassing him.

Still, as Egypt’s first elected leader, Mursi also needs to prove to the wider world that he understands the obligations of office and takes them seriously.

This goes beyond protecting embassies (as important as that is). It is about building and maintaining credibility. Mursi’s worst moment last week came when his subordinates were caught tweeting words of reassurance to the Americans in English while using the Brotherhood’s Arabic twitter feed to encourage more protests in front of the US Embassy.

Just as Romney should have anticipated that a foreign crisis would test his ability to demonstrate statesmanlike restraint, so Mursi should have foreseen that violence on Cairo’s streets would, sooner or later, test his resolve. Since Hosni Mubarak’s fall, there have been several outbursts of popular anger directed at embassies and foreign businesses in Cairo. Some of these have been stoked by people who also support Mursi. It was inevitable that this would happen again and, in the process, that Mursi’s willingness to enforce international norms, even against his own supporters, would be tested.

Later this month, Mursi is expected in New York where he will address the United Nations, meet Obama and, in many ways, will have his coming out on the international stage. His main task will be to put the international community at ease, convincing a sometimes sceptical world that Egypt is a safe place to visit and invest and that its government is a good credit risk. If his actions clash with his words that will be a very hard-sell indeed.

Romney is still trying to make the sale with American voters. Having won over voters at home, Mursi now needs to sell himself and his government to the international community. Both tasks require a kind of leadership neither man displayed last week. Undoing that damage is not impossible, but through action and inaction Romney and Mursi have made their own jobs noticeably harder.

Gordon Robison, a long-time Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.

 
 
The following article was commissioned by The Bridge, a local publication in Montpelier, Vermont, and appears in their current issue (published last Thursday). I was asked to contribute to a special selection of reflections on 9/11 by Vermonters.

Comments, of course, are always welcome:


Visiting Santiago, Chile a few years ago I was startled to find that one of the city’s main traffic arteries is “September the 11th Avenue.” Chileans, I discovered, remember September 11 as the anniversary of the 1973 coup in which Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende.

That morning in Santiago was a reminder of something we Americans too often forget: just because 9/11 has become a defining experience in our lives does not mean the rest of the world sees it that way. Indeed, if there is a single element of 9/11 that separates American memory of the event from what the rest of the world recalls it is the oft-heard phrase “everything changed.”

For me, as a Vermonter who has spent much of his adult life living in and reporting on the Middle East (indeed, I am writing this article from Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar), the last decade has been marked by a series of disappointments at how our society has handled the traumas of September 11, 2001.

One of the things that used to separate America from the autocratic world of the Middle East was our approach to the word “security.”

In the Middle East, “security” has long been a word invoked by officialdom whenever it wishes to avoid accountability for both great decisions of state and petty intrusions into individuals’ lives. Prior to 9/11 the United States was not that sort of place. Today, in too many respects, it is.

As in the Middle East, the word is used easily by both the highest and the lowest of public servants. It is cited by our former vice president as a justification for torture. It is also the reason why Transportation Security Administration agents at some airports insist that your shoes must go through the X-ray machine in a plastic bin while other agents at other airports insist that the same shoes must sit on the belt by themselves. Ask why there is a difference and the TSA will not tell you. It is a matter of “security.”

Blame for this situation lies not with the officials themselves, but with the rest of us for letting this happen. In the years since the 9/11 attacks too many of us have too easily accepted platitudes in place of explanations.

Yes, there are people out there who wish us ill. That, however, has been the case at some level or other throughout American history – and in this regard we are not unique. Americans, of course, do not like to be told that we are not unique, but it is instructive to remember that we are hardly the first nation ever to be attacked and that other democratic societies have dealt with the aftermath of similarly devastating experiences. More importantly, they have done so without radically altering the social contracts that hold their societies together.

A few years after 9/11 I found myself having dinner at a hotel in Abu Dhabi with an old friend – an Egyptian Christian a few years my senior. He had family in the United States, and would later send his children to school here. That night in 2004, however, he was angry mainly at George W. Bush.

Bush, he said, “took away my America.” What he meant was that the America which emerged from 9/11 was not the place he had grown up idolizing. The pre-9/11 America stood for certain ideals and made a genuine, if often imperfect, effort to be the country it imagined itself to be. America’s openness and self-confidence were what had appealed to him and other Arabs of his generation, men and women who came of age in the 70s and 80s in closed societies where it often seemed as though nothing ever could, or would, change.

Becoming that America again will require a little more humility on our part. That, in turn, starts with our own understanding that the events of 9/11 did not “change everything.” The tragedy of September 11 may be uniquely ours, but it is precisely because other societies have endured similarly wrenching violence that so many were able to sympathize so deeply with us in the fall of 2001.

As a nation we missed the chance to embrace and build on that empathy. For too much of the last decade we have viewed the rest of the world from a fearful, defensive crouch. It is time for that to change. For America to be the country we know ourselves to be the second decade after 9/11 must be utterly unlike the first.

Gordon Robison has worked in the Middle East for ABC, CNN, Fox News and Al Jazeera. He has also taught Middle East politics at UVM and Islamic History and Culture at Emerson College. He lives in Burlington.


 

The GOP & Bibi

31/05/2011

 
My latest column, which appears in tomorrow's print editions of Gulf News, looks at the quite extraordinary spectacle in Washington last week, in which Congressional Republicans lined up publicly behind a foreign leader in opposition to the President of the United States.

Differing loudly and publicly with the President on foreign policy is not the issue. That is a correct and time-honored feature of American politics. But what we saw last week was something very different, and it sets a very bad precedent.

Click here to read the column. Please return here to the home page to leave comments.