Why America’s lumbering Middle East hypocrisy really does matter

Amidst an interesting piece on Arab social media and its focus on what’s happening in Gaza, Marc Lynch drops a truth bomb:

One other point is clear from following the debates in Arabic on social media. The images out of Gaza look remarkably similar to those out of Aleppo or Homs: The same innocent civilians emerging from ruins of bombed out buildings and dead children in the arms of wailing parents. To Arabs deeply saturated in the long history of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war has no more legitimacy than does Assad’s, and probably less. Arabs notice, with little surprise, that Western advocates of the “Responsibility to Protect” have made no calls for No-Fly Zones over Gaza, the arming of moderate Palestinian rebels, or International Criminal Court referrals or U.N. sanctions against Israel. To liberal interventionists in Washington, the reasons for this difference no doubt appear obvious. To most Arabs, what is obvious is the hypocrisy.

I must not be a liberal interventionist, because the reasons aren’t obvious to me. Assad, after all, has every reason to believe that if he loses the civil war, he’ll be killed. He’s literally fighting for his life. Netanyahu faces no similar existential threat, inaccurate rocket barrages aside. Yet Assad’s actions are Pure Evil and Netanyahu’s are Self-Defense. I don’t mean we should send arms to Palestinians or that we should haul Benjamin Netanyahu off to The Hague, but we certainly could demand that Our Closest Ally and The Only Democracy In The Region stop treating Gaza like a giant, exploding Whac-A-Mole game when people’s lives hang in the balance. We don’t have a lot of leverage over Hamas, though we could, say, stop selling arms to Qatar as long as the Qataris keep sending money to Hamas. But that’s only really going to punish the Palestinian people, and does nothing to address the real issue with respect to the Israel-Palestine problem, which is the massive power imbalance between the two parties that are supposed to be negotiating a peace with one another.

But yeah, if the reasons why violence against Arabs is Bad in one place but “Meh, Whatever” in another aren’t totally obvious to me, imagine how opaque they must seem to somebody observing the dichotomy while dodging IDF ordinance in Gaza, or trying to eke out a living despite crippling economic roadblocks in the West Bank, or anywhere else in the Arab world. I realize that, in practical terms, the United States hasn’t done all that much more to aid the Syrian rebels than it has to aid the Palestinians, but words matter, rhetoric matters. When we insist that Assad has to go but that Netanyahu is our best good friend, people take note of that, and it matters. When we demand that Nouri al-Maliki change his spots to pacify a dangerous rebellion in his country but then demand that the Palestinians stop “forcing” Israel to bomb the crap out of them, people take note of that. When Our Closest Ally tells Washington to go pound sand with every new illegal settlement or settlement expansion in the West Bank, and we do nothing, people notice that too. When we claim to abhor war crimes, then watch our allies commit them, and commit them ourselves while we’re on the subject, it matters.

Half the time I don’t even think our hypocrisy is willful or malicious, it’s just borne out of an inability to choose between our interests and ideals, and a blindness to the potential harm that choosing the former (or not making a choice at all) can carry with it. For example, one place our hypocrisy really matters right now is in Egypt. Hamas used to have three key international patrons: the Saudis, Egypt, and Iran. The Saudis were its biggest backers for a while in the early 2000s, but a combination of American pressure and Hamas’s affinity to the Muslim Brotherhood caused the Saudis to rethink their official ties to the group about 10 years ago. Substantial Gulf-financed charity still winds up in Gaza, some of which might wind up in Hamas’s pockets and most of which frees Hamas from having to pay for civilian infrastructure. Iran was a major backer until the Syrian Civil War broke out and Hamas made the mistake of backing its sectarian comrades in the rebellion instead of Iran’s ally Assad. Iranian aid to Hamas has resumed, but Ed Royce’s half-baked utterances aside, it hasn’t returned to the levels it was at before their 2012 falling out.

That leaves Egypt, which had funneled money to Hamas and acted as a conduit for arms shipments from Iran in, uh, happier times. When Hosni Mubarak was replaced by some of those Muslim Brotherhood types with whom Hamas shares so much in terms of ideology, it seemed like the relationship between Gaza and Cairo was going to grow even stronger. Then Mohamed Morsi turned out to be a pretty inept president and Egypt’s Deep State turned out to be a whole lot deeper than anybody realized, and now General Field Marshal President-for Life Sisi is in charge. Through all these changes of power and the protests, counter-protests and government massacres of protesters that they entailed, the United States did pretty much nothing. We decided that the Egypt that fairly elected Morsi was “neither an ally nor an enemy,” which was a marked contrast from the days when the dictatorial Mubarak was Our Man in Cairo. Then when Sisi overthrew Morsi (killing a thousand or so of his supporters in the process) in what walked, looked, swam, quacked, smelled, and tasted like a military coup, and had a big proverbial sign around its neck saying “I am a military coup,” the Obama administration decided it wasn’t quite sure if that met the strict, letter-of-the-law definition of “military coup.” I guess we figured a dictator in the hand was worth a democratically-elected government in the bush, but our hypocrisy didn’t go unnoticed here, either.

There are conspiracy theories out there about how the US engineered the Muslim Brotherhood’s election victory or secretly backed Sisi’s uncoup, but I don’t think we had anywhere near the clarity of purpose when it came to Egypt that either of those theories would require. We might not have had the ability to stop the coup that overthrew Morsi, but we sure as hell could have followed our own laws, our own principles, and cut off aid to the coup government. That would have mattered, not only for the symbolic message it would have sent but for the leverage it might have given us over Sisi going forward. Sure, the Saudis pledged to backstop Sisi if America really did cut off aid to Egypt, and the Russians are always ready to sell weapons to whomever if American won’t, but we could have at least demanded that Sisi not outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood and start killing its supporters wholesale in the streets as a condition of restoring aid. Then maybe Egypt would still have ties to the Brotherhood-aligned Hamas such that Hamas wouldn’t feel like immediately spitting any Egyptian ceasefire proposal right back in Sisi’s face. And hey, if Sisi had told Obama to get bent and done what he did anyway, at least we’d have earned a little credibility for having tried to uphold our principles for once.

Instead, we tacitly approved of Sisi, the coup that brought him to power, the bloodbath that followed the coup, and Sisi’s decision to cut ties to Gaza. With the third of its three supporters mostly gone, Hamas was isolated and especially vulnerable, and when those three Israeli teens were senselessly murdered in the West Bank, Netanyahu saw his chance to erode Hamas’s capabilities. That’s what we’re seeing now, and American hypocrisy helped create the conditions under which it’s happening.


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