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Riding the Tiger > Category: Middle East

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Americans, Libyans Deserve Better than Politicization of Attacks

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens

J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, who was killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. Photo courtesy of State Department.

Once again the polarized political environment is trumping serious real-world issues. On Tuesday, a truly genuine human being, Ambassador Chris Stevens, died during an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya perpetrated by a group with extremist ties. The group took advantage of people demonstrating against a film offensive to Muslims to carry out the attack. New reports suggest that the attacks in both Libya and Cairo were timed for the commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks and in retaliation for U.S. drone strikes and attacks on Al Qaeda earlier this year.

When I worked in Washington D.C., I had the opportunity to meet with Chris on a few occasions to discuss U.S. policy toward Iran and Libya. At our first meeting in Spring 2007 when he was working on an exchange from the State Department in a Senate office, Chris learned that I had traveled Libya as part of civil society exchange soon after U.S. sanctions against the country were lifted in 2003, and again in 2005. He asked to meet with me again to learn all he could about my experiences in the country before he was set to take up a diplomatic post there that year. He was truly interested in learning about the Libyan culture and was intent on improving American-Libyan relations, as well as Arab-American relations more broadly. As one of my former DC colleagues wrote today, Chris was precisely the right person to serve as U.S. Ambassador.  He was an excellent representative of the United States, a gifted foreign service officer, and he will be missed.

The tragic killing of Ambassador Stevens and three of his staff sheds some light on the situation on the ground and the gaps in security. Before September 11, 2012, many journalists and pundits tried to paint a rosy situation in Libya. But the reality on ground for the people living there is far different. One of my contacts in Libya whom I met on my first trip to the country, Ibrahim, emailed me this message:

The situation is not OK at all. Peoples’ hopes from the 17 February change (the Libyan revolution) have not been met. There is a real serious threat of civil war that is so obvious and it is only a matter of time if things keep on going this way. It’s so sad, no one is really in control of any thing. The western world has forgotten about human rights in Libya at this time and people are really questioning the real intentions of the USA and Europe.

It will take more than a speech to improve Arab-American relations and to improve the situation on the ground for the beleaguered peoples in the Middle East. However, instead of using the tragedy of September 11, 2012 as means for addressing how the United States will work with allies and partners to do so, the parties have instead engaged in partisan bickering. The American people and the Libyan people deserve better from politicians than the politicization of the tragic attacks.

Promoting Democracy in the Arab World: What the Candidates Say

MENA protests throughout the Arab world.

Collage of protests throughout the Arab world. Top-left: Cairo, Egypt.  Top-right: Tunis, Tunisia. Middle-left: Al-Bayda, Libya. Middle-right: San’a, Yemen. Bottom-left: Hama, Syria. Bottom-right: Karrana, Bahrain. 01-14 to 07-29-2011.

Thirty years ago today, President Ronald Reagan outlined a new vision for American democracy promotion in an address to members of the British parliament in London. He declared that the United States should work “to foster the infrastructure of democracy—the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities—which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”

Congress established the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, in 1983 to implement President Reagan’s vision. The NED has since given out grants to non-governmental organizations working to promote freedom in more than one hundred countries. American democracy promotion efforts have also expanded outside of the NED. Today, the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department join the NED in giving out foreign assistance with the stated goal of advancing democracy abroad. Combined, their efforts represent a multi-billion dollar a year industry.

To date, the presidential candidates have not spent much energy in public explaining or debating their proposed democracy promotion policies.

Making and (un)Keeping Foreign Policy Promises

President Barack Obama Remarks at University of Cairo. June 4, 2009.

Yesterday marked the third anniversary since President Barack Obama delivered a landmark speech at the University of Cairo in which he promised forge a closer relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. On June 4, 2009, President Obama said:

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

Yet, three years later, hopes for better relations have been dashed. UVa Edward R. Stettinius Professor of Politics William B. Quandt placed the anniversary in perspective for Riding the Tiger:

Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009 raised expectations among many in the Middle East that they were about to see significant change from the widely disliked policies of the George W. Bush era. But along with the hope went considerable skepticism. Many admired the rhetoric, but were skeptical about real policy changes. Three years later their doubts seem largely justified, especially on the sensitive Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Barack Obama’s Protected Flank

Obama and Karzai in Afghanistan, May 1, 2012.

President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 1, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

On Wednesday, the Miller Center welcomes Peter Bergen for a forum on his new book, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad. Today's post on Obama and national security comes from Stephen Knott, Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, and author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics.

For the first time in decades the Democratic Party will nominate a presidential candidate whose reputation as a tough, formidable Commander-in-Chief seems secure. Throughout much of the Cold War, the Republican Party held an edge on the “toughness” issue, be it Goldwater vs. Johnson, or Nixon vs. McGovern, or Reagan vs. Carter and Mondale, or Bush vs. Dukakis. Not since 1960, when John F. Kennedy condemned the Eisenhower/Nixon administration for passively standing by while the Soviet Union surpassed the United States has the Democratic Party been so well positioned to outflank the GOP on an issue Republicans once owned.