(Orlando Sentinel) Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are in Africa, not the Middle East. Major media reports and U.S. government briefings on the virulent democratic movements in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia over the past month give the impression that the Middle East is on fire, not North Africa.
In fact, Africa is rarely mentioned by popular media. Consequently, most reporting and analysis is being filtered through Middle East, not Africa, lenses, which explains why political forecasting has been so difficult. The geo-politics and internal dynamics of the Arab world in Africa are considerably different than in the Middle East. The current crises in North Africa are better viewed through the prism of Africa’s legacy of authoritarianism, bad governance, human-rights abuses, impunity and underdevelopment, not the war on terror or Sunni extremism — issues that experts on Africa are arguably better equipped to examine and prognosticate about than specialists on the Near East.
Major media networks have bombarded viewers with a wide range of Middle East experts and commentary, and White House statements and State Department briefings have been confusing and uninformed.
To make matters worse, the U.S. intelligence community appears to have been caught off guard by the tide of events in North Africa. I attribute poor U.S. prognostication about unrest in North Africa to a skewed post 9-11 national-security framework that seeks to connect disorder in the Arab world to Islamic extremism and terrorism.
Bad forecasting is also a result of weak intelligence collection and analysis in Africa, a public diplomacy apparatus wholly disconnected from civil society in the Muslim world in Africa and a new schizophrenic foreign policy that continues to nurture relationships of convenience with autocratic leaders in North Africa, only to dispose of them when confronted with internal turmoil.
The Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt, Libya and Tunisia is reactionary and shortsighted. It appears to be overzealously shaped by civil-society discontent in the Arab world in Africa, not U.S. national-security interests or regional security concerns.
In fact, David Welch, former assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, stated that Moammar Gadhafi’s help on intelligence matters was “exemplary.” Tunisia has also proved itself to be a valuable U.S. ally in fighting terrorism. Consequently, the U.S. has not challenged its dismal governance and human-rights records.
For example, in the case of Egypt, we fund and train its military and intelligence sectors, yet a cursory review of the State Department’s human-rights reports on Egypt over the past decade reveals a pattern of extreme abuse by its security forces. So, why would the Obama administration facilitate, endorse and support a military coup de grace in a nation with a well-documented history of abuses by security forces?
Perhaps more important, how can the U.S. advocate for the rule of law and democracy in Africa and beyond and simultaneously support undemocratic and extra-constitutional changes of power in North Africa?
International law provides no basis for the forceful removal of power of authoritarian regimes that are not abhorrently violent (genocidal) and unduly repressive. Meaning, that mass civil society discontent and demonstration does not provide a legal basis for the coerced removal of a government simply because it is undemocratic. This is in part why the U.N. Security Council’s recent resolution on Libya stopped short of authorizing enforcement action against Gadhafi’s government.
The bottom line is that the Obama administration does not appear to have a viable foreign policy toward Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, let alone Africa. The apparent “go along to get along” approach is reactionary and ill-conceived. American foreign policy in North Africa should not be driven by domestic “freedom movements,” but rather balanced against broader strategic interests in the region, and the real possibility that hasty transitions of power will unshackle traditionally contained anti-American forces.