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Obama’s Benghazi moment

The “Benghazi moment” is likely engendering a rethink in the United States’ regional strategies in the Middle East. One is inclined to agree with the Time magazine’s assessment that a Libya-style intervention by the US in Syria now becomes highly unlikely. A curious aspect of Tony Karon’s analysis is that he tosses the Syrian ball into the court of the Arab governments. 

This is also in sync with the White House “readout” of President Barack Obama’s latest telecon with Turkish PM Recep Erdogan. The tone is restrained despite Erdogan’s deep frustration (which he openly voiced in a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour) that the regime change in Syria may not come anytime soon and in the meanwhile he has been left holding a can of worms, with Obama in to mood to accept the can into his hands. 
The White House said Obama and Erdogan “pledged to advance this important work” and left things delightfully vague at that. Meanwhile, there is a furious assault being mounted on Obama by the US’ allies who are disenchanted with his manifest reticence in getting America involved in a potentially debilitating Syrian quagmire. 
The Saudi lobby in the US is indeed hitting out at Obama: “Syria burns and calls for help, but the call goes unanswered. The civil war there has become a great Sunni-Shiite schism. Lebanon teeters on the edge. More important, trouble has spilled into Turkey. The Turks have come to resent the American abdication and the heavy burden the Syrian struggle has imposed on them. In contrast, the mullahs in Iran have read the landscape well and are determined to sustain the Assad dictatorship.” Yes, Saudis are indeed turning up the heat. 
But what can Obama do? The Benghazi moment underscores that the US read the tea leaves wrongly regarding the “right side of history” when the Arab Spring arrived. The People’s Daily is right: Contrary to what Fouad Ajami says, what is needed today is less US intervention in the Muslim world, not more. 
The Saudi regime is fighting an existential battle. They are frightened like kitten that the Muslim Brothers are coming for them. The latest twist to the Saudi tale is that the Brothers are the uncles of all the Salafists and al-Qaeda guys operating on the planet. Such is their fear that the Arab Spring may soon begin to blow into Saudi Arabia and the Brothers who have been active in the underground for decades would demolish the “ancien regime”, as has happened in Egypt. 
Woven into these atavistic fears is Egypt’s return to the centre stage of Arab politics. The Saudi regime has no intention to abdicate and let Egypt’s Brothers reclaim Cairo’s traditional role as the fountainhead of Arabism. On the other hand, as Prince Turki has written, Saudi regime intends to retain its “leadership role in the region… [as] the preeminent Sunni Muslim power.” Turki writes: 
“By providing much needed aid and backing of various Muslim and Arab causes, the Saudi leadership has earned wide Muslim and Arab support. The mandate for the Saudi leadership now is to consolidate Saudi Arabia’s regional standing on the world stage.” 
Enter the Brothers. In a stunning interview with the New York Times on Saturday, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi has reset the compass of Middle Eastern politics. And, the curious part is that there is no trace whatsoever that he even cared to consult Saudi Arabia before doing so. Yet, he speaks on behalf of the Arab nations! 
Not only that, alongside, Morsi also gave his first interview on Saturday to the Egyptian state TV after coming to power, in which he harped on the importance of keeping a “strong relationship” with Iran. which he called a “vital” player in the region. And, come to think of it, all this in a matter of past 10 days that shook the Middle East. 
Obama is right if he chooses to be circumspect; the US has completely missed the plot in the Middle East. The US has been led up the garden path by Riyadh and Ankara that Salafism and Muslim Brotherhood could be the antidote to the Bashar Al-Assad regime (and to “Shiite Iran”). The Benghazi moment comes as rude awakening. When Morsi walks across the Sunni-Shiite divide so very nonchalantly and holds the Iranian hand, it becomes apparent that the entire US (and Saudi) regional strategy lies in shambles.  

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  1. John Sang says

    An amazing and hopeful story. Thanks MK! You must be burning the midnight oil these days.

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