Opinion

Middle East for dummies

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James Carafano
Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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      James Carafano

      James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security, defense affairs, and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation. He has testified before the U.S. Congress many times and has provided commentary for ABC, BBC, CBS, CNBC, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox News, MSNBC, NBC, SkyNews, PBS, National Public Radio, the History Channel, Voice of America, Al Jazeera, and Australian, Austrian, Canadian, French, Greek, Hong Kong, Irish, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish television.

      His editorials have appeared in newspapers nationwide including The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The New York Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today and The Washington Times. He is a weekly columnist at the DC Examiner. Carafano is a member of the National Academy's Board on Army Science and Technology, the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee, and is a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. He was the creative director for the feature-length documentary 33 Minutes: Protecting America in the New Missile Age. An accomplished historian and teacher, Carafano was an Assistant Professor at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and served as director of military studies at the Army's Center of Military History. He also taught at Mount Saint Mary College in New York and served as a fleet professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

      He is a visiting professor at the National Defense University and Georgetown University. He is the author of many books and studies. Carafano coauthored Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom. The first to coin the term, the "long war," the authors argue that a successful strategy requires a balance of prudent military and security measures, continued economic growth, the zealous protection of civil liberties and winning the "war of ideas" against terrorist ideologies. Carafano joined Heritage in 2003. Before becoming a policy expert, he served 25 years in the Army.

      A graduate of West Point, Carafano also has a master's degree and a doctorate from Georgetown University and a master's degree in strategy from the U.S. Army War College.

What do Islamic dictatorships like Libya and Iran, authoritarian regimes such as Egypt, and kingdoms like Bahrain have in common? Not much, except their people hate their governments.

But you’d never grasp that simple fact from listening to either the president of the United States or the president of Iran.

According the latter, what’s happening in the Middle East is a “final move” — and a divinely-guided one at that. “We are in the middle of a global revolution managed by The Dear [12th Imam],” Ahmadinejad has declared. “A great awakening is unfolding. One can witness the hand of the imam in managing it.”

Well if that’s true, the 12th Imam must not be too thrilled with the regime in Tehran. Opponents of the Iranian regime have taken to the streets, as irate as the crowds in Tahrir Square. And the regime’s hysterical cries to execute opposition figures betrays a certain lack of faith that the awakening crowds are easily manageable.

But President Obama’s “cry for freedom” speech last week made little more sense than an Ahmadinejad rant. He spoke of the downfall of Mubarak as though he wanted to be named top cheerleader for freedom, yet was conspicuously silent on the most courageous call for Middle Eastern freedom in recent memory: the 2009 election protests in Iran.

Furthermore, it is not at all clear what kind of freedom Egypt’s 80 million people want, much less what they will end up getting.

Certainly most of them want greater economic freedom, if only because most want a job, a decent living, and bearable food prices. Mubarak’s much-publicized economic reforms never made the transition from paper to reality. His regime “failed to produce any tangible improvements for many young people under the age of 30, who have been more eager to pursue greater economic freedom,” notes the Heritage Foundation’s Anthony Kim, an expert on international trade and economics. “Even worse,” Kim reports, “on the two indicators that are the most powerful predictors of success for developing economies — property rights and corruption — Egypt scores far below world averages. Both indicators have shown sharp declines in recent years.”

What fueled the turmoil in Egypt? Primarily, it was the economy, stupid.

Bahrain is a different situation, altogether. That country ranks in the top 10 of the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom. But when it comes to political liberties, Bahrain is a basket case. Freedom House ranks the country as “not free,” and notes that its score has been heading in the wrong direction. Moreover, Freedom House reports, during the last year, “tensions between the country’s Shiite majority and the ruling Sunni minority intensified.” In short, the government in Bahrain is finding that “money can’t buy you love.”

Here’s the bottom line. All these countries have problems — big problems, multiple problems and very much different problems. And none of them is going to be fixed in a New York minute. There is no “easy button” to solve any of the region’s problems — least of all the Israel-Palestine situation.

That’s why the White House would be well-advised to stop temporizing with high-sounding but largely irrelevant speeches and start focusing on the region’s most important problem first. Fortunately, it’s also the problem we can do the most about.