America in the Middle East

Posted on Oct 22 2013 - 8:00am by Orion Wilcox

In the early morning hours of Oct. 5, 2013, the streets in the Libyan capital of Tripoli are largely empty except for those making their way to the mosque. The only sound is the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Nazih al-Ruqai, a man in his mid-40s, exits his home, and a group of camouflage-clad commandos surround him, load him into the back of a black SUV and whisk him away.

The camouflaged men are members of the elite U.S. Delta Force, and they are taking Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-libi, to be indicted by a U.S. federal judge in New York in connection with the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

Libyan officials immediately demand an explanation for the rendition. They assert that the U.S. gave them no prior notice of the operation. U.S. officials argue that the operation comes under the auspices of apprehending terrorists who threaten U.S. national security, a mission to which the new Libyan government has offered its support. The Libyan government continues to consider the operation a “kidnapping”; however, the official response is muted. The Libyan minister of justice Salah al-Mirghani has stated that “while what the Americans did was wrong, we don’t want to go back to the old days and we hope this will not damage relations.”

Al-Mirghani is referring to the days prior to the popular revolution that toppled Muammar Qaddafi, the former dictator who ruled the North African nation for over 40 years. The U.S. had no official diplomatic relations with Qaddafi, a known financer of international terrorism. The tepid and seemingly insecure response of the Libyan government to the U.S. action is representative of the newly forming political and diplomatic environment in the Middle East. In the wake of the “Arab Spring,” the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and new elections in Iran and Israel, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has entered a new phase.

In Libya’s neighbor, Egypt, the diplomatic situation is no more stable. The U.S. has had to contemplate its response to the ousting of democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in June of this year. At first, the White House chose not to term the Army’s actions as a “military coup,” which would have required the termination of all U.S. military aid. However, after the interim government’s decision to clear protesters from one of Cairo’s public squares, a decision which led to hundreds of deaths, the U.S. canceled the annual Bright Star joint military exercises. In recent weeks the U.S. has frozen the delivery of weapons systems and some aid until progress is made towards a return to civilian rule.

Egyptian army commander Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has responded, calling the U.S. decision welcome and long overdue. Sisi argues that Egypt can find aid from different nations, including Russia, and that his country should move away from its reliance on the U.S. Many Egyptians have applauded Sisi’s rhetoric.

As some countries such as Syria continue to experience violent revolutions fought to depose autocratic rulers and others such as Egypt and Libya continue to determine their political identity, the U.S. has the challenge of reinterpreting its diplomatic relations with a dynamic region. Revolutions and reforms may be shuffling the political landscape of the region, but the results of two election years may have the largest effect on the U.S.’s diplomatic positioning.

The 2013 Knesset elections in Israel reaffirmed the Israeli people’s commitment to security with Benjamin Netanyahu remaining in power. In Iran the 2013 elections, while not necessarily respected by the West as inclusive, led to the election of a relative moderate in Hassan Rouhani. Following the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York earlier this month, Rouhani reached out to President Barack Obama in the first telephone call between the two countries’ leaders in more than 30 years. Netanyahu, who views Iran’s seeking of nuclear fission as a direct threat to his nation’s very existence, does not see Rouhani’s olive branch as a positive development. In his speech at the U.N., Netanyahu called Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

The Obama administration is challenged with navigating this fast-changing landscape in order to accomplish its many regional goals, which include seeking progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, finding an answer to the Iranian nuclear dilemma and promoting stability in the wider region. With change come fresh opportunities as well as new challenges.

Orion Wilcox is a senior economics major from Bay St. Louis.