Monday, February 28, 2011

My take on what's going on in the Middle East and what we should do about it.

These are tumultuous times. The Middle East is in worse chaos than usual; a popular uprising overthrew the dictatorial government of Tunisia. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak lost the battle for Tahrir Square in the heart of his own capitol city. Protests and riots have rattled Yemen, Bahrain, and Jordan. This is the largest upset to the world’s status quo since the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty-odd years ago.

Now the attention is on Libya, where the mentally maladjusted Muammar Gaddafi is in the process of being overthrown. The ‘neoconservative’ wing of the United States political establishment—for example, former Bush apparatchik Paul Wolfowitz and Senator Joseph Lieberman -- has issued loud and numerous calls for the US to immediately intervene in force in the Libyan upheaval, while also criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of the uprisings that have shaken the region over the last two months. Even Christopher Hitchens (who is by no means part of the establishment but who is a self-styled radical with a penchant for interventionism) weighed in with a typically sarcastic but insubstantial opinion piece.

This is what guys like Wolfowitz and Lieberman always, always, always get wrong. They look at the last sixty-odd years of US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and see that we’ve always got ourselves involved. The Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Yom Kippur War, for sixty years the White House has had every ruler or other politician of note in the region who would speak to us on speed-dial. The last time there was a major incident in the Middle East and the US didn’t immediately barge in was the Suez Canal crisis in 1956—when Wolfowitz, now 67, was 13 years old—and we stepped in only at the end.

Lieberman, Wolfowitz (whose alleged foreign policy credentials should be forever revoked for his involvement in Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq), and the rest of the hawkish neocons take it as a matter of faith that just because we’ve always jumped into the pool right at the start, that it’s the right thing to do and that’s what we should keep on doing.

This is a very dumb assumption to make. If we have an unfavorable position in the Middle East, it would be a particularly dumb thing to keep doing what put us in that position—Einstein’s definition of insanity is, after all, doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting differing results.

First, consider our general favorability rating among the peoples of the Middle East – the ‘Arab street.’ The US is a very unpopular brand in the region, largely because we have been meddling in it since the Eisenhower administration, and treated its nations and peoples as pawns on a chessboard during the Cold War. Over the last six decades, the US did a lot of unpleasant things in the Middle East, and for most of that time it was done out of calculated and cynical realpolitik. Put in the simplest possible terms, the US would prop up any autocratic bastard and give him a nearly unlimited line of credit if he would toe the line on certain policy issues. Human rights violations, corruption, and other issues didn’t even enter into the equation; after all, this was war, albeit a Cold War, and for several successive presidents, beating the USSR required the US to compromise its principles by supporting ostensibly reliable dictators instead of self-willed democrats. We burned the village in order to save it, to paraphrase the slogan from the Vietnam War, and we did on a scale of nations rather than just villages. Guess what? The Arabs remember.

The term “blowback” is one of the more pungent terms of art in the intelligence and foreign communities, referring to the unforeseen negative consequences of one’s actions. The US’s status on the Arab street has been eroding steadily over the last forty years by a steady stream of blowback from things we did during the Cold War. Even aside from what many in the region see as our ultimate sin in supporting Israel, for three or four decades we supported a seemingly endless list of tyrants who brutalized their own people and looted their countries simply because Washington could count on these dictators to toe the US’s line against the USSR, just as we did in Latin America. The scale of the brutality used is appalling-- Hafez al-Assad of Syria, tyrant and father of tyrants, leveled most of the city of Hama in 1982 in response to an uprising by Sunni Muslim fundamentalists, killing up to 20,000 people. Saddam Hussein was our boy in Baghdad until he ended his war with Iran and turned on Kuwait, at which point he stepped outside of his box and became persona maximum non grata.

This behavior continued during the Bush administration’s War on Terror—the US even reached an accommodation with Muammar Gaddafi’s Orwellian regime in Libya in the early 2000s in order to pry him away from publically supporting international terrorist groups, and we quite probably absolved him for his role in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing as a cost of doing business. The UK apparently released the Libyan intelligence operative who planted the bomb in exchange for oil concessions from Gaddafi’s state-owned oil company. Egypt and Syria became valuable subcontractors to the Bush administration precisely because they were brutal dictatorships with horrible human rights records—the US shipped prisoners there to be tortured because we couldn’t do it ourselves.

One of the most important figures I can quote on the subject is none other than Osama bin Laden himself. His notorious ultimatum to the west, delivered in 1998, was essentially a cease-and-desist demand for a lengthy list of things he wanted the US to stop doing, including support for corrupt and brutal despots like Hosni Mubarak and the al-Saud dynasty, maintaining garrisons in Saudi Arabia, and the starving of the people of Iraq with sanctions aimed at the Hussein regime. Granted, bin Laden is a terrorist, the worst sort of a murderer, the most wanted man in the world, and couched his ultimatum in terms of a “crusader-Zionist alliance” between the US and Israel, but in this instance he simply articulated what many Arabs across the region want—for the US to stop manipulating the region like a rigged poker game.

Second, most of the Middle Eastern nations are self-consciously post-colonial. The ordinary people in the street know their countries have been manipulated by foreign powers for a long time, have struggled by the congenital economic and social deficiencies left by their colonial origins, and they don’t like it when foreigners try to meddle or order them around. Old people in Egypt still remember when the Union Jack flew over Alexandria, Cairo, and the locks of the Suez Canal. Even when Gamal Abdel Nasser threw off British control in the 50s, he immediately cut a bargain with the USSR because he needed a powerful ally to play off against the UK and France. This proved to be an object lesson in poor judgment because the USSR proved a far less benevolent master than the British Empire, and for two decades treated Egypt as little more than a garrison base on the Suez Canal. The Soviets were displaced in turn by the US, who propped up a tyrannical and corrupt police state for three decades because that was the cost of keeping Egypt out of another Arab-Israeli war, which meant the oil would keep flowing.

If the US jumped into the Egyptian revolution—let’s call it what it is, every bit as much a revolution as the one that started at Lexington and Concord—it could have been the worst possible thing to do. The Mubarak regime has never had a problem being two-faced, and could quite easily have permanently ruined the Tahrir Square protestors’ credibility with the Egyptian people by labeling them as agents of a foreign power. That it would have been the same foreign power that backed the Mubarak regime wouldn’t have mattered.

Third, last, and most important, these are popular and nationalist rebellions—“Egypt for the Egyptian people” and all that—fueled by popular concerns. What the US wants is generally irrelevant to the people who gathered for weeks on end in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Big matters of global foreign policy simply don’t matter there. What matters to them is the decades of grinding poverty, government corruption, and a tyrannical regime that drags grandfathers from their beds and smashes their bones with hammers to intimidate the population into fearful obedience. In other words, what the Egyptian people were protesting against was the status quo maintained by the regime we supported. That is blowback, yes, but in this case everyone except the Mubarak regime benefited from it. When they want help from the US, they’ll ask for it.

The Obama administration, in my opinion, did an excellent job with its hands-off approach to the Egyptian revolution. The White House watched carefully, but did not take an official position on the matter until the Egyptian people had made it clear that they were ready, willing, and able to throw Mubarak out themselves. Doubtless there was a lot of high-level, high-tension stuff going on behind the scenes and the telecom lines between Cairo and Washington were humming nonstop, but the Egyptian people needed an opportunity for self-determination, and letting them do things themselves was the best thing we could do. Now we’re doing the same thing with Libya, and again it seems like the right thing to do.

The US needs to think less like Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger, and more like Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt—stop trying to manage the world’s foreign policy like it’s a giant spider web, with us the spider rushing to every little disturbance. It’s true that the developed world now suffers from a 24-hour news cycle, and that American interests span the globe, yes, but they are not so delicate that but not every crisis demands an immediate response from the White House.

Remember the Fourteen Points Wilson offered during the First World War—the most important of these was the right of self-determination—or Roosevelt’s ‘good neighbor’ policy, which put a stop to a half-century of constant American meddling in Latin America. The Egyptians are people, too, and they deserve a chance to try to work things out for themselves. For our own part, the US should take the opportunity to mend fences and genuinely win new friends in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries. This is 2011. The Cold War is over, and the dictators we took advantage of then are inexcusable now.

The only thing that stops the US from embracing this calmer and more rational foreign policy is our collective national ego, particularly the belief that the world can’t function without the US, and the presumption that America is always right. This is where jingoism, bumper-sticker patriotism and right-wing sneers about the “blame America first” crowd have to give way to a fearless moral inventory of the last century’s history. The original context of the ‘my country, right or wrong’ epithet was, after all, Commodore Stephen Decatur of the US Navy’s after-dinner toast "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!"

While the Obama administration’s hands-off approach may look like indecisive lethargy to a quick-on-the-trigger interventionist like Lieberman or a ‘let’s start a war and see what happens’ guy like Wolfowitz, (Hitchens called it “pathetic and dithering”) it’s a pleasant change. The last thing the Egyptian, Tunisian, Jordanian, Yemeni, Bahraini, or Libyan people want or need is another superpower telling them what they should get without listening to what they want. I wouldn’t expect either Lieberman or Wolfowitz to understand popular movements—the last time the US experienced this sort of popular upheaval by ordinary citizens in the streets was the early 1970s, and neither of them strike me as the sort to stare down Bull Connor or protest at Kent State. Lieberman, in one of the stranger episodes of the 2008 election, even managed to ignore the popular sentiment of his own Democratic party by running for reelection as an independent.

In summary…. President Obama shouldn’t be listening to Lieberman, or Wolfowitz, or Hitchens, or Gaddafi, or Prince Bandar Al-Saud, or even me. He should be listening to the people in the streets in Cairo and Tobruk, since they’re the ones who matter.

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