Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The U.S. and the Middle East

For the last 40 years I have been a thorough skeptic about the wisdom of American intervention in the politics of other nations, especially in the Third World. I was one of those identified by my friend Andrew Bacevich in his last book, such as retired Marine Corps Commandant and Senator J. William Fulbright, who re-evaluated the assumptions of US foreign policy as a result of the Vietnam War, and it took some time to realize how exceptional we were. (There were a few others, such as George F. Kennan, who didn't have to re-evaluate because they had been skeptical already.) With the optimism of youth, I assumed that many other Americans, particularly in my own generation, had reached the same conclusion. I was wrong. While one can, with some difficulty, distinguish between liberal and conservative interventionists within our foreign policy and political elites, non-interventionists are nearly extinct. I am increasingly concerned by this because I don't see how anything but non-intervention can have disastrous results around the Muslim World today.

So far during the last decade we have removed and attempted to replace governments in two large Moslem nations, Afghanistan, where we have really had very little political success, and Iraq, where a government is barely functioning and significant tensions persist. More recently we have encouraged the fall of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, while saying nothing about revolts in Jordan, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain--where our ally Saudi Arabia has moved in troops to quiet things down. Last but hardly least, we have bombed Libyan government forces for two weeks to halt their advance against the rebels. I gave the Administration the benefit of the doubt about that decision last week because it seemed to be working fairly well, at least in the short run. This week things look murkier. The rebels have lost ground despite the bombing, but on the other hand, prominent officials are defecting from Qaddafi's regime. It has become clear that while the decision to bomb Libya probably originated in the White House with help from Samantha Power and was endorsed by the State Department, it got essentially no support at the Department of Defense, where Secretary Gates has made his dislike for the campaign and his eagerness to get the United States out of it as soon as possible well known.

Let me try, sitting here on the fly, to list factors militating in favor of, or against, intervention.

1. The government of the United States in principle dislikes authoritarianism and supports democracy.

2. American Presidents like to bring home the scalps of well-known anti-American dictators.

3. The government of the United States is supporting various authoritarian governments who are actively engaged against Islamic militants.

4. The government of the United States desperately wants to improve its standing among Arab public opinion.

5. Parts of the government of the United States believe in intervention to stop war crimes and massacres.

6. One part--the Department of Defense--has no more resources for major involvements anywhere, and the government in general obviously doesn't want to commit itself to a losing side in a civil war.

And thus, so far, we are supporting, in effect, the governments of Yemen, Bahrain (now occupied by Saudis, and Jordan, because they stand, respectively, in the way of Al Queda operations in Yemen, another Iran-sponsored Shi'ite victory in Bahrain, and Palestinian control of Jordan. On the other hand, we took the initiative to encourage or demand changes of government in Tunisia and Egypt because their leaders seemed in any case to be doomed and their people were obviously united against them. It is not in the least clear, however, that those decisions are going to pay off for us. Today's New York Times includes a very disturbing story about agitation by militants for a conservative Islamic state in Egypt--including one of Anwar Sadat's assassins, whom the government just released from prison after 30 years. The Army meanwhile is showing no eagerness to surrender power there. We will have more difficult choices to make.

Now it seems to me that in Libya, the Administration, in the first instance, allowed itself to be carried away by what had happened on either side of that unhappy land. Muammar Qaddafi had grown much closer to the West in the last decade, paying reparations for the Lockerbie airplane bombing, striking new oil deals with the British, renouncing his nuclear program under Bush II, and sending his son to meet the current Secretary of State. But when rebel outbreaks occurred in much (not all) of the country, it seemed his time had come. When he seemed ready and willing to fight back, the humanitarian impulse took over. Now suddenly we are involved in what may become a very long and indecisive civil war. That decision was evidently reached without any real consultation at the highest levels of the government, and certainly without any agreement on the basic questions of exactly what we were trying to do, how we hoped to get it, and what our next move would be if we could not. There is now talk of a cease-fire, which would probably be one of the more desirable possible outcomes now.

Meanwhile, I cannot escape the feeling that the White House enjoys these foreign crises because the President has become relatively helpless at home. Yes, the drop in unemployment was welcome news, even though it remains catastrophically high, but the Republican House will surely block any new Democratic initiatives, and the President is going to have to give in to at least $30 billion of discretionary spending cuts, on paper at least. The President remains so under-exposed in the media that I am beginning to wonder if White House pollsters have concluded that exposure is bad for his poll numbers. Our involvement in the turmoil in the Middle East gives an illusion of activity. Our goals, however, are so contradictory that it's extremely unlikely that anything good will come of it.

It looks increasingly impossible that the old order in the Middle East can be propped up much longer. It is gone in Tunisia and Egypt and it is apparently shaky in Syria, Jordan, Yemen (where there has never been much order to speak of anyway), and perhaps in other Gulf states too. It also seems clear that militant Islamists make up one of the more committed political forces in many of those countries and will probably strengthen themselves as a result of any further revolutions, as they already have in Egypt.

What might the President say?

"Two hundred and forty years ago, the United States introduced modern democracy to the world. The ideals of 1776 rapidly spread across the Atlantic and touched off new revolutions, but their progress remained slow and uneven for well over a century. Even in Europe and parts of the Americas, democracy has often been in retreat during the last two centuries. We all rejoiced in 1990-1 when Communism collapsed and new democracies emerged in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but we must recognize that some have been far more durable and successful than others.

"Now the Muslim world is struggling to realize new aspirations for popular rule. Democracy is hardly unknown there--Turkey has lived under democracy for most of the last century, and many other nations have some democratic institutions. Yet the spread of democracy there, as in Europe, South America, Asia, and indeed virtually the whole world, is likely to be an uneven and incomplete process for a very long time. We wish the peoples of the Muslim world well in their quest for better institutions. We shall not presume to tell them what forms of government they should adopt, or how quickly. Meanwhile, we hope that all governments, however chosen, will respect their peoples' fundamental rights and behave as responsible members of the international community. We also hope that today's revolutionaries will pay due attention to the great non-violent revolutions of the twentieth century, those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., that they may lead their countrymen into new territory without great bloodshed.

"The western world no longer dreams of imposing its institutions around the globe--and many areas of the world are uneasy about the western model. Our task here at home is to rebuild our own economy and society, not only for our own sake, but once again to provide a hopeful example to others, as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy managed to do in the middle of the last century. We shall continue to try to lead by example as we watch other peoples in other lands grapple with the questions that have been the source both of conflict and achievement over the last three centuries."

I no longer expect to hear words like that from any President.

P.S. (updated Sunday.) I regret to note that I did not mention one sentence from the President's address on Libya that had jumped out at me at the time:

"Yes, this change will make the world more complicated for a time. Progress will be uneven, and change will come differently to different countries. There are places, like Egypt, where this change will inspire us and raise our hopes. And then there will be places, like Iran, where change is fiercely suppressed. The dark forces of civil conflict and sectarian war will have to be averted, and difficult political and economic concerns will have to be addressed.

That reminded me of Freud's advice on dream interpretation: it's the thing you don't understand, that doesn't seem to belong in the dream, that is significant. Why did the President bring Iran into this discussion? Today's New York Times, in the Week in Review, supplies the answer: the decision to bomb Libya was designed partly to put the fear of American action into the Iranians. We shall be tempted to intervene if there is another outbreak of violence there.


Bozon said...


Great short essay.

I do not expect such a thing from an American President in the future, either.

The Presidency has long now been so accustomed to using trade and commerce for foreign policy objectives (using all cabinet posts, really); the bipartisan willingness to deceive the average American regarding this aspect of federal governance has been so universal;

that one must hope for some greater reform of our system

(yet this is only one aspect of reforms in the direction of economic nationalism that have long been needed, for mere political survival),

some day, to reduce the risks of such a course as has heretofore been followed,

and, unfortunately, not just in the Middle East.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

These are cogent thoughts, albeit depressing ones. It seems Secretary Gates is right, that the US cannot afford to "police the world", as we are stretched too thin now in Iraq and Afghanistan. The national mood and our $Trillions of debt preclude a return of the draft.
The conservative right has appropriated "American exceptionalism" as its latest ideological thrust to destroy remaining New Deal safety nets, driving us apart from European "welfare states", and securing the grip of the financial elite over our "democracy". Their attacks on collective bargaining and Obamacare and Obama's character are just the beginning.
If the financial system collapses again, and massive inflation occurs, as many predict, the US could devolve into riots, militia actions and marshall law.