Exporting American Democracy

Statue of Liberty mural. Turin, March 2012.

“US OUT OF THE MIDDLE EAST.” The simplistic slogan was trumpeted by the radical left for many years before George W. Bush’s foray into Iraq made it a common bumper sticker. The same call could have been used by the isolationist right as well. Unfortunately, both practicality and, more importantly, morality make removing the US  from the region more complicated.

Patrick Buchanan, the arch-conservative, laid out his case earlier this week for why the US should pack its bags and leave the Middle East to its own devices. His view ignores many important historical factors, and, as a result, compels us to examine the legacy of Western involvement in the region.

Ironically, Buchanan also raises some interesting questions about what a sane, moral and even pragmatic Mideast policy might look like. The ex-Congressman’s reasoning will not ring true to most leftists. However, his conclusions will be very comfortable to many.

Buchanan expounds on nearly a century since the signing of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. This treaty anticipated a victory in World War I for the Tripartite Alliance (Britain, France and Czarist Russia) and laid out a plan for carving up the Ottoman Empire among them. It was in direct conflict with an earlier deal between the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, and Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, which promised Arab independence after the war if the Arabs rose up against the Ottoman Turks, in support of the British war effort. The conflict was exacerbated by the Balfour Declaration which promised the Zionist movement British support for a Jewish national home in Palestine.

Eventually, Sykes-Picot became the unofficial foundation for the system of “mandates” set up by the League of Nations. Buchanan is certainly correct in seeing this as the seed for the troubled history of the region since that time, and he aptly describes it as “Imperial hypocrisy [standing] naked and exposed.”

But then Buchanan simply zips forward to the present day, and states his view that the Sykes-Picot borders are disappearing “…and the nations created by the mapmakers of Paris in 1919-1920 disintegrate, a Muslim Thirty Years’ War may be breaking out in the thrice-promised land.” That is an enormous leap of history, and one that, when it comes to US responsibilities in the Middle East, cannot be allowed to stand.

Sykes-Picot was indeed the basis for the creation of borders in the Middle East, creating national boundaries that had not existed when the region was part of the Ottoman Empire. The self-interest of the Western powers meant those borders would be drawn in a haphazard fashion, splitting centuries-old communities apart, and, conversely, forcing cohabitation between conflicting ethnic and religious groups. In many cases, both scenarios would be imposed on the same “country.”

But apparently in Buchanan’s simplistic narrative, those states were held together by their colonial mandates, gradually becoming independent through various tracks and generally falling into the hands of dictators which held sectarianism in check until their iron fists rusted and were pried open. In reality, the United States and Soviet Union eventually inherited the imperial reins and throughout the Cold War, a game of chess was played between the two. Manipulating sectarian tensions, propping up dictators, and displaying frequent hostility or at least indifference to democratic movements and civil society organizations were the norm of the game. And, while it may not be comfortable for Americans to admit it, that was a game we played with just as much relish, cold-bloodedness and skill as the USSR. Perhaps even more.

Arab Spring solidarity flyer. Turin, June 2012.
Arab Spring solidarity flyer. Turin, June 2012.

The US illusion of innocence has been on shining display for years, in various forms and, while it may have been thrown into sharper relief in the post-9/11 era, it was there long before that dark day. The United States has long held the Middle East in deep disregard, reconstituting Europe’s “white man’s burden” view that we must teach Arabs and Persians how to govern themselves properly, albeit via the false prism of democracy. Hence, typical Bush-era statements such as “they hate us for our freedom.”

That sort of racism has been a constant in American thinking about the Levant since the First World War and it remains the basis for many US military actions in the Middle East today. The likeminded Sykes-Picot system may indeed be part of what is crumbling in the Arab world. However, the Americans demonstrate little, if any recognition of this fact, insisting, as they do, on the necessity of maintaing the post-WWI status quo in the region. Hence, Washington’s continued support for iconographic Sykes-Picot states such as Iraq, which would never have otherwise existed.

Complicating the question of US culpability is the extent to which it has interfered in the domestic evolution of Middle Eastern state-making. For example, US-backed coups in Syria in 1949, Iran in 1953, Iraq in 1963 and Turkey in 1980 all had serious long-term effects, both on those countries, and on the region as a whole. The arming of both Iran (covertly) and Iraq (overtly) during their bloody war in the 1980s is another case in point. Not to mention, obviously, the two Persian Gulf conflicts fought by American forces since 1990, the No Fly Zone, sanctions regime era in between, and Washington’s support for Israel’s occupation of Arab territories since the 1967 war.

Irrespective of its motives – fighting Communism, keeping the Suez canal zone open for oil tankers, protecting Israel from its neighbors – American economic and military backing has been essential to the maintenance of regional despotism. What this has meant, ideologically, is that stability, not democracy, has been the goal of US policy. Perhaps this is understandable, or at least expected behavior for an imperial power. However, it comes with enormous moral cost, as well as more pragmatic responsibility.

Same message, different rioters. Turin, May 2012.
Same message, different rioters. Turin, May 2012.

When Pat Buchanan, referring to the regional sectarian struggle he believes will redraw the Middle Eastern map, says “It is not, and it should not become, America’s war,” he is ignoring all of that history. That’s why he skips it in his article.

A US policy that abandoned the manipulative and destructive behavior of the past in the Middle East would, of course, be most welcome. But when one is this much a part of the problem, there is no legitimacy in simply walking away and telling those you’ve put in this predicament to deal with it on their own. Moreover, while the Middle East’s importance to the world as a whole may not be quite as great as it once was, it is still very significant, and will remain so for a long time to come; even the coldest of realpolitik dictates significant interest in avoiding a regional meltdown.

This is not an academic question. As Buchanan correctly frames it, this has a direct bearing on how the United States approachs the spiraling crisis in Syria, and, as he implies, the Arab Awakening as a whole. And we haven’t done well so far.

Syria crystallizes the US’ approach in many ways. The debate we are currently having is whether to send arms to the rebels. But two years ago, while many US citizens cheered the beginning of the Syrian uprising, there was no debate—the Syrians were to be wished well, but we wanted no part of it. This is true to the US’ history in the region. We’re happy to sell arms and support insurgencies. But our support of popular movements and civil society organizations doesn’t match our appetite for firefights. Even on the left, we have learned from bitter experience that if the US successfully and efficiently intervenes in a conflict, it does so not to hand over control to the people, but to impose its own agenda.

Self-interest, at least as American officials understand it, is practically a religious principle. The absence of utopianism in their policymaking is strikingly absent. That’s not to say genuine US support for democracy is completely non-existent. Both governmental and private US organizations are doing some good work in these areas, supporting Arab civil society groups in many countries. But the resources expended on such endeavors pales to near-invisibility next to Washington’s investment in covert security operations and foreign military sales and support.

It seems that we have missed our chance to play a constructive role in Syria. As I have argued, arming the rebels is a dead end. The spiraling violence, meddling by other countries, both allies and adversaries of the US, and general chaos, have sidelined many of the civil society, democracy-oriented groups and individuals that started the country’s revolution two years ago. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the Middle East must inevitably succumb to the Syrian example.

Can we envision a US policy that supports trade unions, community-based organizations, and free elections? It’s not easy. In the Arab world, mistrust of the United States and the West in general goes deep. Moreover, democracy in the Arab world means true independence for those states, and they will have their own interests and agendas which are very unlikely to match up with those of the US and Europe, all or even most of the time. It certainly means that these countries, all of whom would need to re-structure or, in some cases rebuild their economies from scratch, are going to want to use their resources for their own populace, whether or not that works well for Western elites. We can expect, with equal certainty, that anger over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is not going to be easily tamped down or bought off as the US has managed to do with the Arab world since the late 1970s.

Encouraging genuine democracy is difficult enough for the United States and Europe. In recent decades, the West has seen an increase in reactionary movements on its own home turf, particularly since the onset of the War on Terror. It would be hard to encourage such values in the Arab world when our own states seemed hostage to the interests of finance and security conservatives -precisely those which covet, for example, regional energy resources, and lucrative defense contracts. Especially when the results of Arab democracy might well be policies that conflict with our own, such as our steadfast support for Israel.

And what would it mean to do so? It would mean turning on close allies in Bahrain, in Jordan and, yes, in Saudi Arabia. It would mean finding ways to repatriate, not simply sustain, the Palestinian refugees living in camps around the region. It would mean real pressure on Israel to end its occupation and find a way to live with, rather than apart from, the Arab world, both internally and externally. It means an awful lot of things that are simply beyond the imagination at this time.

But what is the alternative? It’s to continue the status quo, backing our allies in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other places as they try to stave off the Arab Awakening and simultaneously try to jockey for their own advantage in other countries where it has already taken hold. It is to continue to see the issues in military or geo-political terms, rather than in terms of allowing the people of the region to determine their own future (as our politicians so often like to say they are doing.)

The idea of such a US foreign policy is, indeed, unfathomable, but so is Buchanan’s vision of Washington abandoning the region. Yes, the Obama Administration is working hard to “pivot to Asia” and to significantly downgrade American involvement in the Middle East. However, it won’t abandon the region in the near future. And, ethically speaking, the United States shouldn’t. Instead, it should work to make up for all the damage it has done since the beginning of the last century.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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