Have an Opinion: Bombshell Diplomacy
Poor President Obama did his best to avoid bombing a Middle Eastern country, but when he fell off the wagon, he fell off it hard.
Sending in the Navy cruisers and the fighter jets represents the laziest, most thoughtless form of response to any kind of diplomatic crisis; it’s what you do when you haven’t got any other ideas. Still, the rapidity with which his administration went from not really caring about what was going on in Libya to implementing the non-solution of filling the air of Libya with high explosives has to be some kind of a record. It may also mark a new low in pissing away international goodwill; cooperation from the Arab League was trumpeted as proof that the world was on our side for about four hours, until the leaders of that organization registered the reasonable objection that when they said they wanted a no-fly zone, they meant they wanted a no-fly zone, and not an indiscriminate peppering of the landscape with rocket bombs. Even George W. Bush took several months to squander the global sympathies engendered by the 9/11 attacks; Obama’s (and Sarkozy’s) latest go-round with the world’s favorite punching bag turned sour within a single news day.
As people at various positions on the left-right spectrum argue over the exact shade of nuance that should be given to these attacks, others, with a more practical view of how the U.S. deals with the Middle East, see it as just another footprint made by the drunken giant that is American foreign policy. To describe our approach to the politics of the region as inconsistent is beyond insufficient; just how selective and stupid it is has been adequately illustrated by the events of a single week. Moammar al-Q’addafi’s continuation of decades of repressive policies suddenly justifies a bombing campaign; meanwhile, in nearby Yemen*, the embattled dictator ordered snipers in his employ to put bullets in the brains of dozens of his own people, a tactic which drew no adverse action from his U.S. backers. Likely this is because he is an ally in the War On Terror and a foe of al-Q’aeda, though it is difficult to imagine except in matters of scale what those criminals might do that is worse than shooting innocent children in the head. Our reaction to similar unrest in Egypt, Bahrain, the Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Algeria have been similarly schizophrenic, depending largely on the country’s possession of petrochemical reserves, willingness to be bullied by the CIA, and attitude towards Israel. Such warring motivations are what make a hash of American foreign policy, and make the so-called “Arab street” liable to distrust pretty much anything we say or do. Indeed, people who have paid attention all these years — which certainly includes the people who live in those countries — remember something else about George W. Bush: that he, the man who invaded Iraq under false pretenses and toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan to capture a murderer who remains free a decade later, also claimed credit for the non-violent pacification of the very ‘rogue state’ of Libya we now find ourselves bombing.
To describe America’s foreign policy as incoherent is exactly right: it is made up of dozens of attitudes, actions and beliefs, some of which are right, some of which are wrong, and some of which don’t even qualify to be spoken of in those terms, all thrown together with no thought towards making them coalesce into a meaningful or intelligible whole. It is no surprise that our country has developed such a kluged-together muddle of policy towards the Middle East in particular; it was developed, after all, by Americans, who believe in all sorts of unsustainable nonsense about our most recent international bugaboo. In a country that believes in the interchangeability of Muslims and Arabs, in the idea that Muslim women in every corner of the globe sweat under the veil, in the notion of a ticking time bomb of demographic terrorism within our own borders, is it any surprise that we have produced one administration after another that bases its foreign policy on a series of uncreditable cultural clichés and warmed-over tropes from the age of imperialism? It is possible to find many of them — and to discover why they have failed us in such a profound way — in Fred Halliday’s invaluable book 100 Myths About the Middle East, but it may do well to recall a few of them here.
That we support one murderous dictator by virtue of his cooperation while attacking another on account of his intransigence is hardly unique to the Middle East. But in no other region do we find so-called ‘experts’ putting forth the doctrine that its people are genetically averse to democracy and understand only force as a political motivator. (These quarters have been curiously unheard from during the recent mania for self-governance in the Arab world.) Of no other part of the world do we believe that it is some inherent quality of its dominant religion that dictates the character of its government, rather than the way its political leadership chooses to give lip service to that religion. No other peoples, even ones who oversaw the bureaucratic liquidation of millions of Jewish lives, are so widely believed to be intrinsically anti-Semitic. No other nations, even ones whose entire economies have recently undergone a total transformation through an influx of petrodollars, are so reductively defined by their possession or not of a single natural resource. No more diverse and multicultural a collection of states are thought of in such uniform and monochromatic terms, and no wider range of economies and governments are shown such great reticence to the sort of class analysis we extend to other state actors. It is not true that the modern Middle East is a unique entity, politically, socially, or economically; the only thing unique about it is the unique way in which our shambling mess of a foreign policy insists on thus defining it.
All of these errors of characterization, which seem constructed to flatter, tend instead to dehumanize. And if there is a single error in judgment we most frequently make in dealing with the Middle East, it is that they do not possess the same desires, the same aspirations, the same hopes as the people in other parts of the world. No Arab wishes to spend his life under the thumb of a secular, religious, or aristocratic despot; and yet, we followed up one administration’s fraudulent attempt to introduce democracy at gunpoint with another administration’s spectacularly incoherent response to a widespread call for self-government. We have become conditioned, through a combination of the region’s military weakness and our own gross misapprehensions of their culture, to make any response a military response, but honestly, this is not hard to figure out, provided one does not think of the people of the Middle East as some breed of alien with an entirely different set of emotional responses. There are many in America today dissatisfied with the political leadership of their country, but it seems likely that even the most committed Tea Party activists wouldn’t react well to sudden bomber strikes on the White House by the PLAAF. And it takes little imagination to speculate how the American public would have responded if, during the Revolutionary War, the French had invaded our shores, destroyed the British, and taken over the country for themselves, then expected us to thank them for ridding us of the tyrant King George.
This is a critical time in the Middle East. We have a chance to let the voices of people silenced for decades speak up and tell us what they really want. We have an opportunity to actually listen to them rather than completely ignoring their existence; we are at a moment when we can observe how they truly behave rather than credit their actions to one or another tired colonial stereotype. We may be on the brink of seeing a new set of leaders, who can be dealt with in ways other than bribery or threats. We can take advantage of these opportunities by using genuine diplomacy, by reaching out to people other than those who have their fingers on the triggers and the keys to the bank vaults in their pockets, by being open to real political possibility and not just the momentary advantage of factionalism. If we do, we may soon see a Middle East that we deal with, and that deals with us, in the matter of Europe or East Asia. If we don’t, if we continue to believe the old myths and to practice diplomacy by pressing the buttons that release the bombs, we will gain the only thing war has ever gained us in the region: a roiling breeding ground for resentment and hate.
*: Events are transpiring so quickly in the region that this may be obsolete before it even posts to the internet, but President Saleh has, as of this writing, fired his entire government rather than face ouster or even reform. It seems likely that he will be the subject of a coup or a popular revolution before all this is over, an outcome that, shockingly, may take place without American military intervention. Somewhere, the ghost of Edwin Starr asks a familiar question.