Little shop of horrors
I once asked one of my Palestinian friends what he thought the United States should do to help the peoples of the Middle East. He was incredulous: “Haven’t you done enough?” In retrospect that pained reply seems the perfect answer to my presumption: I’m from America and I’m here to help.
Sadly, the self-congratulation attendant on Barack Obama’s election has seemingly revived this tradition of selfless altruism. As a former Clinton administration official told me several weeks ago: “We’re going back into the Middle East, but this time we’re going to get it right.” That it did not occur to this official that we aren’t exactly “out” of the Middle East is a testament to American optimism–and amnesia. “Really,” he added, “our capacity for doing good is limitless.”
When asked recently to list the five goals of his presidency, then-candidate Obama ticked them off: improving the economy, working for energy independence, providing affordable health care to all Americans, cleaning up the environment and improving education. The Middle East did not make the list. For good reason: it appears that we’ve “done enough.” And for those who claim, with Colin Powell, that “if you break the china, you own it” here’s a bit of news–no we don’t. America is busy dog-paddling its way out of Iraq, is looking for someone to negotiate with in Afghanistan, has so offended the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia that we are barely on speaking terms and has abandoned the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We are leaving the china shop in a shambles, but too bad. You don’t “own it” if you can’t pay for it. And we can’t.
That the new Obama administration will reengage in the Middle East is not in question. It will. But, in the wake of the failed “war on terrorism” (the definition of a “terrorist” has been broadened, apparently, to include anyone who’s not a Republican), the Bush administration’s dream of spreading democracy (so long as you are not Hamas or live in Pakistan) and the galactically stupid war in Iraq (whose purpose is yet to be determined), America will be focused more on–as one of my colleagues described it–”doing politics.” Which is to say: after nearly 2,500 years of bumbling interventions (from Alexander the Great to Anthony Eden to George Bush), the future of the region is finally in the hands of the people who live there. The challenge for them is simply stated: they have to determine what they want.
On May 17, 2005, George Bush told the International Republican Institute that sixty years of American diplomacy in the Middle East had yielded sixty years of failure. The fault, he said, was America’s–because it had failed to promote democracy. “If the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation and resentment and violence ready for export.”
While Americans now doubt that democracy can be “promoted” and have turned against the policies (and leaders) that, in the name of democracy, cost tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, this does not obviate his statement’s essential truth: all of the region’s issues fade to insignificance, so long as the solutions to them remain in the hands of single party thugs, ruling cliques and family kleptocracies. The single most important issue facing the region is whether that will continue.
Unfortunately (or blessedly), the people of the Middle East will not have Americans attempting to “help” them in their search for democracy. We’re leaving your shop, shattered china and all, because our shop is on fire. By the way, it was arson.