Re: Who’s to Blame for the Middle East’s Problems

In response to my blog-colleague Michael’s post below, I find it surprising that the notion that U.S. policy is “partly responsible” for the very bad situation the Arab world finds itself in today is controversial. It’s fairly easy to demonstrate that this is the case. The key word, of course, is “partly,” which means not that U.S. policies are the main factor, but rather a significant factor among many others, when it comes to a discussion of why the Middle East is a veritable powder keg. To argue otherwise, you would have to follow the somewhat difficult line of argumentation that the U.S. was not even “partly responsible” for launching the Iraq war, or that it isn’t “partly responsible” for a whole list of other things which have undoubtedly contributed to the misery that many Middle Easterners encounter on a daily basis. I don”t think it’s really a matter of “if” but rather to what degree, and this is something upon which different people can differ, and I certainly respect where Michael is coming when he says we shouldn”t encourage the Middle East”s unproductive and somewhat pathological victimization complex.

But more specifically, Michael remarks that “unfortunately there are times when the US has supported regimes that undermine our values, but bolster our interests.” This is a gross understatement. It’s not so much that there have been “times” when this has been the case; rather, it is that this has been a disturbingly consistent feature of U.S policy in the Middle East over the last several decades. We have consistently supported and funded dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, to the point where it is difficult to think of counter-examples where the opposite has been the case.

Michael goes on to say: “Shadi cites nations such as Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria all of which continue to have dubious human rights records, but have certainly shown improvements in respect for human rights and political liberalization. Certainly, these nations have a ways to go, but they are far better than the ones we are not supportive of, such as Syria and Iran.” To say that Saudi Arabia or Tunisia are “far better” than Syria or Iran is actually quite a stretch, as both countries are full-on dictatorships, and I would venture to say that Saudi Arabia and Tunisia are significantly more authoritarian than Iran, which at least holds periodic elections which, while quite flawed, actually matter, and which people turn out for. In response to Michael’s other point, the unfortunate reality is that Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria have not improved, and are all worse off now, in terms of democratic progress, than they were at various points in their recent past. I’ve written about authoritarian retrenchment in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, so I’d refer readers to these three pieces.

Where I really disagree with Michael is with this comment: “I certainly believe that we should do everything in our power to try and move Egypt toward democracy, but our ability here is limited and where we can affect positive change we have done so. But to put the responsibility for Egypt”s misery on the United States is historical revisionism at its worst.” Actually, where we can affect positive change, we haven’t done so, and, moreover, we’ve actually gone out of our way to make sure that such changes aren”t implemented. Every year, there is a debate in congress about making the nearly $2 billion of aid to Egypt conditional upon rather minimal standards of political reform, and, every year, it doesn’t happen, at least partly because the State Department opposes it tooth-and-nail, and because we tend to care more about having a pliable Egyptian dictatorship than we do about Egyptian democracy. With the exception of 2004-2005, when the Bush administration appeared at least somewhat serious about democracy promotion, it is hard to think of examples where the U.S. has used its substantial leverage to good effect with Egypt (maybe another example is in the early 1990s, when the Clinton administration started a low-level dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule).

Michael goes on to say: “Moreover, are we willing to give the US any credit for actively supporting the growth of democracy in Afghanistan, working to broker peace between Israel and its neighbors and supporting democratic movements in the Gulf and Lebanon etc? It seems to me that in the years pre-dating the war in Iraq, we did as much as any great power to try to bring peace to the region.” I might agree with Michael on the point that U.S. rarely gets credit for the good things it does do in the Middle East, but it doesn’t really matter what I think. The vast majority of Arabs would not hesitate in answering “no” to Michael’s question and I don’t imagine they would have much trouble in marshaling evidence to their side. Again, this leads to my broader point that it doesn’t much matter what Michael and I think on these issues. We, after all, are biased in favor of America and both of us have been attacked for being American exceptionalists, and, I suppose for good reason, since that descriptor is at least “partly” – there again is that troublesome word – accurate.

Then Michael asks a really good question: “Finally, this type of attack on US policy begs the obvious rejoinder: what is the alternative US foreign policy for the Middle East?” This is obviously a big question, and instead of writing a long essay in response, I’ll just refer readers to articles I’ve written which attempt to answer it: here, here, here, and here.