American Exceptionalism, indeed

Simeon Morris

Cartoon Created by Magie Brennan

The recent string of political unrest in the Near East has displayed both the inconsistency, and more importantly, the improbity of American foreign policy. I will emphasize right away, that I will not waste words on Republican-versus-Democrat partisan absurdities, as I am of the mind that both parties are identical in foreign policy. Instead this article is to briefly spotlight the American, and to a lesser extent Western European, intervention into the Middle East and the product that such actions have and likely will continue to bear. I shall focus my article on Egypt and Libya, with revolutionary Iran serving as a brief benchmark.

It would seem prudent to supply a brief background on the events that have taken place in the Middle East since the beginning of the “Arab Spring”. On December 17, a street vendor by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi, in an act of protest at his treatment at the hands of the police and the conditions in Tunisia altogether, committed an act of self-immolation in front of the Sidi Bouzid Police Station. This event sparked a series of protests across Tunisia, as citizens marched in the streets to protest the Ben Ali regime. The response of the police against the peaceful protests being so swift and the manner of their repression so intense, that protests became outright revolution, which all culminated in the abandonment of the Ben Ali regime by the military and an overthrow of the regime at the hands of popular revolt (now known as the “Jasmine Revolution”).

Directly following Ben Ali’s overthrow, Egyptian youth activists, inspired by the events in Tunisia, launched a campaign in Egypt to protest regime oppression, vote rigging and the massive public-sector created unemployment rate, culminating in a massive protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo. This event, and the subsequent police repression, just like in Tunisia, led to another string of popular protests that resulted in outright defiance against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian president, Mubarak, faced with an unresponsive army, growing protests and violence, as well as increasingly stiff international pressure, was forced to resign on February 11. During the intervening time, major protests—and outright rebellion in Libya—calling for more government transparency, increased individual liberties and even regime change, also broke-out in Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Syria and Jordan (amongst several other minor protests across the Near East), and were equally as met with stiff and poignant government repression. The future of the aforementioned protests remains to be seen, though as the protests draw-on, the viability of their success has become more tenuous over time.

What these revolts have prompted, which has now become increasingly apparent with the continued Western responses, is something of a revival of an Eastern Question of sorts, where the United States and her NATO allies attempt to—seemingly haphazardly—intervene in the politics of Near East countries. Recall that in the 19th century, the Eastern Question was over the issue of how the Western European “Great Powers” would deal with the deteriorating Ottoman Empire, and how they would “order” the Middle East after Ottoman dissolution. The 19th century Eastern Question was resolved with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of the Entente Powers in the First World War, and the subsequent haphazard carving-up of the Middle East along arbitrary lines through the Sykes-Picot agreement. These colonial Mandates—arbitrary as their borders were—were maintained by both France and Britain, who installed subservient authoritarian regimes. The irony of the resolution of the Eastern Question was that the people that fought the Entente during World War I (the Ottoman Turks) received absolution with the creation of their own nation-state, whereas the people who assisted the Entente during the very same war (the Arab rebels) were given broken countries with puppet, authoritarian leaders—this would be a rue of events in the Middle East through the present day.

Following the Second World War, just as France and Britain left the fray of Middle Eastern control to a legacy of authoritarian regimes, the United States entered into Middle Eastern politics. Creating its own list of favored-authoritarian regimes, the United States worked to reinstate Rezā Shāh Pahlavi to the Iranian throne, sent sizable sums of military aid to the repressive Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak regimes in Egypt, as well as Bin Ali in Tunisia, amongst many others (including Husseinist Iraq and Islamic Iran). Indeed, as exemplified, some of the very regimes that the American government has supported in its intrigue have now been overthrown in a wave of popular sentiment and anger. Our previous exploits can thus serve to create blowback in both Egypt and Tunisia—indeed we have already seen, and continue to see, the blowback from the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution which overthrew the very Shah that we reinstalled just some two decades prior. Having overthrown Premier Mossadeq in 1953, the United States put the Iranian Shah back onto the thrown—immediately following his return, moreover, the Shah then increased oppression and persecution through his secret police, to force subservience. The blowback from this event would come, as mentioned, two decades later when an Islamic Revolution swept Iran, overthrowing the Shah for a radical, millenarian regime that was more a threat to the West than the nationalist, and quasi-socialist Mossadeq, had ever been. In in a very similar way, the United States appears to be serving to create further problems for itself in the Middle East through its adventurism and intervention.

So, again, this new Eastern Question of the day revolves around what the United States and the West should do about the “Arab Spring.” The problem already inherent with this is that there is an Eastern Question at all—the presupposition being that the United States must do something about the current crisis of legitimacy in the Middle East, which could only serve to maul American interest in the future. (To say nothing of the fact that American soldiers are already irrevocably tied down in both Iraq and Afghanistan.) Accurately put, this is a new question that seeks to addresses a new Eastern reality, but it is applied with the same American geopolitical-interventionist paradigm.

The United States has begun, under this same paradigm, to answer this new question in a series of ways that serve to place immediate regional stability over long-term American security. Having supported the Mubarak regime since its existence (in 1981), with the onset of “Arab Spring” in Egypt, the United States proceeded cautiously and did not overtly pick a side in the conflict initially; however, under the surface, the United States was already attempting to order the future of the Egyptian state. Indeed, the very week that popular protests in Egypt became outright government defiance, the United States was conveniently meeting with the Egyptian army’s Chief of Staff in Washington to ensure either continued military support for Mubarak or a smooth transition to another Egyptian leader. When it became clear that Mubarak’s regime was no longer viable, the United States government then finally came-out and denounced his regime and urged him to step-down, though posing no objection, but in fact encouraging (see Wisner and Clinton), continued military control—the first successor being Mubarak’s own Vice President and then the Egyptian Armed Forces Supreme Council. The American reasoning, to be sure, was simple enough—whereas a revolution in Tunisia was of marginal importance to American regional intrigue, popular government in Egypt could pose a threat, vis-a-vis the Muslim Brotherhood and certain secular organizations, of an Egyptian realignment away from more than thirty-years of American-Israeli anti-terrorist interests in the region, which would be antithetical to American geopolitical ends. As such, the US government fell-back upon its old paradigm of thinking, to paraphrase MP Daniel Hannan, in that “they” (Mubarak and his generals staff) may be SOBs, but “they” are our SOBs.

Having thus helped prop-up Mubarak for three decades, then schemed to replace that very same military dictator for a junta, the United States showed that it was no true champion of popular government. More important than popular government, though, which admittedly could be just as oppressive as a dictatorship or junta, American actions may have helped sew the seeds of what could be increased resentment against the United States amongst Egyptians, in the future. Indeed, just like the 1979 Iranian revolution, a backlash against the current regime could unleash a wave against American so-called “interests” much more intense than the wave it was trying to prevent—ergo, current regional stability at the expense of long-term American security.

Now, the current conflict at question, the Egyptian issue having been neatly swept under the carpet with the West’s dismissal of their man Mubarak, is the crisis in Libya. While Egyptians were under the rapture of revolt, the Libyans began to rise against their oppressive leader, Muammar Gaddafi. As an immediate response to the popular protests in Libya, Gaddafi ordered attacks from the ground and air on his own citizens, proliferating the defection of members of his own military and consolidating a rebel force that has succeeded in seizing several cities, including its base of operations at Benghazi. In recent weeks, however, with the rebels having lost the initiative and starting to be pushed back by Gaddafi loyalist forces, the Western NATO allies decided to launch an attack, headed by the United States, with the intention, they persist, to establish a No-Fly Zone to protect Libyan civilians.

In reality, Gaddafi’s Libya is something of a pariah government sitting on-top a sizable oil supply that is valuable to both Britain and France, and as such, disabling his military was simply a means to an end. In absolute candor, the United States and its NATO allies did not so much launch an attack to protect Libyan civilians with a No-fly zone (see Darfur and Rwanda), as they chose a side in a Civil War. Having destroyed valuable Libyan military infrastructure, armaments and other war materials, NATO has proceeded to directly assist the Libyan rebels who were largely losing ground because of Gaddafi’s air-superiority. The problem inherent with the Western allies supporting the Libyan rebels is that the allegiance of the rebels is in question. Indeed, very little is known about the rebel forces in Libya beyond the fact that most of them are radical Islamists, some are Al Qaeda and several have fought United States and Coalition forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan (including the rebel leader al-Hasidi). Altogether, what the United States and its allies have done is support the very kinds of men (and in many cases, the very same men) to fight Gaddafi that they (the Western allies) are supposedly attempting to neutralize the world over. The post-No-fly zone NATO game plan has yet to be seen (as well as the reasoning behind how supporting disorganized, radical Islamic militants will somehow lead to stability and the reestablishment of a continued stream of Libyan fuel), but choosing sides in a civil war between two enemies can only spell lasting disaster for international security.

It remains to be seen what the effect of such American intervention will be on this region, but if history is to be a guide, it would seem that such intervention will surely lead to more conflict. This entire ordeal, to be sure, has alone made a strong case for American non-interventionism, because if we had left these situations well enough alone, even with our previous histories, it would seem, as exemplified, to spell a more peaceable result for American citizens. Instead, these Middle Eastern regimes are left in tenuous situations where lasting American intervention can only serve to undermine American security at home and abroad. One thing is certainly clear, the United States government and its western NATO allies have shown anything but wisdom and probity in their reckless Near East interventions and in their attempts to order Middle Eastern society along so-called Western ends.

Simeon is a junior at Muir College double majoring in political Science and history.

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One comment

  1. A few issues:
    “Indeed, very little is known about the rebel forces in Libya beyond the fact that most of them are radical Islamists…”
    Without defining “radical Islamists,” this statement doesn’t actually mean anything. In what way are the rebels ideologically radical, and can the author demonstrate that they are significantly more religious and less politically secular than Libyan society overall? Additionally, the word most implies over 50 percent. Can the author cite this statement? While it is true that the US and NATO know extremely little about the rebel’s leadership structure and seem to have severely overestimated their military capabilities, unsupported definitive statements like this weaken the author’s argument.
    “In absolute candor, the United States and its NATO allies did not so much launch an attack to protect Libyan civilians with a No-fly zone, , as they chose a side in a Civil War.”
    This is naive. A pure no-fly zone would not have protected Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s primarily land-based forces. If NATO committed to averting a massacre in Benghazi, practically they also committed to ground strike missions. While the Obama administration has certainly been publicly less than open about the nature of the war, implying support for humanitarian objectives while criticizing direct combat with Libyan loyalist forces is an inconsistent position.

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