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September 17, 2007

Creeping Resignation on the Left?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I'm going to belatedly jump into the discussion of "the chaos hawks." Today, I re-read Kevin Drums's original two posts, as well as Matt Yglesias's response. I generally agree with their assessment. Yet, something about the way they are writing here makes me feel more than a bit uneasy. There is a resignation in their prose, borne perhaps out of their sense that America's moment has passed, that we can no longer shape events as we wish: because our power is limited, our goals must also be limited. Here, for instance, Kevin advises us to avoid alarmist sentiment about the Middle East spinning out of control:

Israel has fought war after war in the Middle East. Result: no regional conflagration. Iran and Iraq fought one of the bloodiest wars of the second half the 20th century. Result: no regional conflagration. The Soviets fought in Afghanistan and then withdrew. No regional conflagration. The U.S. fought the Gulf War and then left. No regional conflagration. Algeria fought an internal civil war for a decade. No regional conflagration.

Well, Kevin is perhaps discounting the symbolic value of all of these things. The Algerian civil war was not only tragic because of the 100,000 lives lost, but also because it spelled the death of the most promising democratic experiment the Arab world had yet seen. We may have forgotten about Algeria: 1991, but Algerians - and nearly a quarter-billion Arabs - have not. For them, it was one among many moments that confirmed their greatest fear: that it wasn't so much that America was incompetent in the Middle East, but rather that America was a malevolent actor, that it actively sought to hinder any real economic and political progress Arabs and Muslims were trying to make.

In short, then, everything we do - or choose not to do - cannot be judged merely in terms of blood and treasure lost. There is, after all, a greater war being fought, and it is the for the heart and soul of a region that has long lost its way. But let us return to Kevin and Matt's posts. Read them closely: their words here, for both better and worse, seem to have been stripped of any ambition, of any of the Left's once unapologetic idealism. Yes, perhaps we have so much less to believe in. Iraq was indeed a wake-up call, one that pointed us to the manifest dangers of Empire, of untempered power that knows no limits. 

But must we now accept something along the lines of a pre-9/11 status quo? Must we return to the notion that as long as we can more or less contain threats and conflagrations before they spread regionally, then that is good. That is enough. This line of thinking is not new. Before 9/11 awoke us from our illusions, it set the tone for five decades of bi-partisan U.S. policy toward the Middle East. It remains a "realistic" way of conceptualizing the scope and limits of power. But it is also dangerously naive for thinking that events in the Middle East - even ones that do not erupt on any large scale - will somehow only have a localized effect. In short, we cannot simply aspire for a Middle East that is slightly better than what we have now. That will not do. That, if anything, was - or should have been - the lesson of 9/11.

Kevin concludes his first post saying that "It's way past time for us to start formulating a sane national security policy for an age of terror. Leaving Iraq is the first step." I agree - leaving Iraq is the first step. But, the first step to what?   


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One would hope that liquidating the American commitment in Iraq would be the first step toward a foreign policy that places the Arab Middle East in its proper place among the regions of the world in terms of its importance to the United States -- just above sub-Saharan Africa because the Middle East has oil, and above Antarctica because the Middle East has people, but well below every other inhabited region of the globe.

I would suggest that rather than accommodate American foreign policy to the inveterate Arab tendency to blame others for the deficiencies of their own politics and culture we ought to discuss that tendency in plain language, and cultivate for ourselves a certain detachment from Arab affairs. We cannot isolate ourselves entirely from them, attractive as that prospect might be, but at the moment the resources being devoted by the United States to one, mid-sized Arab country in particular and to the region in general dwarf those devoted to all our other foreign interests put together -- an absurd situation that cannot continue.

Shadi, please consider this. Kevin Drum is a journalist and Matt Yglesias is a philospher/journalist. I have seen no evidence that they are remotely qualified to write deeply on these subjects, much less to propound doctrine on them. I doubt that they have ever spent any time in the regions that they write on. I read their stuff, as you suggested, and consider it a waste of time. "No regional conflagrations"--whoopee, a new "no regional conflagration" theory.

You have a background in this area. You've been there. You know how the people think. Plus you have a good heart. So why do you defer to Kevin and Matt? Why do you confine yourself to be a mere commenter on these self-proclaimed sages? You are more capable than they are, I know it. If you must comment on others, there must be more qualified ME observers to comment on. When you've been around for seventy years, Shadi, as I have, you earn a right to say these things (says me). I'm publishing this to put you on the spot, but I know what you are capable of.

Please proclaim your own philosophy, your own descriptions and prescriptions, along the lines of what Zathras is writing or whatever you believe. Something intelligent that we can consider and debate. I've seen you do it. It will be much more valuable than asking us to read the sophomoric (on the Middle East) tripe of Drum and Yglesias.

And another thing, don't stay away so long. Where were you, on some Gulf State beach again?

Leftist idealism isn't supposed to be militaristic. The ideal is that the Middle East become whatever its inhabitants want and that we help that along by not propping up dictatorships. When it comes to using our military the loss of lives and tax payer money should be the first concern. Ending an immoral, unnecessary and now unpopular war should be our first goal right now. The next step is to behave better in the region and to never again repeat the Iraq mistake.

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