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September 18, 2007

Making the Same Mistakes in the Middle East
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Just to quickly add to my previous post on the danger of "resignation." Here's another interesting graf from Matt Yglesias which I'm confused about:

We've shifted back and forth from the Shah to Saddam to "dual containment" to regime change to stay the course to "surge" over the decades all on the premise that American domination of the Persian Gulf is vitally necessary in order to prevent something terrible from happening. What if we get chased out and things turn out to be non-catastrophic? What if bloodshed is limited to Iraq and maybe some areas around the Kurdistan-Turkey border that nobody cares about? What if oil keeps flowing? ...And what if Taliban-style governance and global holy war turn out to be really unpopular? What, in short, if things turn out to be basically okay for America and for Americans? Well, that'd be good, it seems to me.

I really don't know what this means, but it worries me. Again, as far as the Middle East goes, things were "basically okay" for America and for Americans before September 11th. For five decades, we "managed" the Middle East. But then we realized that what happens in the prisons of Egypt can come back to haunt us and our allies in a very real way. In the 1950s and 60s, I doubt anyone really cared much that Nasser was torturing his Islamist opponents in his horrifying dungeons. It was in those very prisons that modern Islamist radicalism was born. More than four decades ago, did anyone here notice when Sayyid Qutb was executed? No, but we notice today. And it is now too late.

The same mistakes, it appears, will be made again.


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You guys are talking about two different things, don't you see that? He is answering the pro-war objection that we can't bring the troops home because if we do Hell on Earth will be the result. He says "what if that isn't the result?" If it isn't, that knocks down a justification for continuing the occupation (which you also want to end).

At that point (after we withdraw), I guess we can start talking about what you're talking about -- what are our aims in the Middle East and how do we achieve them? I'd like to suggest that we don't achieve them through bombing people and supporting dictators. But we can have that discussion when we're out.

Yglesias is countering an argument for staying, not making an argument for complete detachment once we're gone.

I agree with Mike that you two are talking about different things to some degree.

However, I think that Yglesias misses the point that it is unlikely that simply pulling out of the Middle East will solve our long-term security problem from the region. Even if things don't get "that bad" with bloodshed in Iraq or the region and the oil keeps flowing, that won't dampen to any degree the deep-seated dislike and distrust that decades of American involvement has wrought. People will still identify our support of brutal dictators and torture with decades of their suffering.

Instead of invading countries and propping up dictators, we need to start a real dialogue with moderates, both secular and Islamic. Additionally, we need to apply real pressure to those regimes we currently have open relations with. I know I'm not saying anything new that you haven't already, Shadi. But I wanted to point out that Yglesias' comment seemed to indicate that total disengagement may be ok. It won't - it shouldn't be about disengagement or classical US power politics. It should be able how to reorient our policies to increase our security by beginning to reverse the damage of our legacy in the region through principled support for democratic opposition movements.

In the late 1950s and 1960s official Washington considered Egypt to be a borderline Soviet client state. Its internal politics would have been of much lesser concern to the American government than its foreign policy.

We're not really talking about the historical record here, though. We're talking about whether the absence of democracy and something resembling the rule of law in Arab countries is primarily the Arabs' fault or the fault of the United States.

People who believe the latter are strongly motivated to believe that authoritarian governments between the Moroccan coast and the Iranian border exist only because they are "propped up" by America -- and moreover that if they were not "propped up," and collapsed, they would not give way to something much worse. People who believe the former are skeptical that more American involvement in the internal politics of Arab countries is the best way to address the Arab view that everything wrong in their countries is our fault.

It is also true, of course, that if a problem is seen as America's fault, America can be called on to solve it; if it is seen as someone else's fault we may have to acknowledge limits on the ability of the United States to put right what other peoples have gotten wrong. As I've suggested here before, I assume such limits right up front. I believe in fighting the fights we can win when it comes to spreading democracy, as well as the fights we need to in the pursuit of our own national interests. Fights that fall into neither of these categories I regard as Other People's Problems.

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More than four decades ago, did anyone here notice when Sayyid Qutb was executed? No, but we notice today. And it is now too late.

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