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October 18, 2007

Who's to Blame? Pt.2
Posted by Michael Cohen

Thanks to Shadi for his tough response to my earlier post. I will try to avoid a point-by-point response as I actually don't disagree with most of what he said. I think the core of our disagreement is more one of emphasis than anything else.

While I think the US has plenty of black eyes in our relationship with the Middle East (the Iraq war being the best possible example), I simply think it is historically inaccurate to argue even that we are partly responsible for the "very bad situation" in the Arab world. Ultimately, blame needs to be placed on the countries and people themselves; and ultimately that's where the solutions will come from.

We did not put in place any of the corrupt regimes running nations in the region (and that amazingly includes Iraq) and without our support, most of them would still be maintaining power. This is very different, from say, sub-Saharan Africa, where some of the blame for the economic, political and social plight of this region can certainly be placed at the feet of European imperialism.

However, I do want to quibble with a few things Shadi has said. "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." I've got one - Israel. It's a country we've supported, against our interests, in large measure because of our values. Many on this board will quibble with my characterization of Israel, but it is a democracy, it does indeed shares many of our values and we have our closest relationship in the region with them.  Whatever you may think of Israel, I think we can all agree that our image in the region would be far better off if we didn't support Israel and it wasn't our closest Mid-East ally.

As for the lack of democratic growth in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, I'm not going to quibble with Shadi's point, but does he really believe that these nations remain in power because of US support? I think this wildly overstates our influence on these countries. Finally, to his point on Egypt, it is very difficult to write in favor of our support for the hopelessly corrupt Mubarak regime. But, even if we did make conditional the $2 billion in economic and military aid we give to Egypt do you believe that it would have a transformative impact on the regime's behavior? (Also, I wonder if State opposition to placing conditions on the aid package has to do with our treaty obligations under Camp David - I don't know, I'm just curious). I just think it is very hard to argue that any regime in the region would falter if not for our support. And if that is the case, it's difficult for me to see how American support for bad regimes can be seen as the cause of the problems, even partly, in the region.

Finally, I will not disagree that we must shoulder enormous responsibility for the misery of Iraq. After all, we did invade and occupy their country without any post-war plan. But two points are worth considering. First, Iraq wasn't exactly a Jeffersonian democracy before we invaded. Second, what is the responsibility of the Iraqi people for their own plight?  So much of the misery being caused in that country today is being caused by Iraqis, not by Americans. While I say again we have to bear much of the responsibility for this situation, to place the onus squarely on the US, gives a pass to the the Iraqi militias and the horrific violence they are perpetrating against their own people. It's hard for me to see how still today we are the greatest source of instability in Iraq, particularly when you have so many commentators, including Iraqis, noting that without our presence, things would be even worse there.

Ultimately, that was the point of my post, to argue that placing the blame on America (or, as is often the case, Israel) even partly, only encourages the sense of victimization and buck-passing that defines far too much of the political discourse in the Middle East. What's worse, the groups that seem to prosper the most from anti-Americanism are not the people of the Middle East, but corrupt regimes who use America and particularly Israel as scapegoats for their own failings. In the end, those in the Arab world are welcome to hate America, but it's not going to do anything to bring democracy and freedom to that land.


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Historical notes, in response to Michael Cohen's statement about America not installing oppressive governments in the Middle East: in 1970 American support was important in enabling Jordan's King Hussein to withstand a Soviet-backed Syrian invasion. In 1973 American diplomatic intervention secured the withdrawal of the encircled Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai Desert, allowing it to avoid surrender to the Israelis. In that year also American diplomacy was instrumental in achieving a cease-fire before the Israeli Army moved on Damascus. And of course it was the Americans who threw Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait in 1991. So there are some Arab regimes that might be said to owe something to the United States.

Of course, these events happened a while ago. This is one of our problems, actually -- a majority of Arabs today are too young to remember much about the Cold War, and are for example free to indulge their Islamic piety and their hatred of Israel without troubling about the fact that the extreme Arab position against the Jewish state was long sustained by the explicitly atheist Soviet state and some violently secular and thoroughly repressive Arab governments. This was the choice, back then -- you couldn't have a government oriented toward official Islam and get Soviet support, but the Americans didn't bother you much about your government as long as it was anti-Communist. That is still our general orientation (substituting terrorism for Communism), an orientation actually reinforced in Arab countries other than Iraq because of the way the administration has mortgaged its whole foreign policy to events in that country.

Threaten cuts in aid to Egypt and risk undermining Camp David? The State Department would resist this anyway, but with the war in Iraq the prospect of weakening the peace between Egypt and Israel is just out of the question in terms of what we can deal with right now. The United States hasn't even been able to intervene effectually against genocide in Darfur -- though if we had it would be just another source of Arab resentment. That whole dignity thing, you know. There isn't an Arab government anywhere with more dignity than the one in Khartoum. Maybe that's why Sudan's is one Arab government that hasn't come up before now in the course of this discussion. By some lights mass murder is a much bigger deal than the lack of democracy, but as we are reminded what matters is what Arabs think.

" First, Iraq wasn't exactly a Jeffersonian democracy before we invaded. Second, what is the responsibility of the Iraqi people for their own plight? "

maybe you should have thought about that before you decided to attack iraq ?

After all around 63% of iraqis think it was wrong for the US/UK to have invaded.

Blaming it on the iraqis seems to me,anyway, to be trying to avoid the blame for an utter fiasco that rests on america's shoulders, and why other ME countries should somehow not blame the US for the bloodbath in iraq and presumably should blame the US for the bloodbath in 53 etc etc

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It's hard for me to see how still today we are the greatest source of instability in Iraq, particularly when you have so many commentators, including Iraqis, noting that without our presence, things would be even worse there.

That's a good point. For example, this 2006 survey shows that 79% of Iraqis say that the U.S. is having a negative influence on the situation in Iraq, and 71% want US forces withdrawn within the next year.

Oh, wait. That's the exact opposite of what you said. Perhaps you were thinking of this 2007 survey, or this 2005 one. Wait, no, those surveys find essentially the same Iraqi opposition the the U.S. occupation.

I'm sorry, I've just realized that I misread your post. You're saying that there are so many American commentators willing to state that America making things better, and that they're able to find a minority of Iraqis to agree when writing their American articles. You are, in fact, correct. I however, have some small doubts as to whether the best way to decide whether the occupation of a country is good for that country, is by polling commentators of the occupying country.

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