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October 17, 2007

Who's to Blame?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Shadi Hamid has a post yesterday that looks once again at the question of America's inherent goodness. As I think I've written more than I've ever wanted on this point, I instead want to focus on something else Shadi said - the notion that Abu Ghraib reflects "what hundreds of millions of other people think America is really about, and, presumably, this matters."

I certainly agree that it matters, but then Shadi takes this argument a step further by noting, "there is no good reason for the average Arab or Muslim to think that we are 'inherently good' or, for that matter, even just 'good' . . . Much of the misery they encounter on a daily basis is at least partly attributable to our policies."

It pains me to call out one of my fellow DA bloggers, but I'm sorry, this is not only inaccurate, its quite dangerous.

The notion that the United States is even partly responsible for "much of the misery" in the Middle East is indicative of a much larger phenomenon in the Arab world - a disturbing lack of accountability by some in the region to accept responsibility for the challenges in their midst. This type of buck-passing contributes significantly to the anti-Americanism that festers so dramatically in the Arab World and does nothing to solve the region's underlying problems.

I am not going to quibble with the notion that we support countries in the Middle East that are hardly paragons of democratic virtue. There is no question about this. Unfortunately, foreign policy is never as simple as supporting only good guys - there are plenty of shades of gray and unfortunately there are time when the US has supported regimes that undermine our values, but bolster our interests. I would like to believe that more often than not we have been on the right, or at least better side, but of course that has not always been the case, particularly in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, if we want to focus on the negative examples, we must also highlight the many places where American foreign policy has had a good impact. Are we willing to give any credit to the US for moderating the behavior of Middle East regimes and for attempting to influence them in a positive manner? 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 got, but they are far better than the ones we are not supportive of, such as Syria and Iran.

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.

Finally, this type of attack on US policy begs the obvious rejoinder: what is the alternative US foreign policy for the Middle East?

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.

Shadi also posits that "the U.S. sponsored, funded, and organized the coup which ended Iranian democracy as we know it, and fifty years since, they are paying the price, with their blood and tears, for our misdeeds. And why should Algerians ever forget 1991?" Why should any Iraqi believe that Abu Ghraib does not reflect who we are?"

While I am not defending our actions in 1953, the current suffering of the Iranian people is largely a result of the current Iranian regime - not what we did 50 years ago. Yes, I understand that our actions are in some ways responsible for the current situation, but at what point does the Iranian leadership and the Iranian people have to be held responsible for their people's own plight? Frankly, I would be very surprised if most Iranians blame America for their problems and not the corrupt individuals running their country.

As for the notion that Iraqis should believe that Abu Ghraib reflects who we are - well I would hope that the behavior of the vast majority of American troops there shows that not all Americans are like the thugs at Abu Ghraib. As I've said earlier, the many good acts performed by the vast majority of our soldiers in Iraq is in my view, far more indicative of the basic goodness that defines this nation and its people.

Now I understand that Shadi is talking about a perception gap - but we do the region no favors when we encourage this notion of victimization. Shadi rightly asks, "The difficult question for us to ask is how this gap between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us came about, harder still to inquire into the reasons."

Fair point, but the burden is not just on America. When the US is made a scapegoat for all of the Arab world's problems it only encourages some to focus on the big, bad superpower as opposed to the political, economic and social deficiencies that dot the region. We have done much in the Middle East to be ashamed of, but to lay the problems of the Arab world at our doorstep does not mesh with reality. We should also be perceptive enough to recognize that the negative image of the US that many in the Arab world hold has a strong measure of self-interest.

Now I'm sure many will use this post as an opportunity to lambaste me as a neo-con, American exceptionalist or worst. But to be clear, I am not arguing that American foreign policy is always right. Indeed, much of the negative perceptions toward America in the Middle Easy is a result of our currently failed foreign policy. But let's not allow that disastrous policy blind us from the real challenges facing the region and the real solutions - very few of which will emanate from Washington DC. Moreover, even those who criticize American foreign policy have a certain responsibility to acknowledge the many times and places when our actions are well-intentioned and help bring positive change.


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I'm not going to lambaste you as a neo-con (this time!), but I think you're engaging in some wishful thinking here. US foreign policy has to be based on the world as it is, not the world we wish it would be. Whatever nice, positive things we may have done in the past, we cannot do them now because perceptions of us--not just in the Middle East, where there's plenty of blame to go around, but across the globe--have changed so much. We can't be a force for positive change in Iran, for example, because mere association with the US is now poison there (and rightly so, given the warmongering that Republicans and centrist Democrats are now engaging in).

So if we want to get anywhere in the Middle East, we're going to have to eat some crow, and then go about demonstrating that we can actually be a force for positive change. Which brings us to your question:

"Finally, this type of attack on US policy begs the obvious rejoinder: what is the alternative US foreign policy for the Middle East?"

I believe the term is "neutral broker."

The coup in Iran was widely supported by the Iranian people; in fact it could not have succeeded without that widespread support. To blame the Iranian Revolution on the coup involves ignoring two decades of succesful (and popular) rule by the Shah. Moreover, the fanatical preaching of the Ayatollah was largely ignored until the Iranian economy began to falter in the 1970s. This instability was a result of policies introduced by the Shah as a response to his own failing health and a desire to accelerate Iranian progress beyond his means of doing so. This acceleration destabilized Iranian society, opening the door for the Iranian Revolution.

Failure to present alternative leaders for the Iranian people as the Shah was dying may be a fault of American policymakers that led to the Revolution, but not support for the coup 26 years earlier.

The coup in Iran was widely supported by the Iranian people; in fact it could not have succeeded without that widespread support. To blame the Iranian Revolution on the coup involves ignoring two decades of succesful (and popular) rule by the Shah. Moreover, the fanatical preaching of the Ayatollah was largely ignored until the Iranian economy began to falter in the 1970s. This instability was a result of policies introduced by the Shah as a response to his own failing health and a desire to accelerate Iranian progress beyond his means of doing so. This acceleration destabilized Iranian society, opening the door for the Iranian Revolution.

Failure to present alternative leaders for the Iranian people as the Shah was dying may be a fault of American policymakers that led to the Revolution, but not support for the coup 26 years earlier.

You're right that we can't be blamed for all of the badness in the region. Also, a lot of what we're blamed for aren't necessarily the actions of our government but of the multinationals that are headquartered here but operate there. Reminds me of Royal/Dutch Shell in Nigeria. They were accused of helping Sanni Abacha murder the activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. But in that case Shell, not Shell's home country of Britain, was blamed.

Still, I do think you're kind of shrugging at too many bad actions that the US is responsible for. Shrugging's the wrong word. I know you don't want to treat an entire region as if it lacks self determination. They can handle their own problems. But we have to help.

You mentioned the credit we don't get for bringing democracy to Afghanistan. We don't get the credit because we don't deserve it. In this issue of "The New Republic" Peter Bergen argues that we never had a nation building plan and that we shortchanged Afghanistan's democracy in order to attack Iraq. Now that democracy is in trouble. The Taliban is resurgent.

Doesn't help that we cozy up to Musharaff, another dictator. But people understood that, because they knew we needed his help to get bin Laden. Except that reasoning doesn't hold much water any more, does it? He hasn't helped us get bin Laden. One might even say he's helped bin Laden and yet we support him.

We need to make major changes. And we are partly to blame for the Middle East's problems. When Shadi writes that her family members are upset, it's not hard to see they have a legitimate grievance.

-- my opinion --
The "thugs" (as you call them) from Abu Ghraib, carried out the instructions of general Miller from Guantanamo. What happened at Abu Ghraib does not reflect the mind of most soldiers in Iraq, it doesn't even reflect the mind of the soldiers in Tier 1A at Abu Ghraib. What it does reflect is the request of generals to get tough on the enemy. The generals realized the enemy knew of our techniques and requested (and received) permission to increase the intensity of interrogation techniques (aka abuse) at Guantanamo. The procedures spread to Baghram and Abu Ghraib. The procedures were approved by the Secretary of Defense (who was part of the Administration)
Why did they "abuse" the Insurgents - ? - because it worked. The man in the picture, with wires attached to his hands, was an insurgent and said he wanted to kill Americans.

On the other hand, the man with the dog collar had a phsychological problem. he covered himself with feces. The MP's were moving him from his cell to an area where they could spray off the waste. Why did they use a dog leash - ? - because it was there. That was not abuse, it was moving him from one place to another. Those that saw the pictures called it abuse.

The "pile" of prisoners were people who tried to kill or maim or harm the Abu Ghraib MP's.

If nothing else, remember this - the mp's in Tier 1A were assigned to MI. They worked for MI. They did not work for General Karpinski. They were told that they were also under CACI (KHAKI) and the CIA. Remember the Picture of the dead Prisoner?? The MP's were not charged with his death (because the MP's did not beat him to death). No one was charged for his death. We all forgot about it!! Who is to blame - ? - all of us, we didn't demand a Senate Investigation.

The MP's were doing business as usual. The only difference was Sgt. Frederick's Uncle selling the digital pictures to 60 minutes.

All the generals knew what was going on. But they stood in front of you and lied.

The Brass does have Brass.

Shadi Hamid is not asserting that the United States is solely responsible for the “misery” in the Middle East, or that the people and leadership there shouldn’t be working on their own behalf toward bettering things. It’s true enough that “the burden is not just on America.” The problem is not whether or not the current situation in Iran is to be laid at our feet because of destructive policy in 1953, but rather that we still play by many of the same rules. Yes, we’re happy to support democratic agendas when they are in our interests, but again and again, and currently, jettison those principles when it’s expedient to do so. We support the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and the military coup in Pakistan. We do nothing to temper Israel’s belligerence. We do essentially nothing to promote democracy in Saudi Arabia. But the overthrow of Saddam was eventually cloaked in the language of humanitarian intervention. This continuing and increasingly overt fracture between what we say and what we do, hollows out the rhetoric of democratic liberty.

Similarly, Abu Ghraib is not an isolated incident. Nor was it satisfactorily responded to. No one of any stature has been held accountable. National opinion makers like Rush Limbaugh can shrug off its brutality as frat-house hijinks and not be denounced by the administration for so doing. MoveOn is censured in the Congress for name-calling, but Ann Coulter can call for invasion and forced conversion, and a member of Congress and presidential candidate can speak of bombing the holy sites of Islam and suffer nothing more serious than an invitation to appear on the Sunday talk shows. From Guantanamo to the CIA black sites to lawless mercenary armies in Iraq we have shown, and are showing, our high ideals to be apparently little more than facade masking the same sort of push comes to shove brutality that has characterizes most human societies.

The problem is not that we’re not deserving of some credit for living up to our ideals when we do -- it’s that we haven’t learned how to accept blame for when we don’t.

Michael Cohen engages in some wishful thinking here. It's not that I'm not sympathetic to many of the points he makes, but we need to face the world as it is.

The main reason the United States has been unpopular in the Arab countries has been its support for the existence of Israel. Arab resentment of this was mitigated during the Cold War because Arab governments felt more threatened by the Soviet Union and its clients in the region than they did by the Israelis, and was diluted during the 1980s by concern about the homocidal Khomeini government in Iran. But it was always there, and it will never go away -- and in the last few years it has been greatly exacerbated by the perception that not only Israel's existence but any thing the Israeli government of the day chooses to do will receive automatic support in Washington. This perception is sadly quite accurate, and is a major self-inflicted wound as far as America's foreign policy is concerned.

Some of the other sources of Arab resentment of the United States Cohen rightly, though a bit defensively, dismisses. It is a matter of faith for President Bush and a number of his critics that the choice in the Arab world has always been between freedom and tyranny, but in fact this has never been the case before and is not the case now. But it is very important that we make a distinction here between the litany of perpetual Arab grievance and the detainee abuse in Iraq symbolized by Abu Ghraib.

Abu Ghraib was an unmitigated disaster for American policy in Iraq, generating vast amounts of ill-will for us and sympathy and recruits for insurgent groups at a time when the insurgency was in its infancy. The nature of the abuse was repellent to any observant Muslim, and its casual treatment by the Bush administration sent a message that the offense given was not recognized or taken seriously (as indeed, in the White House, it was not). Worse things than Abu Ghraib have happened in Iraq since, and most of these have been perpetrated by Iraqis against other Iraqis. But the timing of the prisoner abuse right at the start not only accelerated the insurgency but helped provide a context in which the broader Arab audience, served by a new and opportunistic Arab broadcast media, could view it. We only compound the original mistake if we don't recognize how big a disaster this scandal was for our policy in Iraq and how that policy was viewed outside Iraq, and why.

You're not a neocon Michael. You're just a boy scout. Neocons are much more up front about valuing power, domination or hegemony for their own sake. They believe that's just the way of the world: dominate or be dominated. They worship Mars. They generally have few illusions about the genocidal conquest of much of the North American continent by European settlers; the decades of assassinations, invasions, usurpations and economic plunderings in Latin America; and our more recent forceful meddlings in the affairs of the weak and hapless Muslim peoples of the Middle East. But they approve of all these things. "Someone has to be boss, and better us than them", is their attitude.

But you don't incline toward that unsentimental and cold view of things, and are more inclined toward the My Weekly Reader version of US history. You keep all of those unpleasant bad thoughts at an intellectually and emotionally comfortable distance, and all the nastiness comprises just a few blotches in the margins of the annals of virtue and patriotic heroism. It really wouldn't matter for you if we perpetrated a thousand Abu Ghraibs. As long as the truth came out in the papers in the end, and some sort of commission retroactively condemned the atrocities, you would see that as evidence of our underlying goodness.

"Interest" is just a bloodless euphemism for for desire, want or possession. Our interests in the Middle East are simply things we want from the Middle East, and our enemies in the region are just those who stand in the way of our getting what we want. Yet the fact that the people of one country have desires that propel them to involve themselves perpetually in the affairs of the people of other countries really says nothing about the right or legitimacy of those involvements. Still, foreign policy practitioners like to wave the word "interests" around like a magic legitimation wand.

The boy scouts and girl scouts are more dangerous than neocons. The latter, at least, commit their atrocities with their eyes wide open. The former can lend their support to the butchery, torture, imprisonment and subjugation of hundreds of thousands - even millions - of people, while convincing themselves its all for the good, and then go on to blame the corpses for their corruption and incompetence, and for their stupid failure to adopt American-style government on their own.

Dan, trust me, I'm no Boy Scout. And for someone who likes to tell other people that they have a one-sided view of history - you should take a look in the mirror.

Oh, I don't know. I think I see a lot of different sides in history. But for the purposes of this discussion, I am just focusing on some of the sides you don't want to look at.

I still can't over the fact that you don't even think the United States is even partly responsible for much of the misery in the Arab world. After all, there is this rather large war going on in Iraq, during which hundreds of thousands of people have apparently died, and hundreds of thousands of others have been injured or made ill, and at rates far in excess of the rate at which Iraqis were dying and getting injured and made ill before there was a war in Iraq. I would think these large effects constitute "much misery" to any fair observer. And surely it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the United States is at least partly responsible for this misery.

And then of course there is the whole Palestinian thing. Not only have millions of Palestinians already lost their homes as a result of pre-1967 Western intervention in Palestine, but since 1967 they have seen the steady growth of facts on the ground resulting in the gradual incorporation of much of what was left into Israel. The United States has been resolute in running diplomatic interference aimed at protecting the Israelis from international law and the requirements of international community.

Of course, no one can doubt that there is plenty of misery in the Middle East caused mainly by other people in the Middle East. That's one reason I look forward to the day when we are out of the region entirely, except for those cases in which American nationals are clearly invited guests, and can leave it to the people who live there to work out their own futures.

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