As this is written, the Trump impeachment process is dominating a deeply divided capital. For those interested in foreign policy, of course, the president’s actions towards Ukraine are more worrisome than Richard Nixon’s Watergate break-in of 1973-74 or Bill Clinton’s sex scandal of 1998. However, the arrogance, self-dealing and pettiness of the current president tend to sideline a serious critique of his worldview. For the obsessed, an exhaustive, blow-by-blow analysis of known facts and reasonable assumptions about this case can be found in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. Not that these papers of record are without their editorial viewpoints. They are, using President Obama’s term, part of the “blob,” committed to a worldview that they have helped both to create and promote. This includes, for example, the notion that the United States has a responsibility to support Western liberal values, particularly in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. As the Post’s Fred Hiatt, in a November 18 op-ed, noted: “America — or at least America’s president — is no longer trying to make the world safe for democracy.” When that 1917 aspiration of President Woodrow Wilson proved to be stillborn, the war, holocaust, genocide and a devastated, divided Europe that ensued two decades later led the (free) world to welcome 70 years of Pax Americana. Under the current president, that world is disappearing. (See Salt’s review essay on the late Ottoman period for other developments contemporaneous to Wilson’s tenure, p. 168)
Concern for Israel’s welfare has long been an intrinsic, though often unstated, aspect of U.S. policy. When the 1972 presidential candidate (and former Middle East Policy Council president) George McGovern implored America to “come home” from its disastrous war in Vietnam, some feared a coming abandonment of Israel. Many U.S. partisans of Zionism became neoconservative, receptive to the call to rearrange the Middle East after the implosion of the Soviet Union had reduced the risk. That dream died hard, though the Israeli army still occupies Palestinian lands. The debacle of the 2003 destruction of Iraq and its fallout should serve as an object lesson in the pitfalls of trying to impose Western values by military means. The current situation in Syria is another case in point, with no consensus (or even good ideas) about how best to end the civil war and improve the lot of the Syrian people. The “realists,” call for a U.S. exit from Syria (see Zabad, “The Inglorious Revolution,” p. 113). Of course, they were also in favor of not going in, even to a limited extent.
If any lesson can be gleaned from the recent eight years of the Syrian war, it is the one explained by Robert Pape, the renowned terrorism specialist. Speaking at a Middle East Policy Council Capitol Hill conference in 2008, he illustrated, partly through video interviews with well-known al-Qaeda members speaking idiomatic American English, that nothing stimulates the will to fight as much as invasion and occupation by foreign forces. Examples abound: Vietnamese insurgents lived underground like vegetables for decades of war; the Tamil insurgency against India refined the use of the ultimate smart bomb: the suicide terrorist. Neither group was Muslim, of course, but desperate people use similar means. Cumbersome modern armies are no match for them. Little wonder, then, that U.S. military strategists did not assume the United States could enter the Syrian fray and prevail. Even Afghanistan was too hard to manage at an “acceptable” number of American casualties (see the Washington Post’s exhaustive revelations).
A few of those who want to do something about the Middle East seem to be waiting for news of Trump’s so-called “deal of the century.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on November 18 that Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories do not violate international law since they are a “reality on the ground.” Not many years ago, Israel used elaborate subterfuge to keep its building of settlements secret. They were illegal under Israel’s own laws, as some were being set on privately owned Palestinian property (see former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer, N.Y. Daily News, 11/19/2019). Bibi Netanyahu and other political leaders in Israel have to retain the support of a minority of religious fanatics who believe the biblical land of Israel is a divinely ordained gift to Jews. Apparently, Trump and Pompeo also seek to retain this support, tied as it is to the Evangelical Christian voting bloc and billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Amazingly, Pompeo claims that declaring the settlements “legal” increases the prospects for peace, despite the fact that it makes it impossible for the United States to be taken seriously as an honest broker (see Council symposium on Israel/Palestine, p. 5, and interview with Shir Hever, p. 27).
Against this sophistry about what is legal — international law be damned — the question of what ails the Arab world keeps coming up — and in the midst of a new round of street protests. A November 12 op-ed in the Washington Post by Ezzedine C. Fishere, the paper’s new Jamal Khashoggi fellow, argues against oversimplification. Most of the problems are socioeconomic, as the UN Arab Human Development Reports of two decades ago documented. Solving them by replacing decades of authoritarianism would require elaborate institution building. There is no way to jump to elections, but impatient citizens are rightly pushing for change.
The good news about the second wave of Middle East unrest is that today’s protesters may have a longer view, with the experience of 2011 behind them and an awareness of how hard the road ahead will be. They need both patience and persistence — and a willingness to compromise (see articles on Algeria, p. 131 and Libya, p. 146). Many in power are threatened, including even Hezbollah in Lebanon. Astonishingly, Trump had, until December 3, been holding up $105 million of that country’s U.S. military support. Perhaps he doesn’t realize the Lebanese army is the country’s only counterweight to Hezbollah. In Baghdad, unrest has spread to areas where the Shiites dominate, but the leadership in Tehran is the real target. Recent reports of many protesters killed and wounded in Iran itself indicate that the country’s aging theocratic leadership might be under threat from its own street. The latest reports suggest that the government is backtracking in the face of unprecedented public outrage.
Finally, closer to home, the journal’s long-serving production designer/editorial assistant, Zachary Vono, has moved on. We are sad to see him go; Zak contributed a great deal to 10 of the best years of our MEPC lives (over 40 journals). Now, after earning an MA in “computer artistry” (an oversimplification), he will get to “ideate” and otherwise figure out how to create fabulous stuff under extreme time pressure in San Francisco. We wish him all the best.
December 12, 2019