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Richard Falk: Is the Middle East America’s to Lose?

Has the habit of referring to the affairs of the Middle East as America’s responsibility turned to an assumption of possession?

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President Barack Obama stands in front of members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Image from the US Army Flickr.

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

I was appalled by the embedded colonialism of a recent issue of The Economist [June 6-12, 2015], boldly proclaiming its mood of geopolitical angst on its cover titling its featured story “Losing the Middle East.” Any glimmer of doubt about the intent of the magazine’s editors is removed by displaying a somewhat bedraggled American flag on the cover accompanied by the sub-title “Why American must not abandon the region.” The rationale offered for this political imperative within this most revered journal of intelligent establishment guidance strikes me as even more appalling than this provocative packaging giving the plot away before we even begin reading the story.

What The Economist Proposes
The argument set forth rests on the colonialist assumption that the Middle East is America’s to lose, although not quite, as the lead editorial ends with an enigmatic distinction: “The idea has taken root that America no longer has what it takes to run the Middle East. That it ever could was an illusion. But America has a vital part to play. If it continues to stand back, everyone will be worse of—including the Americans.” We are never told whether the catchall “everyone” includes the people of the region, and whether they even matter in the calculations of this organ of elite opinion primarily concerned with the wellbeing of the West, which is linked seamlessly to the operations of the neoliberal world economy. The strong implication of this lead editorial, never adequately explained, is that America should intervene more throughout the Middle East to reverse, or at least contain, present disruptive trends. Why this is so is never really explored beyond the misleading supposition that American military capabilities can improve the situation if brought more directly to bear and without explaining why, insisting that existing alignments with political actors in the region, regardless of their character, should be reinforced and strengthened.

The pragmatic side of what The Economist seems to be proposing is two-fold: First, a militarist prescription for the pursuit of America’s regional interests, which are identified as counter-terrorism, oil, and preventing nuclear proliferation; secondly, a willingness to accept contradictions in protecting these interests, such as siding with Iran against IS [Islamic State] in Iran and opposing Iran in Syria. It is within this framing that “[t]he Middle East desperately needs a new, invigorated engagement from America. That would not only be within America’s power, it would also be in America’s interest.” Its central critique is that President Obama’s policy is too weak and wavering to be effective, which is clarified by the insistence that “[h]e must be ready to use force. Mr. Obama’s taboo about deploying American soldiers against IS in Iraq has led to a self-defeating shortage of special forces to guide air strikes to their targets.” In their view, Obama’s approach has created a “vacuum” that has “exacerbated the strife and disorder.” The fuller story in the body of the magazine also welcomes the prospect that either Hilary Clinton or any of the Republican presidential hopefuls seem determined to be far readier than Obama to intervene forcibly throughout the region.

Behind this scathing criticism of Obama is the evident belief that America’s geopolitical muscle if applied with skill, militarily and diplomatically, could have lessened the chaos and violence that now pervades the region. Such an argument seems deeply flawed. To begin with, it is hardly accurate to portray Obama as standing aloof from the struggles going on in the Middle East. It is actively militarily engaged against IS and Syria and is in the process of becoming militarily reengaged in Iraq at the present time. It was a strong advocate of the regime changing NATO intervention against Qaddafi’s dictatorial rule in Libya, and it has quietly gone along with the counter-revolutionary shift in Egypt that destroyed the hopes of humane governance, at least temporarily, that surfaced with such excitement in early 2011 throughout the region.

In my view, the burden of persuasion should always be upon those who favor greater reliance on military force whether in the Middle East or elsewhere.

My own view is that this degree of American military and diplomatic engagement brought more, not less, chaos to the Middle East. And now, as if to take the critique of The Economist immediately to heart the US Government has announced plans to pre-position heavy weaponry and military personnel in several points in the region so as to be in a better position to intervene rapidly should further crises emerge.

Criticizing the Obama Approach
In my view, the burden of persuasion should always be upon those who favor greater reliance on military force whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. Without acknowledging any inconsistency, The Economist concedes that the Bush invasion of 2003 and subsequent occupation of Iraq was a disaster, illustrative of imprudently intervening in a massive fashion. As every major effort at intervention by the United States has revealed, upping the ante by intervening a bit more, is a slippery slope that has eventually led to defeat after defeat, most vividly evident in the trajectory and outcome of the Vietnam War. This unquestioning militarization of the political imagination, which is what comes through in this sharp criticism of Obama’s approach, does not even pause to consider the benefits of allowing the dynamics of self-determination to control political outcomes in the 21st century.

An unlearned lesson of geopolitics in the post-colonial world is that the power balance has decisively shifted as between intervention by the West and national forces of resistance. These forces have learned to be more effective in their combat tactics, but above all, have come to understand that time is on their side, that a foreign intervener will give up the quest at some point implicitly acknowledging that military dominance is not able to impose a political outcome at acceptable costs. This is not just a matter of democratic societies becoming impatient in the face of a drawn out distant wars with questionable justifications, which causes death and injury to its young citizens, but the deeper realization that the post-colonial politics of resistance over time subverts the will and morale of the intervener. This happened as clearly to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan as it did to the United States in Vietnam, or later in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is more of a reflection of the structure of shifting power relations than of a weakening of ideological resolve.

The central metaphor of ‘”losing the Middle East” presupposes that it was America’s to lose rather than an acknowledgement of the empowerment of the peoples of the region and their governments with respect to the control of national and regional destinies. The metaphor of winning and losing is a colonialist framing of geopolitics that amorally vindicates hegemonic ambitions, especially the virtues of Western control. It gives priority to Western interests in a non-Western geographic domain, and pretends that such an orientation conveniently also happens to be an expression of fidelity to Western values, including democracy and human rights, and of benefit to the affected societies. No where in the extensive article are doubts raised about the unconditionality of support for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies that oppress their populations and subject women to humiliating social constraints or to Israel that has dispossessed most Palestinians from their own homeland, and held the rest captive.

The Economist has the temerity to couple its sharp criticism of Obama’s allegedly soft diplomacy by anticipating what is misleadingly described as a “return to the center” that is expected to occur after the US presidential elections in 2016: “The next American president may well be warmer towards Israel, and more willing to turn a blind eye to new settlements in the occupied territories. He or she might do more to reassure Gulf monarchies and speak more sternly to Iran.” What a strange set of hopeful expectations! Obama turned a pretty blind eye to Israeli settlement expansion during the last several years, even instructing his representatives to vote in isolation to shield Israel from UN censure over settlement expansion. His administration has also gone along with the basic approach of the Gulf monarchies, although timidly voicing some recent doubts about the wisdom of respected Saudi air strikes directed against the Houthis in Yemen.

And it is astonishing to note that the Obama presidency is situated by The Economist in the political spectrum as left of center? The idea of returning to the center implies that American regional policy these last six years had somehow veered toward the left. And therefore, for me what The Economist calls the center would more accurately be described as the right, or even the hard right. In most respects, including policy toward Iran, Iraq, and Israel, Obama’s essential approach has been to sustain continuity with the policies of the George W. Bush presidency. There was the same willingness to threaten Iran with a military attack if seen to be crossing the nuclear threshold, a similar stance toward supporting the Shia governing process in Iraq, and the same endorsement of Israel’s defiance of international law, as well as insulating its nuclear weapons capability from even a whispered challenge.

There is a seemingly blind eye toward the relevance of the history of Western responsibilities for the unfolding political ordeal that is being enacted throughout the Middle East.

There are more fundamental deficiencies in this analysis by The Economist of what has gone wrong in the region and what to do about it. There is a seemingly blind eye toward the relevance of the history of Western responsibilities for the unfolding political ordeal that is being enacted throughout the Middle East. This perspective overlooks such defining antecedents as the playing out of British and French overt colonial ambitions in the aftermath of World War I and of the statist goals of the Zionist Movement as abetted by British policies during its period of mandate administration. Imposing arbitrary boundaries on the region by Europe meant establishing unnatural political communities that could be held together (or broken apart) only by violence from above (or below). In a revealing respect Lebanon is a poster child of this era of Sykes-Picot diplomacy, having been carved out of Ottoman Syria to satisfy France’s egocentric craving at the time for a colonial possession in the region with a Christian majority.

The Economist’s policy prescriptions are also notable for their failure even to mention international law or the United Nation. These normative sources of authority and constraint are evidently seen as of utterly no concern to the geopolitical optic through which the magazine’s august editors perceive policy options for the region. But if China were to assess its approach to the sovereignty disputes involving the Spratly Islands with the same cavalier attitudes toward the relevance of normative authority, the West would be up in arms, persuasively contending that such behavior is dangerously destructive of a moderate political order in the Pacific.

The Old Geopolitics versus the New Geopolitics
Even when it comes to the pragmatic level of analysis, I find that The Economist’s sense of editorial guidance is woefully shortsighted. Let’s accept their focus on terrorism, oil, and nuclear proliferation even accepting as accurate their portrayal of American interests. Surely, the best way to combat jihadism is a measured withdrawal from the region. As for oil, the Arab producers in the region have shown through the years that their policies are market-driven with scant attention to ideology as shown by their readiness to throw the Palestinians under the bus. Most persuasive of all, nuclear proliferation would be best prevented by establishing a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, which all governments except Israel favor, and have done so for several years. In other words, the idea of trying to fill the so-called vacuum following the European retreat, which began during World War II and was consummated by the 1956 Suez War, with American military power and diplomatic muscle epitomizes the “old geopolitics” of Western hegemony rather than relying on a potential “new geopolitics” of self-determination.

There is, of course, little assurance that the outcome of the interplay of domestic and regional forces in the Middle East will be ethically satisfying or politically stable, but there is at least some likelihood that going with the post-colonial historical flow will produce better results than further reliance on the United States to continue battling the strong currents of nationalism. This clarion call for enhanced trust in the nostalgic imaginary of the old geopolitics seems historically tone deaf. It represents a reliance on the old geopolitics of militarism that should have been discredited long ago by its record of failure and its incredibly high opportunity costs. At the very least, adopting this new geopolitics of self-determination might enable the politicians and citizenry of the United States to take a much needed and long overdue look within its own borders, and devote much more of its imaginative and material resources to creating a humane society at home, starting with its physical and moral infrastructure.

One good starting point for such a program is with the language of political discourse. This idea of the West “losing” a country or, as with The Economist’s cover story, losing a whole region, should be banished from the twenty-first century political imaginary, and with it the realization that such a concept of winning and losing is worse than anachronistic, it is obsolete. It might be helpful to recall that for many years the American political right accused the US Government of “losing China” only to discover later in the Cold War that China had become a valuable geopolitical ally in the core struggle with the Soviet Union, and still later, that China as much as any country, keeps the world economy from unraveling.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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