A recent article has warned of the US losing the Middle East, reaffirming the embedded colonialism of Western analysis, writes Richard Falk
by Richard Falk – Al Ahram Weekly
I was appalled by the embedded colonialism evident in a recent issue of The Economist (6-12 June). Boldly proclaiming a mood of geopolitical angst, the cover story was titled “Losing the Middle East.” Any glimmer of doubt about the intentions of the magazine’s editors was removed by the display of a somewhat bedraggled American flag on the cover accompanied by the subtitle, “Why America must not abandon the region.”
The rationale offered for this political imperative within this most revered journal of the intellectual establishment strikes me as even more appalling than the provocative packaging, giving the plot away before we even begin reading the story.
The argument set forth rests on the colonialist assumption that the Middle East is America’s to lose, although it is not quite that 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 as it is with the wellbeing of the West and linked seamlessly to the operations of the neoliberal world economy.
The strong implication of the 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, 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; second, a willingness to accept contradictions in protecting these interests, such as siding with Iran against the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and opposing Iran in Syria. It is within this framework that “the 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 US President Barack Obama’s policy is too weak and wavering to be effective, which is clarified by the insistence: “He must be ready to use force. 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 the magazine’s 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. The US is militarily engaged against IS in Syria, and is in the process of becoming militarily re-engaged in Iraq at the present time.
It was a strong advocate of the regime-changing NATO intervention against former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorial rule in Libya, and it has quietly gone along with the shift in Egypt.
My own view is that this degree of American military and diplomatic engagement has 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 at several points in the region so as to be in a better position to intervene rapidly should further crises emerge.
CRITICISING THE OBAMA APPROACH: In my view, the burden of persuasion should always be on those who favour greater reliance on military force, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. Without acknowledging any inconsistency, The Economist concedes that the US-led 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 militarisation, which is what comes through in the magazine’s 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 between intervention by the West and the national forces of resistance. These forces have learned to be more effective in their combat tactics, but above all they have come to understand that time is on their side and 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 war with questionable justification and which causes death and injury to its young citizens, but of the deeper realisation that the post-colonial politics of resistance over time subverts the will and morale of the intervener.
This happened as clearly to the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan as it did to the United States in Vietnam, and 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 it pretends that such an orientation conveniently also happens to be an expression of fidelity to Western values, including democracy and human rights, and is of benefit to the affected societies.
Nowhere in The Economist’s extensive article are doubts raised about the unconditionality of US support for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies that oppress their populations and subject women to humiliating social constraints, or to Israel which has dispossessed most Palestinians from their own homeland and held the rest captive.
Indeed, 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 centre” 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 the Gulf monarchies and speak more sternly to Iran,” it says.
What a strange set of expectations! Obama turned a pretty blind eye to Israeli settlement expansion over the last several years, even instructing his representatives to vote in isolation to shield Israel from UN censure over settlement expansions. His administration has also gone along with the basic approach of the Gulf monarchies, although timidly voicing some recent doubts about the wisdom of Saudi air strikes directed against the Houthis in Yemen.
And it is astonishing to note that the Obama presidency is situated by The Economist on the political spectrum as left of centre. The idea of returning to the centre implies that American regional policy over these last six years has somehow veered towards the left. And therefore, for me, what The Economist calls the centre would more accurately be described as the right, or even the hard right.
In most respects, including policy towards Iran, Iraq and Israel, Obama’s essential approach has been to sustain continuity with the policies of the George W Bush presidency. There has been the same willingness to threaten Iran with a military attack if it is seen to be crossing the nuclear threshold, a similar stance towards 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 are more fundamental deficiencies in the analysis by The Economist of what has gone wrong in the region and what to do about it. There is a seemingly blind eye turned towards the relevance of the history of Western responsibility 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 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 in Palestine.
Europe’s imposition of arbitrary boundaries on the region 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 cravings 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 to even mention international law or the United Nations. These normative sources of authority and constraint are evidently seen as of no concern to the geopolitical optic through which the magazine’s editors perceive policy options for the region.
If China were to assess its approach to the sovereignty disputes involving the Spratly Islands with the same cavalier attitudes towards the relevance of normative authority, the West would be up in arms, contending that such behaviour is destructive of moderate political order in the Pacific.
OLD GEOPOLITICS VERSUS NEW: Even when it comes to the pragmatic level of analysis, I find that The Economist’s sense of editorial guidance is woefully short sighted.
Let’s accept the magazine’s focus on terrorism, oil and nuclear proliferation, even accepting as accurate its 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 over the years that their policies are market-driven, with scant attention paid to ideology, as shown by their readiness to ditch the Palestinians.
Most persuasively of all, nuclear proliferation would be best prevented by establishing a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, which all governments except Israel favour 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 epitomises 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.
The Economist’s clarion call for enhanced trust in the nostalgic imaginary of the old geopolitics therefore 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 their imaginative and material resources to creating a humane society at home, starting with the country’s physical and moral infrastructure.
One good starting point for such a programme is the language of political discourse. This idea of the West “losing” a country or, as in The Economist’s cover story, “losing” a whole region, should be banished from the 21st-century political imaginary. With it should come the realisation 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, during the Cold War, that China had become a valuable geopolitical ally in the core struggle with the former Soviet Union, and, still later, that China, as much as any country, now keeps the world economy from unravelling.