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Hichem Karoui: Not a passing mood
June 04, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

With at least three of its major allies in the Middle East, the United States has a problem that, unless it is seriously and tactfully addressed, may be a little more than just a “passing mood.”

With Pakistan, the May 2 killing of Osama Bin Laden opened a back-door leading to a very messy courtyard, where US and Pakistani intelligence officers exchange mutual accusations of “betrayal to the alliance.” The mysterious death of the Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad added fuel to the controversy over whether Bin Laden was actually “protected” by some people in the Pakistani intelligence and military establishment. Before his death, Shahzad had revealed that “naval intelligence traced an Al Qaeda cell operating inside several navy bases in Karachi, the country’s largest city and key port.”

As for Afghanistan, the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was recently warned that Kabul does not want any-more drone strikes, because of the civilian casualties they cause. President Karzay’s declaration on this subject leaves no doubt about the gravity of the problem:

“If after the Afghan government said the aerial bombing of Afghan houses is banned and it continues, then their presence will change from a war against terrorism to an occupying force,” said he on a May 31’s news conference in Kabul. So far, the term “occupation” has been cautiously avoided by the president. So, did the mindset change in Afghanistan concerning the presence and the activities of the US-Nato troops? The Afghan outrage is understandable, though. The drone strikes killed nine people — most of them children — in two homes in southern Helmand Sunday, May 29.

With Saudi Arabia, the tension is about how to deal with Iran, Bahrain and Pakistan. Concerning these three issues, it seems that a growing rift takes the relations between Washington and Riyadh to new lows.

It is not clear how the Obama administration is going to tackle these issues. The fact is that while it needs its allies, it may also be tempted, some months before the 2012 election, by clinging to the old patterns, whereas new situations need new endeavours and sometimes the courage to acknowledge one’s mistakes and change policy.

American authors are increasingly critical of the old patterns of behaviour.

“Our bipartisan governing elite’s social, political, economic, and religious philosophies are numerous and diverse,” says Michael Scheuer, “but they all conduce to one motivating factor: an unquenchable ardour to have the United States intervene abroad in all places, situations, and times.” Whether the intervention is military, diplomatic, humanitarian, or “covert action,” many American authors have pointed out the same phenomenon Scheuer put this way: “All share in one near-religious belief in the role of the United States in the world.”

Ostensibly, this belief does not go without delusions and disappointments due to fundamental misunderstandings based on myths. As Edward Said showed in his magisterial “Orientalism,” there is a wide gap between the “Orient” as Western travellers, authors and artists perceived it and the reality. Indeed, many of these authors fell between two antic Grecian-Roman extremes: some retained the mythical perception of a Felix Arabia, where time is eternal and people fortunate and happy, whereas others saw in the Orient (Arab world included) some regressive state of the humanity, which “entitled” them to further infantilise these peoples.

In 2005, Fred Halliday tried to collect and summarise many of those Western delusions that have encroached on the foreign policy of both the United States and the European countries for decades. Look at some of these “gems” for instance:

* “The Middle East is a region dominated by hatred and solemnity; its peoples have no sense of humour.”

* “The Arabs are a desert people.”

* “The hostility of Arabs to Israel is a continuation of the hostility of European anti-Semites, especially the Nazis, towards the Jewish people.”

* “The problem with the Middle East in the age of globalisation is that it is somewhat removed from the world economy, and needs further integration with it.”

* “The Arab states of the Gulf, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, are ‘feudal’ in character.” Etc...

Such myths are nonsensical, as Halliday showed. Yet, they abound among Westerners, Arabs, Israelis, and Iranians, as well. They certainly need the dedicated work of a super-think tank to gather, analyse, discuss and show all the wrong they cause to the relations between the peoples of the Middle East and the West.

Meanwhile, American interventionism was far from being an orphan in the West. As Olivier Roy observed, the “European pragmatic realists” did not oppose the “dogmatic American ideologues” over the intervention in Iraq. For example, “in France, political figures from the left, such as Bernard Kouchner, found themselves in the same camp as the American neoconservatives with a policy that pushes the concept of the ‘duty to intervene’ to its logical conclusion.” Against the “asymmetric threat” represented by terrorism in the US strategic thinking since the Bush era, Roy opposed an “asymmetric strategy, according to which weak states (Syria, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran) put America in a no-win situation by drawing it into an impasse or confronting it with impossible choices.”

The consequences of such a situation is a bleak paralysis of the US diplomacy, while its military was engulfed into fighting in remote hostile territories for a decade (2001-2011).

Rational political choices in confronting global and specific regional problems in the Middle East were often overshadowed or dwarfed by the “Superpower Syndrome,” which is, according to Robert J Lifton “a national mindset put forward strongly by a tight-knit leadership group that takes on a sense of omnipotence.” Unlike previous empires, the American superpower does not simply seek domination, but... “control of history.”

More and more American authors observe that their nation’s political leadership, since the end of the Cold War, virtually failed in educating the people “about a world that is (...) less predictable, controllable from Washington, and tolerant of US orders, advice, direction, or  — most of all — intervention.”

Whereas I honestly think that Mr Obama is far more progressive on varied issues than his predecessor, it seems obvious that the scope of his action as perceived in his 2009 Cairo’s speech and the following stances that accompanied the Arab uprisings for democracy, is being curtailed by domestic considerations related to the next elections. This is but disappointing for all those in this region who hoped for a genuine change under his leadership.
The author an expert on US-Middle EAst relations is based in Paris

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