If Arab revolutions turn out badly for the U.S. and its allies, we’re only reaping what we sowed in a region where we operated cynically and selfishly for more than a century. I laugh when I hear Yemen, Oman and Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia, described as “key American allies.” What’s our great bond with these Muslim states, I wonder, and why are most of our armed forces committed in the Middle East? Please remember that from 2001–2009 the U.S. government, under the oilmen Bush and Cheney and the versatile Condi Rice (board member of Chevron, which named a supertanker for her), was anatomically inseparable from the oil industry, in its policy or priorities. I don’t believe that it’s apocryphal, the story that someone in the Bush White House intervened at the last minute to rechristen the Baghdad adventure Operation Iraqi Freedom, instead of Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL). After the WMD myth evaporated, the invasion was billed as a Red Cross mission to save the poor Saddamized Iraqis, a sham that must have fooled at least nine or 10 people, worldwide. Like all terrorists, Osama bin Laden is a common murderer who stooped to kill innocent civilians to make his point. Yet his point was always a valid one, that the West in its insatiable lust for oil had undermined and doomed traditional Islamic societies. Bahrain, Oman: America has some of the best allies its money can buy, watchdogs we feed generously to guard the black gold beneath the desert. But overlooked through all these decades of military strategy and oil diplomacy were most of the people who live in the Arab countries, who saw the faces on their stamps change from European kings to local kings and dictators with no change at all in their misery and oppression. Under the original imperial dispensation, Africa and Asia were just cookie jars of undeveloped wealth that colonial powers raided without apology or pretense. In the 20th century, when Western economies began to run on gasoline, and the naked plunder of natural resources was no longer considered cricket, the great powers established a network of petty monarchs and “strongmen,” local warlords they propped up, subverted or seduced—whatever it took to keep the oil flowing. Hand in hand with BP, Shell, Exxon and Aramco, most of these oil princes acquired phenomenal wealth, which not incidentally was liberally reinvested in the U.S. and Great Britain. But virtually none of the abundant liquid wealth trickled down to the Arabs who still lived medieval lives in the shadow of the derricks. What we’re witnessing this spring is simply the long-awaited second act in the death of colonialism. Fifty years ago Arab countries chased off the imperial powers, and now they’re chasing off the dictators and parasites who were left behind to conduct the imperial business. America will have to learn to deal with turbulent Arab democracies that will not march to “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “God Save the Queen.” Islam may grow stronger in these countries: The CONTENTS
NEWS & VIEWS
most secular strongmen were Mubarak and the late Saddam Hussein. New governments may not embrace al-Qaida or the Taliban, but they may not anathematize them, either. The wild card in all this realignment is Israel. No one in the Middle East has suffered more from Western meddling than the Palestinians. The history of the state of Israel is, of course, far more complicated than Cold War strategy and the chess game the great powers play wherever the oilfields are near. But this is not so obvious to many Arabs. The only unwelcome insight I retained from my sojourn in Egypt is that anti-Zionism— even among educated and sophisticated Egyptians—is more bitter than I understood and unlikely to diminish any time soon. Disillusioned by the Western powers’ historical mendacity, hardened by the belligerence of Israel’s Likudists, Arabs tend to make few distinctions between Washington’s policies and Jerusalem’s. Too few distinctions, I’m sure, but there it is. To many Arabs, Israel is just the huge American air base next door, armed with nuclear weapons like our Cold War fortress in Tripoli and perpetually reminding them of their relative impotence. This is the reality that won’t change, whatever transpires this brave Arab Spring. The Middle East is a deadfall trap for rational diplomacy. Our “key ally” Saudi Arabia has intervened against the liberators in Bahrain, at Washington’s bidding as many Arabs see it. Meanwhile, a true war rages in Libya, where American B-2s bomb Tripoli (home, once, to our nuclear warheads) in support of a faltering revolution against Moammar Gadhafi, a clinically deranged dictator who predictably and violently spurned the cup of hemlock history offered. Personally, I wish Obama had acted earlier, to save lives and to save a bit of face after the Bush administration’s cynical, oil-conscious “rehabilitation” of the Libyan ogre, a travesty Christopher Dickey recently chronicled in Newsweek. Statecraft and moral absolutes rarely cross paths, in the best of times. Bloggers are free to claim the high ground, but Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are servants of the state, charged with getting the best possible deal for the USA. It won’t be a tribunal of angels that judges them, but historians and American voters. Realpolitik is never pretty, as the remorseless Henry Kissinger used to lecture us, and it’s never an easy read, either. Walking a razor-thin diplomatic tightrope, shedding reliable allies, sailing the ship of state through uncharted waters, the president probably sneers at his critics, left and right, who couldn’t possibly know the half of it. Meanwhile the headline in The New York Times is “Euphoric, Egypt Votes on Future.” Don’t try to tell Egyptians their future is opaque—even though the Interior Ministry in Cairo, as I write this, is currently on fire for the second time in a month, arsonists unknown. They’ve stripped Mubarak’s torture chambers and emptied his prisons, and voted in unprecedented numbers to revise the constitution and hold free elections. Americans take note: This is not about us. Their euphoria is not thanks to us, but in spite of us. CULTURE
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