The US is missing the chance to reset its relationship with the Arab world

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Here it was and still is, a golden opportunity to have shifted gears and realized those things the US claims constitute and enhance its interests—energy supplies, Palestinian-Israeli peace, reduction of terrorism. Instead, Arab peoples’ desire for democracy, ironically not because of, but in spite of, the West’s best efforts, could have laid the groundwork for a greatly enhanced US-Arab relationship. The phenomenon clearly and instantaneously demolished the assiduously cultivated myth that Islamism (and for some, Muslims generally), represents the greatest threat to world peace and stability. It turned out that the new generation of young Arabs who would lead their nations lived on this planet. Contrast this with the fantastical, otherworldly claims and mythology perpetrated by American domestic interests determined to “protect” Israel and maintain US primacy.

Hillary Clinton, in her current post-revolution visit to Cairo (then Tunis) said, “I’m so looking forward to helping in any way that we can in this transformation and all the work that needs to be done.” Precisely. We see unfolding in Washington what we suspected at the height of the Egyptian revolt and today in Bahrain: intensive talks with the current Egyptian junta to guarantee that no fundamental changes (i.e., independent economic and foreign policy) occur toward the US and, as always, Israel. Hillary, with the brilliant Robert Gates watching her back, is busily running around the region attempting to strike a balance between autocracy and reform, giving the green light for vicious Saudi repression of the peaceful Bahraini protest movement. And of course Palestine may well soon be at the US-Israeli receiving end, especially if the PA continues its defiance, including pursuing national unity with Hamas, and goes ahead with statehood declaration in late summer or fall.

Everyone, in the Middle East and outside it, knew the score, that is, Western states advocating democracy in speech and undermining it in action. Arabs easily make the important distinction between Western power that is against democracy in the Middle East and the Western idea of democracy. Middle Easterners (and Muslims) accept by overwhelming percentages the idea or ideal of democracy, of liberal popular sovereign will. Western power does not seem to be able to make a distinction; Middle Easterners can, and have, for 150 years. Even the political Islamist minorities, whose idea of ultimate sovereignty is that it belongs to God, now accept the power of elections and accountability. Today, Arabs/Muslims reject US/Western power, interference, invasion, but they accept human rights, liberty, democracy, equality, etc. What they want is what they’ve always wanted: real independence and sovereignty to determine their own affairs and authentic representative government. They are not against the West or have a “natural” cultural/civilizational hostility to it, but are obviously unwilling to work in service of others’ interests.

The press reports White House strategies of “regime alteration” instead of change, gradual instead of sweeping reform approached and dealt with one country at a time—for Washington must surely be “realistic” that some, such as Libya, are more dispensable than others, such as Jordan, Saudi, the Gulf states. The theme, the developing strategy, is one of believable reforms, maintenance of regimes, unbroken US control, such as in Morocco. Attacking and undermining states such as Syria, Iran, and formerly Iraq for the cause of change-revolution-overthrow-war as long as they resist obedience presents no political or moral problem. Just as the US uses a strategy of aligning with autocrats, so also it (the CIA) actively employs a strategy of supporting, manipulating, inciting people’s movement or opposition to overthrow those who do not embrace its policies as their own and to turn the new regime into a willing, dependent client.

For now, people’s movements have Arab autocrats scurrying in fear lobbying and lecturing, pleading and supplicating Washington on how to handle matters to save them. By maintaining these rulers, they argue, American interests and “national security” are protected and “extremists” marginalized. Arab elites, whose economic and political power was founded on the establishment of arbitrary states by colonial powers, cannot conceive of letting go, even if it means they murder their citizens. They, monarchies and “republics,” constitute by far the most atavistic set of rulers anywhere on the planet, refusing to entertain the idea of a politically cooperative, economically integrated, popularly participatory Arab world moving into the 21st century. The prospect of opening up their kingdoms and republics inside and towards fellow Arabs, of unleashing the creative energies of their people, is anathema.

As for Israel—that democratic fount of wisdom, tolerance, democracy, decency, and peace—it counsels Washington, and an awed media, that democracy and stability, reform and order do not mix, are not compatible, in the defective Arab/Islamic culture. The Zionists could care less about Arab democracy or human rights, Arab dignity or people’s security. Their paramount interest is maintaining a wedge, an interminable tension and conflict, between the US/West and Middle East/Islam. A mirror image of the Arab autocratic tyranny, Zionist tyranny cannot imagine coexistence and equality between it and Palestine. It sees not peace and mutual respect and normalized relations with the Arab world but power and domination and war, already positioning itself for $20 billion in US taxpayer giveaway to bolster and modernize its military, which it will most assuredly get.

The folly, the idiocy of it all is easy to see. Even if we accept US/Western fear of Islamists coming to power, Arab ferment embodies a secular, liberal moment, not an Islamist one, leaving a diverse political Islam unclear, confused, and in generational tension. And even if one of these days, under democratic elections, Islamists form a majority government, they’ll still trade and sell oil and they will be scrutinized and measured more than ever by their citizens for their developmental and democratic performance. As essentially nationalists, they will definitely not play subservient to US hegemony. But that’s how it should be. The Middle East needs to find its way free of US control, as have Latin American states such as Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, and poor Bolivia. Anyway, where is fundamental “stability” and “order” to be found: in illegitimate autocracy or legitimately elected and accountable governments? There is no more lethal enemy to people, and promoter of extremism, than denying them expression and excluding them from the political process. That has been a central cause of political Islam and that, in turn, has been a result of Western support for autocratic tyranny.

Poignantly, where US meddling stopped or is no longer as effective as it once was, as in areas of Latin America in recent times, there followed order, stability, and truer democracy and self-determination. The poor, marginalized and indigenous in that world region are, as mobilized social movements, redefining the meaning of democracy to include people’s development, social, economic and environmental justice, and a push toward regional integration. They are choosing their own autonomous way minus US/corporate control of their lives.

US strategy has not, and will not, fundamentally change, at least for the time being. It got, or could get, what it says it always wanted, democracy, but it has not accepted the reality that it cannot control or dictate how Middle Eastern peoples shape their political and economic structures. American strategy has therefore simply changed its tactics. It’s extensively involved in the internal politics of the evolving revolutions as it tries to manage the content and outcome of change and reform. Not that it rejects democracy, certainly as an ideal; it only wants democratic regimes containing people who “work with it,” that is, not challenge its sacred strategic pillars of empire, oil, Israel, and “radicals.” For how else to maintain the engine of national security and its twin, the delusion of global dominance?

How to live with democratic Arab states but maintain hegemony and impose a settlement on the Palestinians in Israel’s favor, is America’s main concern. Its goal is to direct these democratic movements according to its perceived interests, coercively ensure—if that is possible, which it is not—that “democracy” and “economic growth” are consistent with its geo-political strategy and neo-liberal ideology. It seems that the US cannot change until it radically reforms its own national security institutions and imperial thrust. A fundamental American crisis that may set the stage for such change is around the corner, but Washington doesn’t get it, and an unsuspecting American people are positioned to take the brunt of the mounting economic hardships that will ensue. 

(15 March 2011)

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