Little Shop of Horrors

Mark Perry

Bitter Lemons, November 6, 2008

I once asked one of my Palestinian friends what he thought the United States should do to help the peoples of the Middle East. He was incredulous: “Haven’t you done enough?” In retrospect that pained reply seems the perfect answer to my presumption: I’m from America and I’m here to help.

Sadly, the self-congratulation attendant on Barack Obama’s election has seemingly revived this tradition of selfless altruism. As a former Clinton administration official told me several weeks ago: “We’re going back into the Middle East, but this time we’re going to get it right.” That it did not occur to this official that we aren’t exactly “out” of the Middle East is a testament to American optimism–and amnesia. “Really,” he added, “our capacity for doing good is limitless.”

Spare me.

When asked recently to list the five goals of his presidency, then-candidate Obama ticked them off: improving the economy, working for energy independence, providing affordable health care to all Americans, cleaning up the environment and improving education. The Middle East did not make the list. For good reason: it appears that we’ve “done enough.” And for those who claim, with Colin Powell, that “if you break the china, you own it” here’s a bit of news–no we don’t. America is busy dog-paddling its way out of Iraq, is looking for someone to negotiate with in Afghanistan, has so offended the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia that we are barely on speaking terms and has abandoned the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We are leaving the china shop in a shambles, but too bad. You don’t “own it” if you can’t pay for it. And we can’t.

That the new Obama administration will reengage in the Middle East is not in question. It will. But, in the wake of the failed “war on terrorism” (the definition of a “terrorist” has been broadened, apparently, to include anyone who’s not a Republican), the Bush administration’s dream of spreading democracy (so long as you are not Hamas or live in Pakistan) and the galactically stupid war in Iraq (whose purpose is yet to be determined), America will be focused more on–as one of my colleagues described it–“doing politics.” Which is to say: after nearly 2,500 years of bumbling interventions (from Alexander the Great to Anthony Eden to George Bush), the future of the region is finally in the hands of the people who live there. The challenge for them is simply stated: they have to determine what they want.

On May 17, 2005, George Bush told the International Republican Institute that sixty years of American diplomacy in the Middle East had yielded sixty years of failure. The fault, he said, was America’s–because it had failed to promote democracy. “If the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation and resentment and violence ready for export.”

While Americans now doubt that democracy can be “promoted” and have turned against the policies (and leaders) that, in the name of democracy, cost tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, this does not obviate his statement’s essential truth: all of the region’s issues fade to insignificance, so long as the solutions to them remain in the hands of single party thugs, ruling cliques and family kleptocracies. The single most important issue facing the region is whether that will continue.

Unfortunately (or blessedly), the people of the Middle East will not have Americans attempting to “help” them in their search for democracy. We’re leaving your shop, shattered china and all, because our shop is on fire. By the way, it was arson.


  1. Linda J wrote:

    May you be correct! We gotta get out of that place and leave it to the indigenous people.

    We owe them, but as you said, we can’t and won’t pay.

  2. However much USA (and other complicit countries) get themselves out of the Middle East, there’s a moral rule, unpopular during prosperous times but perhaps coming anew into focus, that needs bearing in mind. It goes, “You pay consciously or you pay unconsciously”, sometimes known as the ‘law of return’, or perhaps ‘what goes around comes around’ or ‘the law of unintended consequences’. Perhaps this is the hidden agenda behind Hamas’ strategy of hanging in there until things turn around – which they do. Or perhaps the Western notion of liquidation of debt needs re-examining. Payment has ways of being made, whatever anyone thinks or wants. Just recently, some outstanding truths from WW1, 70 years ago, have been surfacing afresh, not to mention the ‘Indian Mutiny’ and Opium Wars – so perhaps this recent chapter of sorrow in the Middle East is not closing, but just changing.

  3. Bill Riggs wrote:

    You isolatist rapscallions will no doubt rediscover the wisdom and courage of the Bush foreign policy as the Obama peace offensive gets underway. Right after President Bush did his “mission accomplished” speech in 2003, I wrote the White House (which was not an especially easy process), and admonished them to do two things:

    1. Stick things out in Iraq, for as long as necessary.

    2. Do not get trapped into negotiating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

    Well, the Bush 43 Adminstration took half my advice, did just fine with point #1 and failed to heed point #2. As a result, they got stuck in the same trap as Bush 41. But Olso has been tried and found wanting. It is dead and gone forever. The Israelis will never trust the Palestinians enough to remove the security from their borders, and trying to coerce them – well, why should Israel be different ? We aren’t coercing the Russians and we aren’t coercing the Pakistanis and we aren’t coercing the Iranians and we aren’t coercing the North Koreans. Why should Israel be subject to American coercion when the only thing the isolationist and the liberal idealists agree upon is that the USA should never, never, never coerce anyone ?

    The war in Iraq was not “galactically stupid”. It was mostly inevitable, and Bush 43 did a good job in a difficult situation. I’m sorry it took so long, and I’m sorry it inconvenienced our poor fat unemployed auto workers and Beltway intellectuals, but that’s the way it goes. Like Europe, if this last exercise in democracy building in the Middle East does not take, we’ll be going back in. And like always, we need to go in to win, no matter how long that takes. But I don’t think it is that bad. The Iraqi government is basically stable. We will win in Afghanistan if we don’t stinkin’ quit. You know, we would have won in Vietnam if we hadn’t stinkin’ quit there, either. You go in, you sit on these people, and you don’t give them a choice, and you let them work things out. They might resent you making them free, but what they really honor is strength, and you’re the strongest tribe.

    Obama may not be willing to pay the cost, and with the economy in the tank, we’ll spend a longer rather than a shorter time getting the military refreshed. But this gang is pretty awesome – our military is more professional than it has ever been and these soldiers are real warriors. Do NOT stab them in the back and make them come home with defeat on their lips. They will hate you for it, and you will ruin another generation of veterans.

    As far as Israel is concerned, nothing really matters very much. The US might join the Europeans to sell the Israelis down the river – I’d damn anyone to hell who calls that “realism” – but the Israelis will not go. Sooner or later, they will just take matters into their own hands, and what is this isolationist-social-liberal cabal that runs things inside the Beltway gonna do about it ? Nothing, that’s what. Its like trying to outlaw land mines. Not practical. Not serious. Certainly not “realism”.

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