During the first Gulf War, the United States stopped short of invading Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein, leaving Rumsfeld, Cheney, Libby and the other one time supporters of the NeoCon Project for a New American Century with strike one. Iraq, the Sequel was supposed to get the job done. Dispose of Saddam and watch the democratic dominoes fall. Strike two. For some of the last remaining neo-conservatives, the revolt in Tunisia represented the final victory for George Bush and Co. Somehow an independent uprising that was largely ignored by the US gave proof that invading Iraq was the morally, strategically and ideologically correct choice. OK, of course that is a ridiculous statement that tries to connect dots on two completely different pages. The American attempt to force democracy onto Iraq (and indirectly on the entire region) had quite literally nothing to do with Tunisia; indeed the only connection between the two is as a juxtaposition used to decry the inefficacy and contradictory Middle East Policy.
[tweetmeme] The neocon attempt to transform the Middle East was an attempt to control the politics of the region by force. Needless to say it failed and the US influence has decreased since. The events in Tunisia – where the American backed Ben Ali was disposed by the Tunisian people – as well as in Lebanon – where the American supported government was recently brought to its knees by Hezbollah – demonstrate this point well; America simply cannot control the politics. Fortunately, as Stephen Walt notes, the US has no need to control the region. Oil is the only strategic interest in the Middle East and, even then, the US gets more oil from Canada than anywhere else. America simply needs to ensure that the oil in the Middle East keeps flowing to in order to ensure small, stable and predictable price fluctuations:
The only good news in this sorry tale is that the United States does not really have to “control” the Middle East. Our only vital strategic interest there is to ensure that oil continues to flow to world markets, and reliable access to oil only requires that the region not be controlled by a single hostile power. We don’t have to control it; we just need to make sure that nobody else does. Our inability to dictate events in places like Lebanon may be inconvenient, but it’s neither especially surprising nor even all that worrisome. But if you’d like the United States to have more genuine and lasting influence, then you’d better come up with an approach to the region that looks rather different than the one we’ve been following for as long as I can remember.
Despite this, the US still seems intent on trying to control the region. With support for unpopular regimes in a handful of countries (including, until recently, Ben Ali in Tunisia) the United States and the idea of democracy has become, for many, a joke. The American government is undermining the idea of self-determination with its refusal to act on the occupation of Palestine and has repeatedly made a mockery of the democratic system by refusing to acknowledge electoral victories by parties and regimes that it doesn’t like (Hamas, Hezbollah). Our endless support for Israel and our never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a consistently declining Arab view of the American government. Yet, somehow, Tunisians were able to overthrow their autocratic leader without (indeed, despite) Western support.
While some of the remaining American neocons were patting their backs, others made clear that the success of Tunisia was sustainable particularly because the West greatly ignored the situation. Tunisia proved that democratic reform does not require American intervention and. perhaps, ideologically contradictory American presence and interference may even inhibit organic democratic reform. Contrary to many of those who supported the democratic domino theory behind the invasion of Iraq, democratic reform, the imposition of the will of the people over the government, is possible without the United States. Peter Beinart claims that this is made possible by the dearth of viable alternatives to American-style democracy; communism is out, Jihadist Islam can’t bring the economic progress that is needed and Chinese, authoritarian capitalism is not import-able for many Middle Eastern countries:
The U.S. is not suddenly irrelevant in the Middle East. American power still undergirds the ruling clans in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and some smaller Gulf states. U.S. power bolsters Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Saad Hariri against Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the divide between America’s allies and its adversaries in the Middle East is not mostly about democracy, and as much as neoconservatives bash Obama, it wasn’t under George W. Bush either. The reason democracy may yet break out in the Arab world has less to do with the trajectory of American power than with the reality that even if American power declines, democracy still has no compelling ideological competitor.
What America is left with is a Middle Eastern policy that rhetorically supports freedom and democracy, while reality shows the US supporting dictators, occupation and the suppression of popular will. Of course, that America’s Middle Eastern policy is hypocritical and ideologically backward is hardly a new revelation. The American mouth and hands have moved in opposite directions for years, long leaving American actions and ideas discredited among the Arab population. What is being demonstrated today is that America’s actions are demonstrably more powerful than its words, discrediting American rhetorical support and, consequently, making American support hinder more than encourage democratic reform. According to American rhetoric, the Obama administration should be thrilled with the popular democratic uprising in Tunisia, yet the success of the uprising would have been put in jeopardy had the US supported the protesters.
For the ideologues, realists and isolationalists, the fact that democracy can still take root without American action should come as a relief after failed attempts to impose democratic ideals. To compare the Tunisian uprising with the Iraq debacle should be a clear sign that the United States should throw out its current Middle Eastern policy and start over. Realists, liberalists, constructivists and, after Tunisia, even neoconservatives should be looking unhappily at the current American strategy in the Middle East, as it seemingly undermines the main tenants of each theory. American interests are threatened, international institutions are undermined, the democratic ideal is shredded and democratic change is obstructed. With deep commitments to dictators and unhelpful regimes throughout the Middle East, it is highly unlikely that the US is considering an overhaul of its regional policy. Yet with Iran still standing, Hamas and Hezbollah still prominent, Iraq leaning away from the US, and an increasing unpopularity of American supported leaders committing human rights abuses – not to mention the consequential loss of faith in America – there are very little achievements with which America can be proud and through which America can defend its regional policy.
In other words, to restore the legitimacy of American power and influence in the Middle East, the US needs to step back and, ironically, stop attempting to increase its power and influence throughout the region. The Middle East today is a messy example of the United States offering too much conflicting and hypocritical advice and should serve as an impetus for major fundamental change in the way the United States view the region.
Photo from NY Daily News