27 June 2014

The Middle East and American narcissism

John Kerry, the top foreign-policy official of the most powerful country in the world, is in Iraq right now, and he is being ignored.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refuses to step down in favor of a less-divisive leader, or to reform his Shiite sectarian regime into a unity government more inclusive of Sunnis (not that either action would likely do any good at this point).  Kerry has also urged the Kurds to cooperate with Maliki against ISIS, but the Kurds know that the Iraqi state's authority over the north is gone, probably forever, and they are focusing on securing Kirkuk and other important territories against the threat of ISIS.

John McCain may fume that Obama should "make" Maliki or other local players do this or that, while others argue for different goals, but the fact is, Americans have to get over the idea that we are the chief shapers of events in the Middle East.  Yes, we have great military power and we can do the things that military power can do, such as overthrowing Saddam, but everything else is being driven by local forces and interests.  Even in Iraq, where the US has invested money, time and lives in trying to influence the outcome, American fantasies of a western-style democracy unifying the country were almost comically swatted aside by the ethnic and sectarian dynamics now playing out.  Indeed, the very concept of Iraq as a country is just another Western delusion the West cannot preserve.

It's a mind-set I encounter again and again.  If anything happens in the Middle East, especially if it affects us, it must somehow be caused by something the West did.  Jihadism is a reaction to colonialism or the existence of Israel (you'd think the intense jihadist targeting of places like Russia, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Thailand, etc. would tip people off that there are other factors at work).  The Arab Spring is to be credited to an American administration wiser than the last, as if hundreds of thousands of people who braved the guns of the dictators took their inspiration from Washington.  The breakthrough in nuclear negotiations with Iran is similarly credited to nuances of American policy, not to a new and courageously reformist Iranian President or the gargantuan mass street protests of 2009 which intimidated the ayatollahs enough to make his election possible.  Middle Eastern people are, apparently, passive and inert and never take initiatives; they only react to things that Westerners do.

I blame this mind-set partly on the fact that most Americans, including liberals, know very little about the internal social and political dynamics of Middle Eastern societies -- so when they need an explanation for something, they retreat to the familiar, especially if they can turn it into an opportunity to praise or condemn the policies of some American politician whom they wished to praise or condemn anyway.

It's true that spectacular Western blunders like the Iraq invasion or the overthrow of Mosaddegh had a major impact, but the West could not guide subsequent events to a desired conclusion; taking one big player out of the game changes the game, but does not mean you control the game.

Nor does the Middle East exist as a mirror held up to ourselves.  When Americans' sole response to events in Iraq is "Yeah, that proves what an idiot Bush was", they are engaging in narcissism.  Yes, Bush was an idiot, but ISIS and Maliki and the Kurds are not doing what they are doing in order to remind us that he was an idiot.

The fact is, we're a sideshow, if that.  The Middle East has to be understood on its own terms.

4 Comments:

Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Another informative post on the complexities of the M.E. and our inability to make it conform to our ideals.

Most Americans don't do nuance or, worse, history.

Thanks for informing me.

27 June, 2014 13:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks. It's certainly true that many people don't know much history -- which is part of why I post about it from time to time.

28 June, 2014 05:17  
Blogger colnago80 said...

I have been advocating since 2005 for an independent Kurdistan on several blogs. The Kurds are at least as deserving as deserving of their own state as the Palestinians are. It was the iron hand of various dictators such as Saddam Hussein and his predecessors (Kassem, Nuri al- Said, etc.) that held Iran together, much like the iron hand of Tito held the former Yugoslavia together.

29 June, 2014 14:15  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, at least, may get their independence. The big obstacle is Turkey -- it's too strong and too determined to hold onto its Kurdish territory.

01 July, 2014 06:32  

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