It had to come. Where, when, and how exactly one of many smoldering sparks in this agonized region might actually burst forth into the present conflagration was unknowable, but tension and anger was palpably rising over a long period.
Where all these uprisings across the region will go is still unknowable, but one thing is clear – the imperative to break the long and ugly pattern of harsh, incompetent, and corrupt rule that sucks optimism, hope, and creativity out of these societies and made them breeding grounds for radicalism.
What the people of the region demand is to be able to take control of their own lives and destinies. But that in turn depends on an end to the constant external intervention of the United States in the region.
In the near term, the prescription is stark – Washington must back off and leave these societies alone, ending the long political infantilization of Middle Eastern populations. We must end our incessant and obsessive efforts to intervene and micromanage the political life of foreign states based on a myopic vision of “American interests.”
Cauldron of anti-American expression
Today the Middle East is the last redoubt in the world of regimes bought, maintained, and guided by Washington. Is it any wonder that this region is now the cauldron of numerous rebellions and anti-American expression?
And just why are we maintaining this damaging, hated quasi-imperial role in the Middle East? Is it for the oil? Yet what tin-pot dictator has ever refused us oil? Furthermore, we don’t even rely that much on Middle East oil – Saudi Arabia ranks only number three among our top five providers: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria.
Or is it perhaps all about Israel? Yet why should that state constitute the seeming touchstone of everything that we do in the region? After all, Israel is overwhelmingly the most powerful military state in the Middle East, acts at will in the Middle East under the protection of American veto, manipulates our own domestic politics in its favor, and is now run by the most inflexible and ultra-right-wing government in Israeli history, while soaking up more American foreign aid per capita than any other state. The US still backs Israel against the Palestinians in an Israeli occupation now into its fifth decade.
Washington still doesn't get it
So given the new outburst of frustration, anger, and violence, we still do not seem to acknowledge the need to change the narrative. Washington does not yet grasp the phenomenon of popular Middle Eastern will that now seemingly defies us everywhere. Our default instincts from cold-war days are still to grasp for a phantom “stability” at any price and prop up anyone who will be “pro-Western.” Egypt is a “vital American ally,” we hear – but what does this mean? The ruler may have been bought, but the Egyptian people are not allies – indeed they are predictably hostile to the status quo and to the powers that have propped it up.
We Americans believe that we favor democracy and democratization. But our government does not. We favor democracy – but only when it produces the leaders and policies that suit our interests, not theirs. Democratization is always a punishment we deliver upon enemies, never a gift bestowed upon friends. God forbid that elections should turn up “anti-American” leaders – whom we help to generate. And what does “anti-American” mean except a call for true sovereignty they have been denied?
Is our response to decades of anti-Americanism still to be more of the same? Are we incapable of finally acknowledging that free elections are required – come what may? Yes, come what may, because angry people of the region may initially support policies we do not like. Ironically, it is the “anti-American” regimes of Syria and Iran that act most confidently in the face of Egyptian turmoil: Whatever the virtues of their regimes, they are perceived as truly sovereign and on the “right side” of Middle East anti-colonial history.
The root of anti-American sentiment
Yet we have been through this debate endlessly since 9/11. Why is there so much anti-American sentiment? No, it’s not because “they hate our values.” It’s our lack of values in foreign policy they don’t like, our hypocritical lack of commitment to democracy, except when it meets our immediate needs.
We have tiptoed fearfully around Mubarak’s death agonies in Egypt. Yes, reforms, but no regime change. God forbid, Muslim Brothers might end up in government. Yet it has been the very iron fist of the Mubarak regime that has helped make the Muslim Brotherhood the dominant opposition party in Egypt today. Like it or not, at this point in history Islamist parties do well all over the Muslim world; they have become the default opposition. Get used to it. They vary tremendously across a wide spectrum, from moderates to radicals, and include a small sliver of violent killers. These movements are constantly evolving.
We must learn to work with the more moderate ones; that includes the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They are not prone to love America, especially in view of our past policies, but the Brotherhood has eschewed violence for half a century and moves cautiously. If they occupy a major place in any new Egyptian government, they could well do with our help. And they will have to meet the political, economic, and social demands of the people once in power: Anti-Americanism doesn’t feed bellies or reform the social order.
Can't ride the tiger forever
America cannot go on riding the tiger forever in the Middle East. We cannot expect to have “pro-American” forces in power in the Middle East when the publics don’t like our policies. We cannot continue our endless interventions – out of fear that some states might emerge as anti-American. The world is sick of such meddling. We have to deal with the causes of why populations have become anti-American. And all this comes in the context of the rise of new powers with their own interests, and desire for clout in what they see as a new, emerging, multipolar global order. The costs are rising on our old patterns of imposing Pax Americana.