How Much Arab Democracy Can America Stand?
The U.S.,the Middle East, and the Rebranding Game at Home and Abroad
Here is an interesting short paragraph in a useful book published by the Financial Times’ former Middle East Editor David Gardner as Barack Obama was ascending to the presidency of the world’s only Superpower:
“The Arabs’ experience of the past 60 years will not be erased by high-minded declarations. That experience tells them that, in the interests of short-term regional stability and cheap oil, the invariable U.S. default position in the Middle East has been to defend the status quo and shore up whatever local strong man comes to hand (Saddam Hussein, after all, was once seen by Washington as an indispensable ally). It does not help that so many people in Washington believe that too. How much Arab democracy can America stand? How much, indeed, does it really want?”1
One might quibble a bit with one part of this formulation. The American foreign policy establishment’s chief interest in Middle Eastern oil has always been about the imperial veto power the United States might achieve over its industrial and military rivals by controlling the world’s greatest strategic and material prize – the Middle East’s unmatched petroleum reserves. It’s not just or even mainly about cheap oil. It’s about the “critical leverage” (the words of President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Bzrezinski) that control of Middle Eastern oil gives the U.S. over the rest of the oil-dependent world.
That difficulty aside, Gardner was correct to identify oil-driven sponsorship of the authoritarian status quo as the longstanding essence of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Uncle Sam has invested heavily in the maintenance of “the Arab exception”: the remarkable persistence of absolutist rule and tyranny, unmediated by elementary bourgeois democracy in the “Muslim world.” Rotting ghettoes and rampant misery and inequality in the imperial “homeland” have hardly prevented Washington from spending billions of dollars each year on military and economic “assistance” to the autocratic rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and the Arab Emirates and to the Arab-oppressing -butchering state of Israel. U.S. Middle Eastern policy, based on “networks of Arab strongmen and unconditional support for Israel” has cost the United States moral and political standing among Arabs and Muslims.
After 9/11, the Bush administration and the dominant U.S. war and entertainment media disseminated both a deceptive question and the official answer to that question: “Why do they hate us? Because they hate our freedom.” Leaving aside the question of just how much freedom Americans really enjoy under their nation’s unelected dictatorships of money, the honest answer was that “they” (the Arab and Muslim worlds) loathed our sponsorship of stultifying absolutism across the Middle Eastern and North African arc of U.S.-backed despotism. As the Defense Science Board (a federal committee of strategists and academic experts that advised the U.S. Defense Department) reported in September 2004, most inhabits of the Middle East support “western values” like freedom, democracy, science, and education. “In other words,” the DSB wrote, “they do not hate us for out values, but because of our policies” – including above all our “connivance with tyranny” in the region.4
However much hatred it might have evoked in the Middle East and elsewhere, however, that sponsorship made sense in Washington for two basic reasons. First, American strategic thinking holds that the essential, doctrinally unassailable project of U.S, global dominance requires U.S. control of oil resources in the world’s energy heartland the Middle East. Second, that outside imperial control has long and quite naturally been rejected by most inhabitants of the Middle East, who believe (imagine) that their region’s resources should be controlled and used for the benefit of that region’s broad populace. That populace resents America’s funding and equipping of despotic regimes that give the U.S. and the West privileged access to the region’s unmatched fossil fuel bounty.
This Arab resentment and the concomitant imperial rationality of American opposition to Arab democracy continues. As Noam Chomsky notes in an important recent reflection on the world’s interconnected political, financial, military and ecological crises:
“The U.S. and its Western allies are sure to do whatever they can to prevent authentic democracy in the Arab world. To understand why, it is only necessary to look at the studies of Arab opinion conducted by U.S. polling agencies. Though barely reported, they are certainly known to planners. They reveal that by overwhelming majorities, Arabs regard the U.S. and Israel as the major threats they face: the U.S. is so regarded by 90% of Egyptians, in the region generally by over 75%. Some Arabs regard Iran as a threat: 10%. Opposition to U.S. policy is so strong that a majority believes that security would be improved if Iran had nuclear weapons -- in Egypt, 80%. Other figures are similar. If public opinion were to influence policy, the U.S. not only would not control the region, but would be expelled from it, along with its allies, undermining fundamental principles of global dominance.”5
How much democracy does Uncle Sam really want in the Middle East and North Africa? Under Obama as under George W. Bush, the answer to that question, beneath deceptive idealist rhetoric, is “not much; as little as possible.” When confronted with the remarkable and heroic Arab democracy uprisings of early 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, the White House responded with cautious imperial equivocation, admonishing protestors to contain their demands and actions. Consistent with Obama’s refusal to call the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak even just an authoritarian (much less a dictator) during his visit to Cairo in the spring of 2009, Washington stayed with the U.S.-backed dictators Zin El Abidine Ben Ali (Tunisia) and Mubarak until close to the end, shifting gears only once it became clear that the puppets could not retain power and that the global dominance project would be damaged by further association with them. While the popular rebellions there won notable triumphs, a recent report from the the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes that despotic Mubarakism and Ban Alism continues without Mubarak and Ben Ali. The names have changed but the underlying military and secret police regimes remain. “In both countries,” the Carnegie Endowment reports, “the same well-developed bureaucratic states and powerful military and security forces that buttressed authoritarian rule remain intact and seemingly determined to curb the pro-democracy momentum generated so far…the Arab world has yet to witness any fundamental change in ruling elites and even less in the nature of governance...A change in ruling elites and system of governance is still a distant goal,” the Carnegie Endowment concludes, observing also the absence of “the profound social and economic changes associated with the classical meaning of revolution.”6
The persistence of old regimes under new labels is not a problem for the White House, of course – it’s the goal. Washington naturally continues funding and equipping the re-branded authoritarian states. It’s not a problem for American mass media either. Those media pretty much pulled the plug on prime-time coverage of events in Tunisia and Egypt once the dictators fled, proclaiming the revolutions finished and victorious. At the same time, Washington rushed to support absolute monarchical rule against democracy protests in the Middle East financial hub Bahrain, overseas home of the American Navy’s Fifth Fleet. With U.S. approval, Bahrain’s ruling family accepted troops from the American-backed monarchy of Saudi Arabia, possibly the world’s most reactionary state but home to the greatest stash of oil on Earth. Washington has stuck with the authoritarian president of Yemen against mass democracy protests and lectures the nonviolent democracy protestors of Syria to avoid violence – this even as the blood-soaked Assad regime butchers peaceful marchers, including small children, in the streets. Meanwhile the administration and its French and English co-imperialists continue their disingenuous “humanitarian” intervention in Libya. As Tariq Ali noted in the Guardian, this action is “part of an orchestrated response to show support for the movement against one dictator in particular and by so doing to bring the Arab rebellions to an end by asserting western control, confiscating their impetus and spontaneity and trying to restore the status quo ante.” The “selective vigilantism” (Ali’s term) of the West in the case of Libya has been quite pronounced: “The Saudis entered Bahrain where the population is being tyrannised and large-scale arrests are taking place…All this with active US support. The despot in Yemen, loathed by a majority of his people continues to kill them every day. Not even an arms embargo, let alone a ‘no-fly zone’ has been imposed on him.” How about a no-fly zone over Gaza and the West Bank, imposed on U.S. client state Israel to protect the besieged Palestinians? Unthinkable.
Gadaffi is one of those formerly tolerable dictators who lost the patience of Washington by undermining the American goal of stability. The initial American and NATO actions might have helped avert a massacre in Benghazi, but the Western intervention has nothing to do with its proclaimed democratic and humanitarian intentions. The most likely outcome is described well by the pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi: two states with “a rebel-held oil-rich East and a poverty-stricken, Qadhafi-led West.” Since “the oil wells have been secured,” the journal projects, “we may find ourselves facing a new Libyan oil emirate, sparsely inhabited, protected by the West and very similar to the Gulf's emirate states.”  The new colonial “emirate” could be counted on to give privileged petroleum access to the transnational oil corporations of its “protectors.” Such a result would be richly consistent with the oil-driven outlines of American policy in the region for the last six-plus decades.
Nobody should be disappointed or surprised by the continuing hypocritical and undemocratic direction of that policy under the current administration. Candidate Obama held special attraction to the American foreign policy establishment in 2007 and 2008. Thanks to his technically Muslim name, his non-white skin color, and his seeming anti-Iraq War credentials, he promised the American Empire a public relations makeover in the most strategically significant part of the world – the oil-rich Middle East, still smarting under George W. Bush’s vicious and deadly invasion and occupation of Iraq. This is how Obama put it to the Chicago Tribune on 10 December 2008, after his election: “We’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s public image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular.” We can be sure that the Bzrezinski-trained Obama did not receive the approval of the imperial masters without being carefully vetted and found to be a steely-eyed Empire man beneath the progressive, antiwar pretensions he affected for liberal primary voters in Iowa and California.
The Arab and Muslim worlds have seen through and past Obama’s illusory re-branding game by now. They get it that the “new” U.S. president with nonwhite skin and a Muslim-sounding name is just The Empire’s New Clothes. Whether American progressives can do the same is not clear and may not matter much given the narrow and imperial confines of the political culture that passes for freedom and democracy in the U.S.
1 David Garnder, Last Chance: the Middle East in the Balance (London: I.B. Taurus, 2009), 13-14.
2 Gardner, Last Chance, xviii.
3 That term belongs to Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009.
4 Gardner, Last Chance, 6.
5 Noam Chomsky, “World Too Big to Fail?” ZNet, April 22, 2011 at http://www.zcommunications.org/is-the-world-too-big-to-fail-by-noam-chomsky
6 Mariana Ottaway, David Ottaway, “Of Revolutions, Regime Change, and State Collapse in the Arab World,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 28, 2011 at http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=42799
7 Tariq Ali, “Libya is Another Case of Selective Vigilantism by the West,” Guardian, March 29 2011
8 Quoted in Post-Carbon Institute, The Energy Bulletin (April 1, 2011) ar http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-04-01/libya-conundrum-april-1
9 Quoted in Gardner, Last Chance, 169.