Imperial adventures are nothing new in the Middle East. Neither is their glorification, as Peter O’Toole’s pained Lawrence of Arabia eternally reminds us. But for a decade or so now, things have been heating up, as if to coincide with climate change and fears of declining petroleum reserves. Fuelled by 9/11 and inspired by material avarice, the West has been proudly shouldering its “White Man’s Burden” across the Middle East and has now dipped into the Maghreb. Under the rippling flag of “democracy promotion,” the West has attempted to install prefabricated democracies in regional populations already steeped in decades of interventions—mostly at the hands of noble Anglo-Saxon tribes. So anxious is the West to impart its “values” to demented Asian nomads, it is apt to shrug off diplomacy, international law, global consensus, and other minor impediments that might slow its efforts to give thankless Arabs a crash course in enlightenment values.
The Belly for Belligerence?
In the post-election haze, as smoke from liberal fireworks settled over our metastasizing urban ghettos, we were entertained by erudite speculation among the punditry whether President re-elect Obama had the “stomach” for more “humanitarian interventions” abroad. The question loomed over beltway intelligentsia like an ephemeral Gordian knot. Then two weeks ago, threatening to violate the War Powers Act all by himself, our stalwart Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta posted two Patriot missile batteries and 400 soldiers to Turkey. This nicely complements the 150-member “task force” Obama quietly dispatched to Jordan in October, supposedly to help “process” the flow of immigrants streaming out of Syria. Amman must have been clamoring for assistance from our world-renowned border control experts. Perhaps it would have been wiser to simply hire IDF construction crews to build a replica of the West Bank apartheid wall? In either case, we’ve actually been busy in Jordan since the summer, when we staged a training “mission” – note the ecumenical undertone – suitably entitled “Eager Lion.”
We have now bookended Syria, that fearsome new addition to a revanchist Axis of Evil. Panetta noted the cause for these postings: the grave threat of chemical weapons use posed by the Assad government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, still baffled by the Benghazi bombing, has lately been worried that the “increasingly desperate” Assad might deploy chemical stores against rebel forces. A serious threat, as any of the thousands of U.S. soldiers indiscriminately exposed to our own radioactive depleted uranium bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan could attest.
Still, the presence of our troops on Syrian borders should answer the beltway question of Obama’s ability to stomach another war. If that question wasn’t already answered by the clandestine arms support we’ve provided to the Free Syrian Army and its Islamist fanatics—a worrisome confection of genuine Syrian rebels and flanks of disgruntled Islamists from around the region.
We’re All Hawks Now
What disturbs the distant observer is the memory of Wesley Clark’s revelatory aside in a speech last December when he distinctly recalled Donald Rumsfeld mapping out multiple regime changes across the Middle East—seven countries in five years. Nominated “regimes” included those of Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Syria, and Iran. (Afghanistan was a side project.) Notice the last three on the list? Our Democratic administration has already toppled Gaddafi and left a humanitarian catastrophe to sort itself out in Libya. We are now banging the drums for a confrontation with the Syrians. And, as always, the imaginary specter of an Iranian bomb looms menacingly on the horizon.
Is Obama executing the neoconservative’s original plan? After making a fuss about the foolishness of the Iraq war during his inaugural Presidential campaign? After depositing a small river of American blood into Afghan soil and a mountain of American treasure into the pockets of corrupt “government” functionaries?
If true, then the Democrats have only made a couple of tweaks to the plan. One being semantic—the substitution of the liberal incantation, “humanitarian intervention” for the conservative mantra of “regime change.” The former is no improvement on the latter. The Libyan intervention generated social chaos, when instead of enforcing the no-fly zone the UN had mandated it to ensure, NATO bombed government forces to tip the civil conflict in favor of the rebels. This precipitated the turmoil that UN resolution 1973 was intended to prevent. It also produced the epiphenomenon—unremarkable to American hawks—of a multi-party civil conflict in neighboring Mali. Thugs from al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine—passing easily across the nations’ shared Saharan border after the Libyan war— have effectively taken control of Northern Mali, instituting Sharia law and enforcing it with such popular tactics as stoning adulterers, chopping off the hands of thieves, and imposing the usual raft of misogynistic restrictions on females. Tens of thousands have been displaced. The UN just this weekend green-lighted an African expeditionary force to reclaim the territory.
Mostly because of the Libyan adventure, which was a clear regime change action. Troublingly for the U.S., the nationalist-minded Gaddafi had been acting like a born-again socialist in recent years, persuading the African Union to reject American bases and doing his best Hugo Chavez impersonation by establishing an African Investment Bank to elide IMF influence on the continent. This kind of behavior is precisely what the U.S. detests—attempts at regional independence. Hence the need to unseat the crazed terrorist fanatic.
The second modification to the Rumsfeld plan is military in nature—the substitution of conventional ground warfare (code word “quagmire”) with heavy aerial bombardments, a temporary deviation from the ‘always on’ tactic of drone warfare. While George W. Bush mired troops and mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama only briefly explored an expanded ground presence in the latter. His Afghan “surge” failed; elsewhere he has opted for aerial attacks. Any Democrat will tell you that fighting from the sky is more manageable, safer for American soldiers, and, unlike the complicated issue of prisoners of war, dodges the entire legal challenge of detainment through the alembic of assassination. It seems America has finally settled on a strategy of addressing asymmetrical terror.
Neither adjustment alters the general plan—to reshape the Middle East. Still, on the face of it, Syria seems an unlikely candidate for America’s military attention. It produces less than one percent of global oil production, and Assad hasn’t been adverse to American regional activity. But with the Arab Spring geopolitical hope springs eternal in the breasts of Defense Department hawks. Syria has long been an ally of Iran, a funder of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Levant. Toppling Assad and installing a favorable client regime would help isolate these parties and particularly Iran, the heresiarch of the Rumsfeld cabal.
Our Civilizing Mission
Yet these are not the reasons given to the public. We are told stories about America’s noble mandate to protect helpless republics abroad. But as Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) co-director Mark Weisbrot pointed out last week, Arabs can depose their own dictators, as the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions amply demonstrated. What’s more, they did it with little bloodshed and no breach of their national sovereignty. But the White House already knows this. The reformation of the Middle East was never about our vaunted “responsibility to protect.” It was about our responsibility to the shareholders of the American government—Lockheed Martin, GE, Goldman Sachs, Raytheon, and so on (corporations are human beings, too).
Moreover, what will American interventions produce? If Assad falls, what pot-boiling alchemy of Salafists and other Islamists will slip on the emperor’s clothes? Perhaps a bland coalition government modeled on enervated European models? Funny. Perhaps an aspiring autocrat like Mohammad Morsi will emerge? More likely. In any case, stability is a dubious prospect in Syria, as it now is in Libya, Mali, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And our sanctions on the Iranian people are not doing any favors for Persian peace, either.
History hasn’t been kind to the evangelists of enlightenment of any stripe. Massachusetts was settled in part on the premise that Christian colonists needed to save the natives from paganism, an early version of the responsibility to protect. Some people don’t need saving; some countries are better left unsaved. Nations from the tip of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula have managed change more bloodlessly and with more civility than “humanitarian interventions” from the world’s top beat cop.
Given the predictably chaotic results of hawkish interference abroad—and the fact that even Obamacare had to be debated by the Supreme Court before it was marginally affirmed—maybe it’s time for the Democrats to stop cribbing their policy ideas from neocon think tanks. Not everyone has to be a Clintonite.
Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.