Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Yglesias: The Status Quo Remains the Policy in the Middle East

As the bills for the Middle East wars continue adding up in lives and treasure, and the US in poor economic health, they really have to figure out a new shift of direction. Obama had a great speech in Cairo, but it's the actions that are going to be important. If he keeps up what Bush started for his term as President, the words won't matter.

In a search to find alternative ideas, I stumbled across this Matthew Yglesias piece in the Daily Beast. He doesn't offer great solutions, but at least points out that the status quo isn't working. (Read the full article here.)

What we can do is change the way we relate to the existing governments. Currently, whether we're officially on record as favoring democracy or not, we're still deeply in bed with status quo regimes. Our global network of military bases includes installations in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Iraq and our warships operate constantly in the region's coastal waters. After Cairo, Obama went to Germany where America also has military bases. But unlike the German bases, the Middle Eastern ones are deeply unpopular and seen as a legacy of colonialism. When the president of the United States stands besides a German chancellor, a French president, or a British or Canadian prime minister, it is seen as a meeting of equals; in the Middle East, it's more like a visit from the imperial center to the provinces.

And while we shouldn't be na├»ve enough to think that Osama bin Laden would just pack up and live a quiet life in the absence of the heavy American military presence in the region, it can't be denied that they're frequently cited as a rallying cry and recruiting tool. What's more, it's their presence that undergirds the broader logic of al Qaeda's view that Muslims must attack the "far enemy"—the United States—in order to express their grievances with local governments. The invasion of Iraq, needless to say, did a great deal to intensify Arab fear that the United States is seeking the imperial subjugation of their lands (and oil). And Obama's disavowal of the invasion helps in this regard, but there continues to be speculation about "residual forces" remaining in Iraq even after Obama's promised withdrawal of "combat forces."

More tellingly, the bulk of our bases in the region were first established in the wake of the first Gulf War in order to "contain" the threat from Saddam Hussein. Today, Saddam is gone. But the bases aren't. On the merits, there's no need for them. The balance of power in the Persian Gulf is of some interest to the United States, but forces kept "over the horizon" could move into place if for some reason they were needed. Meanwhile, as long as the bases exist, they continue to serve as visible reminders of the ties between the U.S. and Arab autocracies—reminders that speak more powerfully than any speech can.
This is a big dilemma for the Americans. They can't understand why, and refuse to believe that the Arabs don't like their presence. America is a great force of good in the world, but they have to face up to the fact that the people in that region don't see it that way.

They need to pull up the stakes and get out of there. There's nothing in the US Constitution that says America has to protect democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's messy, it's ugly: Let them work it out alone. Don't think of it as a loss but a gain for the good of the country.

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