A few weeks ago, Gary Lee commented on a post that was critical of Hillary Clinton, and I neglected to respond. By way of penance, and because I think it’s a conversation worth having, I thought I’d do a post in response to his question.
Gary’s question, in relation to my grumpy assessment of Hillary Clinton’s contribution to our foreign policy framework was, “Do you honestly believe that if we ignore the region and allow them to fight among themselves that the terrorists will find a new hobby and have no interest in attacking the US?”
I’ll spend some time unpacking the assumptions behind the question, but let me start with the policy juxtaposition that it assumes.
It is often the case that isolationism—seriously or disingenuously depending on the commentator—is mooted as the only alternative to our existing policy of terror, war, colonialism, and backing for authoritarian regimes.
I hope that we are no so imaginatively-stunted as a nation that we can’t come up with something that falls slightly between the two.
We could, for example, refrain from giving carte blanche to colonial regimes like that in Israel. That would earn us opprobrium from the Israelis, and some goodwill from people elsewhere in the region. It would be a just, sensible policy, and one that would ultimately benefit Israeli citizens by forcing their recalcitrant government to negotiate seriously with the people they are currently ruling over.
We could forbear from selling weapons from undemocratic regimes, whether those are monarchies or military dictatorships. The sale of such weapons are used against citizens when they protest for their rights, and the existence of such regimes is one of the grievances that some terrorist organizations have articulated in their campaigns against a U.S. presence in the region.
Our government expressed outrage when the Iranian government put down democratic revolutionaries, but kept out mouths firmly shut when the Egyptian military mounted a coup and when kleptocratic monarchies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia crushed protests.
We could dismantle some or all of our military bases in the region. Put yourselves in the shoes of Middle Easterners—whether conservative or liberal—who are faced with the indignity of a foreign power maintaining a military presence in their country which clearly compromises their sovereignty. That is a behavior we would associate with an occupying empire rather than a friend and neighbor. Our bases help to prop up undemocratic regimes and are also a target for terrorists.
We could refrain from using methods of barbarism and terror in the region. We broke international law by waging a war of aggression, we tortured, abducted, disappeared, and murdered people. That is not behavior that earns us friends or that contributes to stability in the region.
Our easy recourse to force and our large military presence in the Middle East also offends many people because it smacks of self-interested unilateralism. Our government—as well as those of Russia, China, Britain, and France—sabotage the United Nations, international law, and other international social, political, and legal fora by way of maintaining greater clout in the international sphere.
But that clout means that when things go wrong and it might be time for a humanitarian intervention, those international organizations lack the infrastructure and funding to mount such an intervention. And the U.S. forces which often step into the breach are handicapped by a lack of expertise—our soldiers are not trained as peacekeepers—a lack of trust—because of past behavior they are seen as imperial aggressors—and a lack of support.
There is also a common misconception in the United States that the Middle East is somehow an inherently violent place, and that people just “fight among themselves” out of habit, or because such irrational behavior is ingrained in their character.
The reality, of course, is that the region has for the last hundred years been preyed upon by outsiders, hungry for territory, for oil, and for geopolitical power. The Middle East, like other parts of Asia and Africa, as well as Latin America, was a hot front in the Cold War. And it has been a location where rival powers from outside of the region projected their ideologies and influences, whether late-Victorian imperialists, or twenty-first century neo-conservatives.
The United States has staged coups in the region, sold arms in abundance, and absurdly, allows much of our foreign policy in the region to be governed by a retrograde colonial regime which pursues a punitive, self-destructive, and immoral policy towards the people over whom it rules. That conflict—between Palestinians and Israelis—was also engineered by early-twentieth century colonial powers.
If we need to educate ourselves about the historical roots of conflict in the region—and our culpability in sparking and maintaining some of those—we also need to think about how we characterize “terrorism” and “terrorists”. Their actions are not their “hobby”.
Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other of their ilk are pursuing recognizable, defined political ends. Those goals might be offensive to us, and difficult to understand. And the methods by which they are pursued might shock and horrify us. But we accomplish nothing if we simply dismiss them as “evildoers” and fail to understand the relationship between our actions and their rise. Understanding something is not the same thing as condoning it, and anyone who fails to understand the appeal that these organizations offer to the citizens of Middle Eastern countries is doomed to fail in trying to contain or halt them.
Some of the leadership of these organizations clearly has an interest in attacking the United States, although for the most part their grievances are local in nature, and it is only our local actions which earn us their ire. The capacity of such groups to attack in the United States is clearly highly-limited, but they have been able to exploit our predictable aggression and draw us into attacking them on their own ground and commit ourselves to a war that we cannot win, particularly when our own methods of terror and barbarism win recruits and scatter terror across the region.
So no, it’s not as easy as us going home and everything getting better. But we can make far better choices. We can support international institutions that have moral and legal legitimacy, and equip them with the political, military, and economic material they require to act to halt humanitarian crises. We can draw down our provocative military presence. We can withdraw our support from colonial and authoritarian regimes. We can do our best to put a stop to the criminal arms trade that enables and fuels conflict. We can forswear our own adoption of terrorism. And we can try to understand that all conflicts have their roots in particular historical moments and events instead of treating the Middle East as a naturally-violent part of the world.
These actions are all consistent with the values we preach, and I think if aired in public would command a great deal of support from a public that is living the results of decades of failed policies. Since our political leadership shows no interest in making these changes, here—as with so much else—the push will have to come from a public who can show that they care about our relations with other people in other parts of the world.