Category Archives: Middle Eastern History/Politics

Support the Arab Spring!

Last week Alicia and I went to a CNN forum at Emory about the future of the Arab Spring.  I thought it was good but there was a suprising amount of technical issues, the topic was a bit broad, the moderator was prone to cutting off good discussion, and when Alicia and I rode the scooter home we froze our little butts off, but that last part probably had less to do with the forum than other things.

Two people on the panel stood out that I want to put on your radar screen.

Dalia Ziada is director of the Egypt office of the American Islamic Congress which focuses on building interfaith and intercultural understanding.  She is a published poet and active in pro-democracy politics.  


Lamees Dharif is an award-winning journalist and activist who has been active in the Bahraini resistance campaign.  She has been banned from writing by the Bahraini government since the beginning of the democracy movement there.  

There was some discussion about the relative immaturity of democracy exhibited so far in the region and that people in America and elsewhere were worried about how long it was going to take for the situation to stabilize.  Lamees provided the metaphor that if a man is in a coma for 40 years, he does not wake and go for a run.  No.  It takes him a while to find his bearings, to re-learn how to feed himself, walk, etc.  But eventually he will run.  So it is with the middle east.  When people have languished under corrupt and totalitarian rule for so long, of course it is going to be a long time before the culture and intsitutions of democracy become realized.

I would take it further.  Americans who criticize the Arab Spring as creating instability are hypocrites and cowards.

Consider, in 1775 we started fighting our Revolution, two years later the States entered into an agreement under the Articles of Confederation.  We won the revolution in 1781 and we remained under the articles of confederation for 8 more years until 1789.  It was only then that we adopted the Constitution.

In other words, we operated under a system of government that was broadly understood not to be working for 12 years, and after that things still took a while to stabilize.  Our economy was in shambles.  Our money was worthless.  Did you know that States were leveraging tarrifs against each other.  States were violating the peace treaty with Great Britain, but the federal government could not do anything about it.  In the meantime, other nations rode roughshod over this toothless and inneffective American government.  Great Britain ignored various aspects of the treaty of Paris.  They kept warships in American waters for years!  Spain closed the Port of New Orleans to Americans in 1784 and the Americans could not do anything about it.  To top it all off, in 1787, Massachusetts farmers under the leadership of Daniel Shay revolted because they could not feed their families and their  homes were being foreclosed.  They captured the arsenal at Springfield and marched on the Massachusetts legislature.  Washington called it, “Liberty gone mad.”

Additionally, the instability that Americans generated in their own country was exported all over the world.  Over the next 20 years revolutions broke out in Haiti, Batavia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Mexico, Ireland, Poland, and most famously, France.  In fact, “Atlantic Revolutions” is a blanket term for all the revolts that happened during the late 17th century.  Or you might call it the “Atlantic Spring.”

We were Egypt in the late 1770s and King George III was Mubarak!  Americans are at the apex of hypocrisy and selfishness when we refuse to support, diplomatically at least, the people rising up to challenge oppressive rulers because we are worried about paying a couple bucks more at the pump.  Additionally, we need to understand that we have supported, in many cases, these totalitarian oppressors ourselves.  I love America, which is why reading the history of our relationship to the Middle East for the past 80 years is depressing.

Finally, revolutions are what I thought conservatives wanted.  Wasn’t this what the second Iraq war was ostensibly about: encouraging democracy around the world.  Was there not instability and confusion in Iraq?  In general, the negative reaction of conservative talking heads to the Arab Spring confuses me.  Maybe these revolutions are tainted by the fact that Obama is in office?  I’m not sure.

Realistically, we should expect the Arab revolutions to make the region messy and unstable for some time.  Nonetheless, we must support them any way we can for however long they need it.  No matter how I look at it, it seems to be, quite clearly, our ethical obligation.

Assassination Rocks!

Most of the world is celebrating Osama bin Laden‘s death.  Some, however, are recoiling from that celebration and mourning the loss of life.  Both groups annoy me, but only if both groups are as single dimensional as my single dimensional description of them.

On the one hand, bringing an end to bin Laden’s exploits is a wonderful thing.  He killed lots of people and would kill more.  It also is a good morale booster and makes the West look and feel less incompetent and idiotic (“Seriously?  This guy walked free for almost 10 years after masterminding the single biggest terrorist attack in world history against the most powerful country in the world?”).  I am happy that we have ended this rallying symbol for Islamic fundamentalism.  However, I regret that we could not have had a trial for him as I think that would have been cathartic for society.  Trials are what separates societal civil justice from street gang vigilantism, and, since street gang vigilantism is no doubt a major goal and modus operandi of Islamic terrorist organizations, it’s too bad we couldn’t nab Osama and be rub-it-in-your-face civil to him.  But assassination is better than nothing.

On the other hand, assassination celebrations are weird things.  As a Christian, I believe that bin Laden was loved by Jesus just as much as me, you, or Mother Theresa.  God’s grace is as offensive as shit.  When Jesus died on the cross, he died for bin Laden.  He thought of bin Laden’s despicable actions, but also how beautiful he was as a human being and how passionately he would pursue his beliefs.  Yes, Osama had good qualities.  He will join the ranks of amazing people who did bad things like Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Genghis Kahn, Napoleon, etc.  All these men had incredible talents that are admirable.  Even douche-bags of less grandeur, the local annoying jerk say, has admirable qualities.  He or she has a mother.  He or she is beautiful.

However, I barely have time to mourn for those who have not killed thousands of people indiscriminately out of some crazy religious calling.  I barely have time to mourn child hunger, the African Aids epidemic, or my friend’s problems with depression.  In fact, the only reason that I can see to single out bin Laden’s death as something to mourn is because other people are celebrating it.  In other words, it’s a stellar opportunity to act morally superior.

Finally, as many of you know, I am not a fan of punishment or anyone, especially Christians, who want to deal it out.  Justice is God’s to do, and he does it in the afterlife I’m pretty sure if at all (note “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” and Christ’s parable about the workers in the field).  So, I see Osama’s death as a means to an end and not an end itself.

So, I think our appropriate response to Osama’s death is celebration with a moment or two to pause and say, “Ok, assassination is not ideal.  Ok, God loved bin Laden just as much as he loves me.  Ok, I like his death’s good effects more than just the fact of his death.”  Then we drink a beer (or two), come up with a few cheesy movie lines to use as toasts (e.g. “Hijack this!” and “To the liberation of bearded men everywhere”), and wake up the next day and go about our business in arresting the suffering of others and the depravity of ourselves.

…in other news, Donald Trump called Seth Meyers a stutterer in what appeared to be a somewhat derogatory way.  Of course, I have an opinion, as I am deeply concerned with what Donald Trump thinks of me.

My Last (and longest) Post on the Middle East

I just finished Professor Yaqub’s 24 lectures on the history of the Middle East 1915-9/11.  I found it very interesting, and remarkably depressing.  Alicia is going through the same thing right now as she is studying the history of development practice.  It feels like a history of dashed hopes.  This, I think, is true of all history, but this type of history especially.

At the end of the lecture series, Yaqub categorized what amounts to two camps, with most people falling somewhere in between, with responses to the question of why Middle Eastern-US relations are so bad.  One camp points to specific modern day grievances, such as American support of Israeli oppression, the iraqi sanctions that led to roughly 500,000 iraqi deaths, and the presence of American infidel troops on holy Islamic soil on the Arabian peninsula.  Another camp points to specific ancient cultural and civilizational differences that make bad relations in many ways inevitable no matter what happens.  He mentions Bernard Lewis and Huntington as the big names in this second camp.

A few weeks ago, I finished Bernard Lewis’ “What went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.”  I had just gotten the book from the library, having no idea that it was an important work in the field, and by an important thinker, who was often invited by GWB to the White House to advise on Middle East policy. (Lewis was also the guy who said that Middle Easterners respect power and a firm-hand.  “Staying the course” was then the wisest strategy in nearly any tussle with them.)

Lewis’s basic idea is fairly straightforward: what went wrong? Christianity was initially the political and religious rival of an emerging Islam.  But, for years and years, this rivalry was not taken seriously because it was painfully obvious to anyone who travelled to medieval Europe and medieval Arabia that the Arab world was way way WAY ahead of them in virtually everything: the arts, human rights, literature, mathematics, architecture….every standard of civilizational progress.  (Interesting fact: for centuries, oppressed peoples fled Europe for shelter in the more tolerant and peaceful Arab world.)  Eventual domination of Christianity and the west by Islam and the Arabs seemed inevitable.

As we all know, however, the moors were kicked out of Spain.  The Ottomans were stopped twice at Vienna.  And the tide slowly started to turn.  For years, middle easterners had not even been looking at the west, assuming that they were barbarians and generally pathetic.  Suddenly, they were being forced to adopt western ways of doing things just to keep up, especially ways of conducting warfare, but also things like clocks and standard measurements of weights.  Not only was it necessary to adopt western ways of fighting, they had to have westerners come and teach them how to create effective armies, a huge blow to civilizational pride.  The knock out punch, if you could call it that, was Napoleon’s escapade in Egypt, in which a relatively small force of 30,000 Europeans captured what I believe was the most populous Muslim state at the time.  Lewis thinks that this “clash of civilizations,” a phrase he coined, led to  an underlying resentment and hatred which permeates and undermines western-middle eastern relations today.

While I was initially compelled by this theory, I have come to believe that it is not very relevant.  America was widely liked at the beginning of the 20th century.  A benign power not yet tested, most American interest in the region was philanthropic, and middle easterner greatly preferred America to France or England.

I think two factors did more to erode the American position in the Middle East than anything else: our willingness to do almost anything to contain the Soviets and our continual support for Israel.

Why does American values stop so quickly at the water’s edge?  Anyone who knows me knows that I very selfishly desire meaning over money.  In the same way, I wish America was a little more philanthropic in its foreign policy; we would all feel better about ourselves.

Will Airhart, in a comment to an earlier post, mentioned that when we have intervened, it  has not worked out.  I want it to be clear that I am not advocating interventionism at this time.  I am simply advocating not helping governments suppress it citizens.  In the Middle East, we have generally acted as if we were France in 1780, but instead of coming to aid America, we provided arms to England in order to suppress the American revolution.

This sort of thing we keep doing, even now that the Soviet Union is gone.

I love the Kurds.  The Kurds in Turkey and Iraq have been oppressed for years.  The reason why they have not been allowed to form their own country seems to be that Turkey is an ally of the US, a NATO member.  This pushes the US to not allow the Kurds in Iraq to form their own state either, because empowered Turkish Kurds might threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey.

I love America for the Marshall Plan, for our overall restraint post WWII, for our continual  evolving government, for our constitution, for many things.  But I hate America for how its treated the people of the Middle East.

Ok.  I want to talk about more fun things now.  My next book is Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict the XVI.

Some Background on Osama and Afghanistan I did not know

So when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Americans needed a way to supply the Mujahideen in landlocked Afghanistan.  So they stopped applying pressure on Pakistan for their human rights abuses and instead gave them several hundred million dollars in aid.  Eventually, under Reagan, Pakistan would be the 3rd largest recipient of aid, trailing Israel and Egypt.

Pakistan recieved some discretion regarding which groups fighting the Soviets received American money and supplies.  They tended to pick conservative islamists.

America in the meantime worked to swell the ranks of the Mujahadeen.  The CIA helped recruit tens of thousands from across the middle eastern world asking them to come to Pakistan, be trained, given arms, and fight the Soviets.  From 1982-1992, about 35,000 fighters were recruited from over 40 Islamic countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Why were so many willing to come and risk their lives?  Of those who responded, the great appeal was to take part in Jihad.  “Mujahideen” comes from the word Jihad.  As you know, “jihad” means religious struggle, and it can mean either internal struggle against personal selfishness and unforgiveness, or external struggle against infidels.  This is a debate that has been going on within Islam for centuries.

In the 1980s, the United States took a strong position in this internal debate, saying yes, you should definitely fight the godless soviets.  In fact, Holy War, and most specifically the plight of the Mujahideen was something somewhat romanticized in American pop culture, in movies like Rambo 3 and in reporting by people like Dan Rather.

One of the CIA’s recruits was a Saudi named Osama Bin Laden.  He was the 17th son of a wealthy and prominent Saudi and was sent not to fight as much as to be an emissary and prove Saudi Arabia’s support for the Mujahideen.  Some say he was on the CIA’s payroll at the time.  Maybe, maybe not, but he certainly worked with and for agencies that the CIA also funded.  After the Soviets gave up, he started to build his al Qaeda network from the connections he had developed in fighting the Soviets.  Eventually, the Taliban took over Afghanistan and brought some measure of order at the price of social and political oppression.

I have no conclusions for all of this.  I have no synthesis, except that we should try not to supply and encourage crazy behavior.

All of these posts on American chicanery in the Middle East might make one think that I condemn America for it.  I don’t really.  I think the Soviets were really bad guys.  Maybe I’ll post a blog that will prove it to everyone, but that doesn’t sound very interesting at the moment.

I’m really learning alot from this Salim Yaqub guy.

We Missed Our Chance!

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I think we missed our chance.  Up til that point, nearly all of our foreign policy objectives had been subsumed by the main objective: containing the Soviets.  Fostering democracy and human rights took a back seat.  In numerous countries especially in the middle east (“especially” only because I happen to be studying the middle east right now), we supported vicious tyrannical regimes against revolutionary forces simply because they had potential to go communist (though of course, sometimes there were already communist).  We kept military bases around the world.  We supported bad guys because we needed air bases.  We supported bad guys because we needed oil.  We embraced the status quo because we were trying to stop change for the worse.   We made selfish trade decisions, because we needed to keep ourselves strong to deter the Soviet threat to the whole world.

Regardless of what one might think of the Soviet Union, and whether or not it was worth deterring (I think it was), when we look at our foreign policy history, containing that threat was our main reason for pretty much everything we did, good or bad.  You would think that the Soviet collapse should have changed more than it did.

Our policies should have changed internally as well.  Reagan’s enormous defense spending spree was based on the Soviet threat.  In 1991, we should have gotten our house in order, and Clinton did balance the budget in fact, and we should not have allowed something as relatively insignificant as Islamic fundamentalism (compared to the Cold War and WWII) to balloon the debt and the culture of fear.

Instead, I wish Clinton, not because he was a democrat, but just because he was President at that time, would have made a speech in which he would have apologized to the world, even to specific countries, for how we had meddled in their affairs and how we had not stood for democracy, human rights, and economic fairness.  He should have promised to revisit our approach to every single country and region based on human rights, economic equity, and democratic ideals.  And he should have asked forgiveness by explaining how what we did we did out of a fear of the Soviet Union.

His speech could have ended,

“As the world’s only remaining superpower, we will not make it our goal to remain on top.  All great powers eventually fall and we will too.  When our time is up, when we slide below others in measurements of literacy, GDP, life expectancy, population, land controlled, and military capabilities, we want to have done so without making enemies and without creating more war-inspiring hatred and prejudice.  In other words, our greatness will not be determined by how strong we were for how long, but how much better the world became while we were strong.  Only this better world can ensure America’s long term security

‘In this world, tyrannical regimes are not welcome.  In fact, totalitarian regimes, you should know now, we will treat with you, we will accept your diplomats, but we will not respect them as legitimate representatives of your country if your country’s government is not a legitimate representative of your people.  We must get away from having policies for individual dictators or kings.  Instead, we are on the side of the people.  We may not always know what that means, but we will make the assumption that the people want, at least, these four things: 1) a say in how their government is run 2) the ability to make a decent living 3) the freedom to choose their own religion 4) the desire for their government to deal peacefully with disagreement both domestic and foreign.

‘Creating this new world will not be easy, but it is the only way to ensure our collective and long term security and prosperity.  Thank you.”

We missed our chance and it makes me sad.

(I have been listening to a lecture course by Dr. Salim Yaqub, University of Chicago called “The United States and the Middle East 1914-9/11.”  Professor Yaqub got his PhD at Yale and he currently teaches at UC Santa Barbara where he heads the Center for Cold War Studies and International History.  I find the lecture series fascinating, but I think he tends to denigrate the United States a little bit and leans left generally.)