International

A history of violence: Western empires in the Middle East

Commentary: US strike on Syria would deepen tragedy

U.S. soldiers patrolling the streets of Al Hawijah, Iraq in 2003.
Jeffrey A. Wolfe/DOD/AFP/Getty Images

Neither the U.S. government nor its opponents in the Middle East are interested in democracy except when and where it suits them, and neither do they show any interest in following international law. But the U.S. appears especially oblivious to a tragic history in which it has been deeply complicit. 

When the U.S. occupied Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration said that it was interested not in oil but in ridding Iraq of a dangerous tyrant and thereby promoting freedom. Three years later, it encouraged Israel to launch a devastating war on Lebanon in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy Hezbollah and to build a “new” Middle East. A decade later, America has washed its hands of Iraq, leaving behind a country in ruin, countless Iraqis dead, toxic depleted uranium that has been linked to an alarming number of birth defects, and a fragmented society mired in sectarian violence.

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The Obama administration now urgently insists that the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has crossed a “red line” because of its alleged use of chemical weapons. Even before the current, brutal civil war in its country, the Assad regime has been manifestly violent toward its own people -- whether or not it has actually used chemical weapons hardly matters on this score. 

The problem, beyond the alleged use of chemical weapons (as terrible as these weapons are), is that Arab regimes, including but not limited to Syria, as well as the U.S. and Israel, have collectively abused the human rights of people across the region and ignored their genuine desire for self-determination. They have done this mostly with so-called conventional weapons, conventional intelligence services, and conventional police forces and armies. The horrors of Sabra and Shatila in 1982, in which Israeli-backed Phalangist militias slaughtered Palestinians in Beirut refugee camps, did not involve chemical weapons, though Saddam Hussein’s 1988 massacre of Kurds in Halabja did.

U.S.-led missile strikes, sanctions and wars in the Middle East have added layer upon layer of violence in a part of the world already saturated with it.  None of these actions has mitigated the humanitarian situation of the inhabitants of the region. Rather, these military campaigns -- and the anodyne language of “degrading assets” and “precision bombing” that habitually accompanies them -- have dehumanized the Arab conscripts and civilians who are invariably on the receiving end of these campaigns. They reinforce a misleading notion that the current predicament of the Arab world is essentially one of its own making. 

The U.S. has long buttressed an anti-democratic political culture in the Middle East.

At stake is not just morality, but also history. The violence embodied by the Syrian regime, in other words, is not simply the work of a solitary dictator. Rather, it is a systemic Middle Eastern tragedy in which the West, including the U.S., has been profoundly implicated for at least a century.  The old colonial powers of Britain and France, and today, the U.S., are not neutral observers, nor impartial judges, of the Middle East. They have done much to make the region what it is today. Britain and France created new states in 1920 from the defeated Ottoman Empire; they spoke of self-determination, but crushed Arab resistance to their colonial domination. French forces infamously bombed Damascus in 1925 to enforce their subjugation of Syria. The British ruthlessly crushed uprisings in Iraq and Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s.

The U.S., in turn, has tried repeatedly to reshape the Arab world to suit its putative interests. Unlike Britain and France, it speaks the language of partnership and peace, not of mandates and empire. Ever since 1948, however, the U.S. has both wanted to privilege Israel and secure oil from conservative pro-American monarchies — to ostensibly build a stable pro-American Middle East by changing Arabs rather than changing the U.S.’s priorities in the region. And ever since, there has been protracted Arab resistance to this notion that Arabs must conform to American expectations of them in their own part of the world. 

The U.S. has long buttressed an anti-democratic political culture in the Middle East by supporting the Shah of Iran until his overthrow in 1979, absolutist Gulf monarchies, Israeli colonialism, and authoritarianism in Egypt.  It has also generated significant new forms of resistance to its vision of a docile pro-American regional order, evident today mainly in the form of an Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. 

There is little way to reconcile the ostensible American need to teach Assad a humanitarian lesson with the reality that Western and American interests in the Arab world, just as much as Assad’s own interests inside Syria, have long been made to depend on the suppression of genuine democracy and the crushing of popular will. Western solicitude for the Arabs is ephemeral. Hubristic western intrusions into their lives are not. 

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