Il mondo casca …
Across the world yesterday, Muslims left their Friday prayers to resume their unprecedented tantrum against America and the West with renewed fervor. What began earlier this week as a series of coordinated attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East, to coincide with the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, including most infamously the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and his retinue, has now snowballed into a global uprising.
Now is the time, at last, to shed illusions. The “clash of civilizations” pronounced nearly two decades ago by the late professor Sam Huntington, to much progressive teeth-gnashing, is now upon us, indelibly and unavoidably.
Scholars and pundits have pointed out, with wisdom and surety, that the violence we are witnessing across the world undoubtedly has a large domestic component. Rioters in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, for instance, are making a point to their countries’ new quasi-democratic leaderships, as well as sticking it to The Man – the nebulous Crusader hate figure whom so many Muslims, and especially Arabs, blame in conspiratorial fashion for all their ills. Yet it seemingly requires a Ph.D. to miss the obvious fact that the West generally, and America particularly, feature prominently, indeed preeminently, in the vivid, burning imagination of the Arab street, regardless of what local authorities may do.
For centuries Arab popular opinion has been an also-ran, at best, due to subjugation by outsiders: mainly Ottoman, but in more recent times European, and most recently American. It should surprise no one that the sentiments of the Arab masses, when given any sort of public voice, will shout about policies which they have long detested. That the Arab vox populi is obsessed with issues of cultural humiliation which seem to Westerners at best strange and at worst reflective of mass psychosis, would be news only to those unacquainted with the Middle East.
It is easy, and hardly unfair, to throw stones at the policies of the Bush administration, which placed that biggest of all Arab bugbears – invasion and occupation by the infidel – front and center in the vague hope of long-term democratization; the best that can be said of these policies, grounded in a strange amalgam of ruthlessness and wishful thinking, is that they were sold as a decades-long proposition, and we don’t know the outcome yet. That this is a weak defense hardly needs stating.
That said, it is equally simple and just to point fingers at the current administration’s policies towards the Middle East, which are reflective of that American-as-apple-pie tendency to say one thing and do another in the belief that dim-bulb foreigners will not notice the difference. While Obama has stated many encouraging things – in Cairo most famously – about the better, democratic future of the Arabs, his actual policies include many things which Muslims despise. Perhaps Obama’s high-flair, low-content speeches worked so well at home in 2008 that the White House presumed they could work equal magic on the Muslim world – a world which the current president possesses an unprecedented personal knowledge about. They have not.
(Inside the Beltway there will be much debate about whether the events of recent days, particularly the tragic debacle in Benghazi, represent some sort of “intelligence failure”. As we don’t yet know what warnings were given, this is unanswerable at present. Yet this seems likely to be yet another situation where mere observation – rising crime, mobs in streets, 9/11 anniversary – ought to have indicated serious risks for U.S. personnel across the Middle East, not needing sensitive intelligence. Common sense, not espionage, was lacking.)
The main irritants, not to say obsessions, of Muslims who do not like America have been stated openly for years. How Salafis – to use the proper term – think is anything but a mystery; there is much written on how Al-Qa’ida and their sympathizers view the world. Ignoring this has consequences.
The hate-based jihadist Weltanschauung towards “Crusaders” has three main components:
1. They hate our occupation of Muslim lands, especially any presence close to the Holy Places (i.e. Saudi Arabia).
2. They hate our support for the Zionist project in Israel, at the expense of the Palestinians.
3. They hate our popular culture, which they believe is part of a coordinated plot to subvert Muslim values in a pernicious fashion via the Internet and satellite TV.
About number three there is nothing we can do, and it needs to be said that many Salafi critiques of post-modern Western culture are not much different from despairing comments made by American parents, this author included, who fret about what Kardashian-centric infotainment is doing to young minds (AQ just adds an Islamist gloss).
As for number one, U.S. military presence in the Middle East and South Asia, even with the recent withdrawal from Iraq and allowing for the 2014 pull-out of Afghanistan, remains the key factor in determining any balance of power in the region. While the current administration has reduced the boots-on-the-ground number somewhat, from its Bush-era high, the increased use of drones makes Muslims feel as subjugated as ever. I am aware of no non-fringe DC discussions about changing any of this.
The matter of Israel/Palestine, and its central place in the mindset of Islamic neo-traditionalists, is something American commentators seek to avoid since it cannot fit into The Narrative – Muslims have one; so do we – that Arab rage is a matter for psychology, not geopolitics, and is based in a lack of freedom and therefore has nothing to do with Israel and its policies. This view, despite much backing inside the Beltway, is as fanciful as any Salafi dreams of a Caliphate 2.0, and needs to be critically examined in light of the current uprisings across the Muslim world.
The emerging Global Intifada ought to make clear to even the most willfully blind Americans that, whatever Presidents Bush and Obama have done or failed to do, the rage now bursting into the open is not about any one administration’s policies. Instead it is a rejection of the entire U.S. posture towards the Middle East since 1945. For over half a century, American policies in the region have been based on tight relations with two key states, Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of which are troubled and perhaps fated to extinction in the 21st century. The House of Saud has played its cynical game of managing massive domestic discontent through payoffs, intimidation, and exporting its jihad-fueled maniacs for so long that we assume it can go on forever. Similarly, that Israeli policies towards the Palestinians in recent years have killed off any two-state solution ought to cause more concern than it does; while America has become more like Israel in its foreign and defense posture, Israel has become more like apartheid-era South Africa towards the Palestinians, with results that are easily predictable. That both Saudi Arabia and Israel spend a great deal of money inside the Beltway to make these realities disappear from American public discourse does not help rational assessments.
And there is no room for complacency among the Europeans, who habitually criticize U.S. policies from a safe, and often smug, distance. The attacks on German embassies ought to bring some clarity to the public debate, long overdue, which needs to happen now in Europe as much as in America – not least because Europe is physically much closer to the Muslim heartland. Beneath the happy veneer of peaceful Europe, the public memory of fighting against militant Islam exists under the ice (in the Balkans the ice never really formed) because the events were not really so long ago. The last Ottoman siege of Vienna was lifted in 1683 – historians with a careful eye will note that the Christian relief force under the Polish King John Sobieski arrived on September 11th – at which point the city where I write, Newport, was already well established.
What, then, is to be done? A helpful first step would be dispensing with any notion that what has happened this way really has anything to do with a homemade “movie” made by idiots, for idiots. With the fall of autocratic regimes with the help, direct or indirect of the U.S. and NATO, what ought to have been expected – and was anticipated by people not enthralled by interventionist happy talk – has occurred: the Arab masses are acting out on their emotions, long suppressed, of rage and humiliation. While the Salafis are the loudest voices we hear, their views have much passive sympathy among average Muslims. This is not something better “strategic communication” by the U.S. can fix or even really ameliorate. While the Obama White House is now learning the complexities of recently friendly Arab states moving into the “frenemy” category, larger questions of how the U.S. and Europe respond to this sea change need to be addressed. For although the current outburst of Muslim street emotion and smash-ups will likely burn out, there is no reason to be optimistic that things can return to what they have been since 1945, when a powerful United States could more or less dictate terms to friendly regimes, and take out militarily those regimes which it deemed unfriendly.
Some obvious questions present themselves:
1. What do we actually want from the Middle East? The Europeans, and Asians, need their oil, but America really doesn’t.
2. How should military force be applied towards Muslim enemies? Standoff strikes seem infinitely preferable to any physical occupation of Muslim countries, which only play to the Salafi worldview. (Even Western diplomatic presence in the region may need to be severely curtailed on security grounds.) Moreover, we need to entertain the notion that while the U.S. has engaged in far too many boots-on-ground operations since 9/11, there has been too little firepower overall: those mobs seem remarkably unafraid of the alleged global hegemon.
3. Are the lynchpins of U.S. policies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel, viable much longer in the face of political and demographic changes? Basing our posture and assumptions on these two states perhaps made sense decades ago but may not now.
4. How can the West as a whole rise to the challenge of the Arabs, and Muslims generally, finding their voice on the world stage in this manner? A comprehensive approach embracing all means of power – preferably diplomatic over military – is needed, and quick.
5. Given the public venom and violence being displayed at present, is any Muslim immigration to Western countries a good idea?
I don’t expect many Western leaders to entertain such questions publicly yet, but the time is fast approaching when such basic queries cannot be avoided much longer, without facing dire consequences.
For now, the Europeans are focused on their financial-cum-political crisis, while the White House is playing damage-control. For his part, Governor Romney seems to be suggesting that we need more of the same – force and fanciful ideology – to fix this.
We are living in those interesting times that Chinese sages warned of.