In a traditional cowboy movie, we know what to do: we look for the guy wearing the white hat to be sure who to cheer, and for the one wearing the black hat to know who deserves to die, preferably gruesomely, before the credits roll. If Hollywood learnt early to play on these most tribal of emotions, do we doubt that Washington’s political script-writers are any less sophisticated?
Since 9/11, the United States and its allies in Europe have persuaded us that they are waging a series of “white hat” wars against “black hat” regimes in the Middle East. Each has been sold to us misleadingly as a “humanitarian intervention”. The cycle of such wars is still far from complete.
But over the course of the past decade, the presentation of these wars has necessarily changed. As Hollywood well understands, audiences quickly tire of the same contrived plot. Invention, creativity and ever greater complexity are needed to sustain our emotional engagement.
Declarations by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu aside, there are only so many times we can be convinced that there is a new Hitler in the Middle East, and that the moment is rapidly approaching when this evil mastermind will succeed in developing a doomsday weapon designed to wipe out Israel, the US, or maybe the planet.
In 1950s Hollywood, the solution for audience ennui was simple: High Noon put the noble sheriff, Gary Cooper, in a black hat, and the evil gunslinger in a white one. It offered a veneer of complexity, but in reality the same good guy-bad guy formula played out along familiar lines.
If Washington required a new storyline after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, it did not have to work hard to write one. It was assisted by the rapid changes taking place in the political environment of the Middle East: the so-called Arab Spring. Washington could hardly have overlooked the emotionally satisfying twists and turns presented by the awakening of popular forces against the deadening hand of autocratic regimes, many of them installed decades ago by the West.
The reality, of course, is that the US and its allies are pursuing the same agenda as before the Arab Spring: that is, they are looking to preserve their own geo-political interests. In that regard, they are trying to contain and reverse dangerous manifestations of the awakening, especially in Egypt, the most populous and influential of the Arab states, and in the Gulf, our pipeline to the world’s most abundant oil reserves.
But for Washington, the Arab Spring presented opportunities as well as threats, and these are being keenly exploited.
Both Afghanistan and Iraq followed a model of “intervention” that is now widely discredited and probably no longer viable for a West struggling with economic decline. It is not an easy sell to Western publics that our armies should single-handedly invade, occupy and “fix” Middle Eastern states, especially given how ungrateful the recipients of our largesse have proven to be.
Humanitarian wars might have run into the sand at this point had the Arab Spring not opened up new possibilities for “intervening”.
The Arab awakening created a fresh set of dynamics in the Middle East that countered the dominance of the traditional military and political elites: democratic and Islamist forces were buoyed with new confidence; business elites spied domestic economic opportunities through collaboration with the West; and oppressed ethnic, religious and tribal groups saw a chance to settle old scores.
Not surprisingly, Washington has shown more interest in cultivating the latter two groups than the first.
In Libya, the US and its allies in Nato took off the white hat and handed it to the so-called rebels, comprising mostly tribes out of favour with Gadaffi. The West took a visible role, especially in its bombing sorties, but one that made sure the local actors were presented as in the driving seat. The West was only too happy to appear as if relegated to a minor role: enabling the good guys.
After Libya’s outlaw, Muammar Gadaffi, was beaten to death by the rebels last year, the credits rolled. The movie was over for Western audiences. But for Libyans a new film began, in a language foreign to our ears and with no subtitles. What little information has seeped out since suggests that Libya is now mired in lawlessness, no better than the political waste lands we ourselves created in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of regional militias run the country, extorting, torturing and slaughtering those who oppose them.
Few can doubt that Syria is next on the West’s hit list. And this time, the script-writers in Washington seem to believe that the task of turning a functioning, if highly repressive, state into a basket case can be achieved without the West’s hand being visible at all. This time the white hat has been assigned to our allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who, according to the latest reports, are stoking an incipient civil war not only by arming some among the rebels but also by preparing to pay them salaries too, in petro-dollars.
The importance to Western governments of developing more “complex” narratives about intervention has been driven by the need to weaken domestic opposition to continuing Middle East wars. The impression that these wars are being inspired and directed exclusively from “inside”, even if by a heterogeneous opposition whose composition remains murky to outsiders, adds a degree of extra legitimacy; and additionally, it suggests to Western publics that that the cost in treasure and casualties will not be borne by us.
Whereas there was a wide consensus in favour of attacking Afghanistan, Western opinion split, especially in Europe, over the question of invading Iraq in the same manner. In the post 9/11 world, the villain in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, seemed a more credible threat to Western interests than Saddam Hussein. The critics of Operation Shock and Awe were proven resoundingly right.
The Arab awakenings, however, provided a different storyline for subsequent Western intervention — one that Washington had tried weakly to advance in Iraq too, after Saddam’s WMD could not be located. It was no longer about finding a doomsday person or weapon, but about a civilising mission to bring democracy to oppressed peoples.
In the era before the Arab Spring, this risked looking like just another ploy to promote Western interests. But afterwards, it seemed far more plausible. It mattered little whether the local actors were democratic elements seeking a new kind of politics or feuding ethnic groups seeking control of the old politics for their own, vengeful ends. The goal of the West was to co-opt them, willingly or not, to the new narrative.
This move effectively eroded popular opposition to the next humanitarian war, in Libya, and looks like it is already achieving the same end in Syria.
Certainly, it has fatally undermined effective dissent from the left, which has squabbled and splintered over each of these humanitarian wars. A number of leading leftwing intellectuals lined up behind the project to overthrow Gadaffi, and more of them are already applauding the same fate for Syria’s Bashar Assad. There is now only a rump of critical leftwing opinion steadfast in its opposition to yet another attempt by the West to engineer an Arab state’s implosion.
If this were simply a cowboy movie, none of this would be of more than incidental interest. Gadaffi was, and Assad is, an outlaw. But international politics is far more complex than a Hollywood script, as should be obvious if we paused for a moment to reflect on what kind of sheriffs we have elected and re-elected in the West. George Bush, Tony Blair and Barack Obama probably have more blood on their hands than any Arab autocrat.