The Real Enemy In The Middle East

U.S. media and intellectual discussions of the Arab world often express bewilderment at Arabs’ anger toward the West. Many commentators characterize that anger as an irrational, indiscriminate hostility to “Western civilization” dating back centuries and continually re-inflamed by Islamist agitators. Similar characterizations have long served to help justify Western powers’ conquest and exploitation of the world’s darker peoples, as Edward Said demonstrated in his classic book Orientalism. But an array of recent opinion polls suggests that Arab anger is much more rational, selective, and subject to change than often contended. Most Arabs’ anger is directed at specific actions of Western governments and corporations, rather than “the West” in general, and fluctuates in response to real world developments. The fundamental conflict between Arabs and the West—keenly perceived by Arabs themselves and highlighted by the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa—is between people seeking greater democracy, sovereignty, and economic justice, and outside powers determined to prevent those prospects.


Iraq’s recent history offers striking illustrations of this conflict. In late 2011, the United States withdrew most of its military personnel from Iraq. Although President Obama publicly claimed credit for the withdrawal, his negotiating team had “labored all year to avoid that outcome,” noted the New York Times on October 22. His negotiators had pressured the Iraqi government to accept “a ‘residual’ force of as many as tens of thousands of soldiers to remain past 2011.” The Obama administration’s logic coincided with that of Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Max Boot, who argued in the Wall Street Journal in April 2011 that “[h]aving active bases in Iraq would allow us to project power and influence in the region” and perhaps “nudge the entire Middle East in a more pro-Western direction.”


The U.S. position was highly unpopular among the Iraqi public. Opinion polls leave no doubt about Iraqis’ longstanding opposition to the occupation. At least two-thirds have consistently said that the occupation forces make security worse. This opinion did not change following the 2007 U.S. “surge,” which Iraqis overwhelmingly condemned. The Western media narrative that the surge was responsible for improvements in security has little basis in reality. Six months after the surge began, around 70 percent of Iraqis in an ABC/BBC/NHK poll said that “security has deteriorated” in areas of U.S. troop escalation and that “the surge has hampered conditions for political dialogue, reconstruction and economic development.” A follow-up poll in 2009 found that 81 percent still wanted all U.S. forces gone by the end of 2011 and 46 percent said the withdrawal timetable “should be speeded up.” The idea of granting U.S. personnel immunity from criminal prosecution—a key point of conflict in the 2011 negotiations—is also deeply unpopular. The prevalence of these views and the persistence of Iraqi resistance, both non-violent and violent, is what forced the normally-subservient Maliki regime to stand up to Washington in 2008 with the Status of Forces Agreement and again in late 2011.


Characterizations of the withdrawal agreement by government officials and prominent intellectuals were interesting in their own right. Paraphrasing senior U.S. officials, the New York Times reported that the outcome represented “a breakdown in tortured negotiations with the Iraqis” and a “triumph of politics” over “reality.” An unnamed senior military official said that the demand for withdrawal signified “a failure of the Iraqi government.” This failure was widely attributed to Iraqi “politics”: as a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq told the Times, “Iraq is a highly nationalistic country, and we were not able to dislodge the view that they should not have foreign troops on their soil.” In a separate commentary, Brookings Institution analyst Kenneth Pollack regretted that Iraqis had “misunderstood” the noble U.S. effort to help them.


The Obama administration’s desperate efforts to extend the occupation beyond the original December 2011 deadline are one indication of the U.S. contempt for democracy in the Middle East. The accompanying commentary, meanwhile, reflects the imperial mindset that is deeply entrenched within U.S. government, intellectual, and media circles.


Iraqis Nationalistic Tantrum: Some Possible Explanations


Was Iraqi opposition to the U.S. occupation just the reflection of a rash and visceral hatred of Westerners, or was there something more to it? Deep within one of the New York Times reports on the withdrawal agreement was a clue: “The United States here was just like Saddam Hussein,” said a 42-year-old Iraqi man. In fact, the man was being generous. Since 2003, many Iraqis have said that the situation is significantly worse than under Saddam, citing the far higher levels of torture, kidnapping, and extrajudicial executions.


There is much evidence to support such opinions. The war—and 12 years of sanctions that preceded it—has killed far more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein ever did, no small accomplishment given Hussein’s brutality. The number of Iraqi deaths caused by the occupation is unclear, but certainly ranges in the hundreds of thousands and may be well over one million. By March 2007, just four years after the invasion, over half of Iraqis reported that at least one of their close friends or relatives had been killed or injured. Today there are still over four million refugees and the society remains deeply split along sectarian lines. The United States has not been directly responsible for all this death and suffering, but its role as aggressor ultimately implicates it in all of the violence that has followed the invasion. As the Nuremberg Military Tribunal declared after World War II, initiating a war of aggression “is the supreme international crime” since “it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”


Nor are Iraqis unaware of the many other ways the U.S. government has sought to prevent democracy in their country. The U.S.-led occupation privatized large portions of the economy against popular wishes, sought to impose extremely unpopular oil legislation that would favor foreign oil corporations, maintained the Saddam-era law prohibiting unionization among most of the workforce, initially tried to prevent elections in the country, often favored misogynistic and theocratic leaders friendly to U.S. interests, and encouraged sectarian divisions. When massive peaceful protests erupted across the country in spring 2011, the protesters were met with violent repression that killed dozens and elicited only the mildest of criticisms from the Obama administration. All these facts undermine the interpretation widespread within the U.S. media and intellectual establishment, which asserts that the United States sincerely “aimed to create a democratic state” in Iraq, but made “a series of debilitating blunders” along the way (Ned Parker of the Council on Foreign Relations, in Foreign Affairs this past spring), and was lamentably “misunderstood” by Iraqis.


But the U.S. government’s anti-democratic behavior makes perfect sense given its objectives in Iraq: increased control over the country’s oil reserves, the privatization of the economy in the interest of Western corporations, and the consolidation of a client state that allows the U.S. government to “project power and influence” in the region (Max Boot). Largely as a result of these priorities, the Iraqi economy and infrastructure were devastated and remain in dire condition. Millions of Iraqis have inadequate access to electricity, clean water, and sanitation services, and poverty and unemployment engulf huge sectors of the population: the UN Development Program estimates that 23 percent live in poverty, while the official unemployment rate is still 16 percent (the actual rate is much higher). In a telling measure of Iraqi satisfaction with the state of their new “democracy,” a 2011 poll by the Arab Centre for Research & Policy Studies found that 79 percent distrusted their government somewhat or had “no trust at all” in it, while Iraqis gave an average score of 3.3 on a 10-point scale when asked to quantify the level of democracy in their country (ranking 10th of 12 countries sampled).


In light of the historical record, Iraqis’ tantrum of “highly nationalistic” outrage against the occupation seems anything but irrational.


Washington’s Response to the Arab Spring


Recent U.S. dealings with Iraq are indicative of a more general approach to the Arab world: support autocratic but U.S.-friendly regimes that keep a lid on popular protest; when democratic reforms become unavoidable, make sure they stay within acceptable limits. This pattern holds true for the Obama administration’s reactions to the protests for democracy and economic justice that spread across the Middle East and North Africa starting in late 2010 and early 2011, known collectively as the Arab Spring. Contrary to the claim that the administration supported the democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, in reality it supported the existing regimes until it became politically impossible to do so. After the Egyptian uprising started, the State Department spokesperson proclaimed that Hosni Mubarak was still “an ally and friend of the United States, an anchor of stability in the Middle East.” Only when the tide had turned against Mubarak did the Administration support his ouster. It has since sought to preserve a sort of “Mubarak-ism without Mubarak,” as past administrations have done when faced with successful popular rebellions against U.S.-backed dictators in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Haiti, and elsewhere.


Since the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, Washington has also been working hard to suppress, or at least contain, democratic change in nearby states. Its primary regional partner has been Saudi Arabia, which British analyst John Bradley calls the region’s “most antidemocratic, repressive regime.” When the Saudi government sent its tanks into Bahrain to help repress protests in February 2011, the Obama administration responded by reconfirming the $60 billion U.S.-Saudi military aid deal it had signed in late 2010. It has since announced the resumption of arms sales to the Bahraini regime while issuing a few statements about the need for minor reforms. The dictators of the Gulf Cooperation Council have lauded the U.S. approach to Bahrain as a “model” for U.S. policy toward nearby dictatorships. This model—which is an old one—has been steadfastly applied in Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, and other U.S.-allied autocracies throughout the broader region.


The Obama administration has also stuck to the old model for the Palestinian Territories, maintaining U.S. support for Israeli expansionism and opposition to the international consensus on Palestinian statehood within the pre-June 1967 borders. Obama occasionally makes some mild criticisms of Israeli policy, but with the familiar wink-and-nod; there has never been the slightest doubt that $3 billion in annual military aid and diplomatic support for Israeli policies at the UN will continue. Neither government has any intention of permitting a “Palestinian Spring.”


In Libya and Syria the U.S. government has played a different role, but its actions reflect essentially the same goals. Both cases have involved armed revolts against repressive dictatorships, with various outside powers seeking to manipulate the situation for their own ends. Both regimes had been quiet U.S. allies in the recent past, but had proven unreliable, prompting Washington to turn against them when the rebels began to gain steam. The payoffs of the March 2011 NATO invasion of Libya were quickly apparent. Last October the chief executive of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce told the New York Times that there was “a gold rush of sorts taking place right now” in Libya.


The Syrian situation is unique in some regards, but the U.S. response has been similar. Like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (and Ahmadinejad in Iran, and Saddam Hussein before that), Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has lost U.S. support not for his vicious violence against his people but for his partial disobedience of U.S. dictates, including his support for Iran. The desired end is the same as in Libya—the ouster of the regime and the rise of a new one that fully supports the U.S. regional agenda and adheres to neoliberal economic doctrine, however repressive it may be.


The fact that a relatively liberal Democratic administration is so opposed to democracy suggests that there is a bipartisan consensus regarding the objectives of Middle East policy. Establishment discussion of Obama’s foreign policy has often noted this consensus and praised it. A recent Foreign Affairs survey of 43 Republican and Democratic foreign policy officials from the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations found strong agreement on many major questions of foreign policy, prompting the investigators to declare optimistically that “American foreign policy is already post-partisan.” Ideological conflicts, they argued, “stop at the water’s edge,” and “need not result in acrimony and policy paralysis.” Though tactics and rhetoric vary, both parties are committed to maintaining U.S. “sovereignty,” understood in its technical sense as the right of U.S. elites to control other peoples and their resources. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made a similar observation last October when he wrote approvingly that “Obama has turned out to be so much more adept at implementing George W. Bush’s foreign policy than Bush was.”


Sources of Arab Anger: What the Polls Say


These developments have not gone unnoticed among Arabs. Recent polls and surveys suggest that U.S. government policies are responsible for most of the Arab anger toward the United States. These studies offer valuable insights into the Middle East and help explain why the U.S. government is so opposed to democracy in the region.


Arab respondents view the U.S. and Israeli governments as the greatest threats to regional security. The U.S. military presence in the region, the violent Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and U.S.-Israeli rejection of the international consensus for Middle East peace and Palestinian statehood continue to be particular sources of anger. In contrast, only tiny minorities view Iran’s government as a serious threat to the region. In polling from early 2011 by the Arab Centre for Research & Policy Studies (ACRPS), 73 percent cited Israel or the United States as “the biggest threat to the security of the Arab world,” versus only 5 percent who said Iran; 36 percent said Israel or the United States posed the gravest threat to their own “personal security,” versus just 3 percent for Iran. Although Arabs may not love Iran’s government, they do not view it as a major threat to regional security. Here they seem to agree with the repeated conclusions of the U.S. military and intelligence community, including the Pentagon’s 2012 Annual Report on Military Power of Iran, which stated that Iran’s military strategy is designed to deter invasion and “to force a diplomatic solution to hostilities,” not to provoke international violence.


On the question of Iran’s nuclear program, an October 2011 Brookings/Zogby poll found that 64 percent “feel that Iran has the right to its nuclear program” (the inherent safety risks of nuclear energy are a separate issue, not addressed in the polls). Most Arabs worry about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but feel that U.S.-Israeli threats justify it. In the ACRPS poll, 55 percent supported and only 29 percent opposed the notion of a nuclear weapons-free Middle East, but most believed that “Israeli possession of nuclear weapons justifies nuclear proliferation” by its neighbors.


Arabs and Muslims are highly critical of Washington’s response to the Arab Spring, viewing it as a continuation of the longstanding U.S. opposition to democratic change in the region. Pollster and psychologist Steven Kull notes that, “Muslims perceive that the United States only joined the parade [in Tunisia and Egypt] when the outcome was irreversible” and strongly criticize continued U.S. support for repressive regimes. Kull reviews Muslim opinion over the previous decade in his 2011 book Feeling Betrayed: The Roots of Muslim Anger at America, based on focus-group research and polling data from 11 countries. Most Muslims have long felt “that the United States actively undermines democracy in the Muslim world” by “propping up secular autocrats ready to accommodate the West.” This policy is viewed as “driven by specific desires to control access to oil in the Middle East as well as a broader aspiration to achieve regional hegemony.” U.S. military forces are considered “a threatening presence designed to keep the region the way America wants it to be.” Support for Israeli belligerence “is seen as integral to U.S. plans for domination.” (“Arabs” and “Muslims” are, of course, not synonymous, but similar attitudes are widespread among both groups in the Middle East.)


Popular anger is not static, but continually renewed by Arabs’ evaluations of U.S. policy—meaning that positive changes in policy could reduce that anger. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute observes that after Obama’s famous 2009 speech in Cairo, “the favorable ratings of the U.S. were at their highest ever,” because Obama “sent a number of signals early on that U.S. policy would change.” But when policy remained the same, Arab approval plummeted again, with fewer than 10 percent of respondents approving of Obama in a Zogby poll released in July 2011—even worse than Bush’s approval rating in 2008.


Kull’s book Feeling Betrayed corroborates this pattern and refutes a number of other common stereotypes about Muslim opinion. Most Muslims are not completely “anti- Western.” They base their negative assessments of the United States on U.S. policy, not its “values,” and tend “to differentiate between their dislike of the American government and their liking of the American people.” As Kull comments elsewhere, “Al Qaeda’s model of rejecting all Western influences in favor of purely traditional society garners little support.” And contrary to orientalist depictions, most Muslims do not prefer autocracy to democracy. Like the U.S. public, Muslims in the Middle East strongly believe “that the will of the people should be the basis of governance,” that “government leaders should be chosen through free elections and that there should be full freedom of religion.” Most Muslims, like most non-Muslims, want to live in societies where they have meaningful input over the decisions that affect their lives and where the resources of their countries are used to bring development and justice for the population rather than the enrichment of the few.


Genuine democracy would thus be profoundly dangerous to U.S. political and economic leaders, since it would be a challenge to Western corporations’ control over energy resources, to the U.S. military presence in the region, and to Middle East elites who collaborate with the United States and Israel. Policymakers sometimes acknowledge this conflict. In 1958, President Eisenhower told the National Security Council that, “[t]he trouble is that we have a campaign of hatred against us [in the Middle East], not by the governments but by the people.” Around the same time, the NSC noted that “our economic and cultural interests in the area have led not unnaturally to close U.S. relations with elements in the Arab world whose primary interest lies in the maintenance of relations with the West and the status quo in their countries.” As a result, “the majority of Arabs” correctly “believe that the United States is seeking to protect its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress.” Similar suspicions of U.S. motives have been widespread throughout much of the Third World over the past century, particularly in Latin America.


Recently, policy scholar Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington told the National Journal that Arab displeasure with U.S. policies was “a very old story” which polling from 2011 had “simply brought up to date.” There is a longstanding “clash of interests” between U.S. policymakers and Arab peoples, Miller explained: “The fact is that there is a huge disconnect between what we [that is, U.S. leaders] believe is the right approach in the region and what many of the people who live there believe is the right approach…. The bottom line is that Arabs expect a fundamental change in policy, but that change will not be forthcoming. And therefore the story of the United States in this region is going to continue to be difficult, to say the least.”


The primary root of Arab anger toward the West is not a “clash of civilizations” as Western propagandists often claim, but, as Miller suggests, the fundamental “clash of interests” between the objectives of Western powers and the democratic aspirations of Arab peoples.


Democracy and the National Interest


U.S. commentators continue to ponder how their government can “get it right” in the Middle East. Writing for the journal Foreign Policy, Kenneth Pollack wondered recently how the United States might protect its “vital national interest” while responding to popular unrest in the region. An easy starting point would be to listen to the people there. In a May 2012 poll by Pollack’s own institution, Brookings, Egyptians offered three main recommendations to U.S. policymakers: support the international consensus for Middle East peace and a Palestinian state, stop military aid to Israel, and withdraw U.S. military forces from the Arabian Peninsula. In other words, just stop doing harm. Yet these simple ideas somehow escaped Pollack’s imagination, presumably because obeying the popular will on these issues would undermine the “vital national interest,” defined by people like him to mean Western elites’ control over Middle East energy resources.


The broader U.S. public does not share this narrow and imperialistic conception of the national interest. An April 2011 survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found overwhelming support for the Arab uprisings, with 57 percent of the U.S. public saying they would support the Arab Spring “even if this resulted in the countr[ies] being more likely to oppose U.S. policies.” The vast majority of the public thinks their government should either support the protesters or remain neutral—that is, not resist demands for democracy and not supply the regimes with military aid. Less than 10 percent said that the U.S. government should support the current regimes. Here the U.S. public is on the same page as the Arab public, who voice strong support for protesters in neighboring countries (while resolutely opposing any foreign military intervention under the pretense of “liberating” countries like Syria).

Yet like the Arab public, the U.S. public is faced with a ruling class firmly opposed to meaningful democratic participation and social justice. As recent events and opinion polls make clear, Arab desires for democracy pose the most serious threat to the agenda of Western elites and their allies in the Middle East. And the threat in the Middle East is very similar to the threat at home.  


Kevin Young is a political organizer and PhD candidate in history at Stony Brook University.