Juan Cole

A Brief Middle East History Lesson for Mitt Romney

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Gov. Romney published an op-ed on Monday criticizing President Obama’s Middle East policies. Aside from urging ‘strength,’ however, Romney offers no concrete alternative. And, he completely misunderstands the history of the US role in the region, which causes him to misunderstand its present dilemmas.

Romney says,

“The first step is to understand how we got here. Since World War II, America has been the leader of the Free World. We’re unique in having earned that role not through conquest but through promoting human rights, free markets and the rule of law. We ally ourselves with like-minded countries, expand prosperity through trade and keep the peace by maintaining a military second to none.”

In fact, the United States after World War II was mainly concerned with securing petroleum for its European and Asian allies, and with keeping Communist influence out. These interests caused it to promote dictatorship, not democracy.

1. In 1953, the United States overthrew the elected, parliamentary government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, at the insistence of Big Oil. Iran had nationalized its petroleum, and Mosaddegh had allowed Communists (along with liberals and fundamentalist ayatollahs) into his coalition. The US CIA thus implemented a coup plan originally drawn up by Britain’s MI6 on behalf of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP). The king, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was brought back and installed as a capitalist dictator, his secret police trained by the CIA. Romney doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of understanding Iran’s current resentments toward the US if he doesn’t know we installed a dictator there. Moreover, the US, France and Britain winked at or actively helped Israel get the nuclear bomb, and allowed it to blackmail Middle Eastern rivals with it, inspiring the Islamic Republic of Iran with fear that the US and its ally would try to dominate or overthrow it.

2. The US tried to build up the Wahhabi, fundamentalist king of Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s last absolute monarchs, as the natrual leader of an reinvigorated Islam. Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan were most invested in this promotion of Saudi Arabia as regional leader, in part because they feared that Islam was collapsing and being replaced by a kind of secularism that might lean left and go socialist or Communist. All of the absolute monarchies of the Middle East have been faithful clients of the United States, and no American president has ever brought up democracy or the rule of law with Saudi Arabia or any of the others. In fact, Reagan even pressured the Saudis to donate money to right wing groups and governments in Central America, contributing to death squads and the collapse of the rule of law there. By encouraging governmental and private Saudi efforts to intervene to overthrow Communist Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Reagan administration contributed to the creation of al-Qaeda, the Mojahedin and their successor, the Taliban. Muslim militancy comes in part out of US anti-Communism and use of Islam and preference for private anti-communist militias.

3. In 1967, Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinian territories that had not been awarded to Israel even by the 1947 UN General Assembly partition plan (which itself had little authority since the Security Council never passed it). Under the UN Charter, it is illegal for post-WW II states to simply annex their neighbors’ territory by war. By both the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1949, it is illegal for an Occupying power to alter the lifeways of occupied populations or to transfer their own citizens into occupied territories. Despite occasionally paying lip service to these principles of international law, the United States has de facto backed to the hilt the Israeli Occupation of millions of stateless Palestinians, and the gradual creation of an Apartheid, replete with bantustans, checkpoints, identity passes, denial of basic human rights, and even, in the case of the Gaza Strip, forbidding most exports under a Draconian blockade of the civilian population. This outbreak of settler colonialism in the region is absolutely unacceptable to all 300 million Arabs and a constant source of tension between the Arab world and the US. There is nothing the least bit democratic or redolent of the rule of law about the way the Israelis control the West Bank. At the same time, the Israelis annexed the Golan Heights from Syria, a step the US more or less supports, making for tense relations with Damascus (it is illegal to annex territory from your neighbor).

4. Once the Egyptian miitary dictatorship (which first came to power in 1952) decided under Anwar El Sadat to become a US client state and to make peace with Israel, in 1978-79, the US government backed it to the hilt and made that dictatorship the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid, to the tune of $1.5- 2 billion a year! Despite some gentle chiding from the Bush administration in 2005, the US never put any effective pressure on dictator Hosni Mubarak to democratize. Romney has elsewhere implied that Bush was making progress in this regard and that Obama abandoned the ‘freedom agenda.’ But it was Bush who abandoned that agenda, in 2006, after the Muslim Brotherhood got 88 seats in the parliamentary elections of late 2005– which put a scare into Washington and Tel Aviv. You can’t see US policy in Egypt 1979-2008 as in any way backing ‘democracy.’ After 9/11 the US sent prisoners to Egypt to be tortured. As for the ‘freedom agenda’, its centerpiece for Bush was the invasion and occupation of Iraq, for which the Arab people have never forgiven the US.

Because of the close entanglement of the US with Mubarak and because of the brutal occupation of Iraq, the main task of Washington in Egypt is not to be forceful or any of Romney’s other platitudes, it is to convince the young people who overthrew their corrupt tyrant to forgive the US and to let bygones be bygones. How would Romney reach out to the crucial new generation in the Arab world?

5. Once the crazed dictator of Libya, Muammar Qaddafi, agreed to turn over some rotting nuclear blueprints and some chemical weapons, in 2004, the Bush administration was perfectly willing to do business with him and rehabilitate him. It even sent political prisoners to him to have them tortured. As recently as last week, Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert complained bitterly that Obama had allowed our good friend Qaddafi to be overthrown. Backing Qaddafi is hardly democratic or a promotion of the rule of law.

So, Mr. Romney does not understand ‘how we got here.’ By supporting oil despots to the hilt, backing corrupt and/or mercurial military dictators, waging a war of aggression on and occupying Iraq, and de facto supporting Israeli coloniization of Palestinian territory, the US made itself a monster from the point of view of ordinary Arabs and Iranians.

Romney is not better when he addresses the current situation:

“In Syria, tens of thousands of innocent people have been slaughtered. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has come to power, and the country’s peace treaty with Israel hangs in the balance. In Libya, our ambassador was murdered in a terrorist attack. U.S. embassies throughout the region have been stormed in violent protests. And in Iran, the ayatollahs continue to move full tilt toward nuclear-weapons capability, all the while promising to annihilate Israel.”

Romney is not actually doing an analysis of the situation in the Middle East. He is just trying to draw up a laundry list of things he thinks are going wrong, without regard to their causes or whether the US could actually do anything about them.

6. Romney himself called for Hosni Mubarak to step down, on Feb. 1, 2011, and he just said that the US should promote democracy in the Middle East. So why is he belly-aching about the Muslim Brotherhood winning a democratic election in Egypt? Does he want military dictatorship back? (Wouldn’t that contradict his assertion that the US stands for democracy?) How would he have stopped the Muslim Brotherhood from winning June’s presidential election? How would he deal with President Muhammad Morsi if he were elected president? Boycott him? Why? Because the Religious Right has no business in politics? Shouldn’t that apply to the Republican Party, too, then? As for Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, Morsi has reaffirmed it. Is Romney calling him a liar?

7. The US intelligence establishment said in National Intelligence Estimates in 2007 and 2010 that Iran has no military weapons program, and there is no evidence for weaponization of its nuclear enrichment. Our Pentagon officers have repeatedly said that even if Iran did have weapons ambitions, the only practical way to stop them would be to invade and occupy the country (which they advise against). Since Romney keeps saying he’d forward military policy to his generals, wouldn’t his hands be tied on Iran just as much as Obama’s are? Romney advocates deeper sanctions against Iran, but Obama’s sanctions are now so severe as to constitute a sort of intangible blockade (via banks, trade pressures) and already risk pulling the US willy nilly into a war. How in the world could Romney do more short of going to war? And if he does intend to go to war with Iran, a country 3 times as populous and much bigger than Iraq, he should tell us now.

8. US embassies in the Middle East were mostly not ‘stormed,’ but demonstrations were held outside them and a few were attacked. The Salafi hard liners responsible for these actions are a small group. What would Romney do about random Salafis in Tunisian villages? Drone them to death? Embassy security is *very* good at most embassies, and short of making them useless as embassies by fortifying them further, it is hard to see what Romney would do differently. Moreover, the trouble was caused in part by American Muslim-hatred and concerted attacks on Islam by a faction in the Republican Party. How eould Romney make his evangelicals happy while repairing relations with Muslims. Or does he intend just to invade and occupy the Muslims the way Bush did?

9. While it is true that a small terrorist cell attacked the US consulate in Benghazi and set a fire that killed the US ambassador to Libya, it is also true that tens of thousands of Libyans demonstrated in favor of America and the ambassador, and that the elected president of the Libyan parliament just called for a secular, democratic state in that country. None of the good news, about the progress of democracy or general pro-American sentiment, would have been possible had the Republican Party had its way and prevented the US from supporting the UN Security Council resolution calling for all necessary measures to be taken to protect the Libyan people from their murderous government. As for the terrorist cell, some of its members were likely encouraged by the US to have fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, where they became radicalized — a karma Romney doesn’t want to face. Others probably fought the US occupation of Iraq, a war Romney has been on both sides of. Others were upset at the US for backing Qaddafi under Bush. The militants didn’t arise in a vacuum, and the Republicans now saying the US should have been more watchful about Libyan Muslim militants would be better off apologizing for having helped create them in the first place.

10. Romney is not allowed to bring up the civil war/ revolution in Syria unless he is willing to say what he’d do different about it. He doesn’t say so in this op-ed. He has talked about invading if Syria uses chemical weapons, but are there any other red lines? Just complaining is not policy-making, Mr. Romney. What would you *do* about Syria?

Romney’s understanding of the challenges for the US in the Middle East is backwards, and so are his vague prescriptions. Military might, which you trumpet as the solution, is useless in the face of popular movements, Mr. Romney, and the US army could have done nothing to keep Mubarak in power or to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from winning elections. An even more fawning policy toward the Israeli Right Wing is not going to solve any of our problems in the Middle East, but rather will exacerbate them as Apartheid becomes more severe. And we’re already on a war footing with Iran, and any increase in tensions is very dangerous unless it has a clear and achievable policy objective (dissuading Iran from nuclear enrichment is not achievable).

As a new generation democratizes and public opinion becomes important, US public diplomacy and reaching out to young people becomes crucial. Seeking a modus vivendi with ascendant political Islam is now pivotal, because the US has fewer and fewer puppets under its thumb. Are you good at public diplomacy toward the Muslim world, Mr. Romney?

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