Thanks to my distinguished brother-in-law Tobe Berkovitz, Professor of Communications at Boston University for calling to my attention Gerald F. Seib’s interesting, frustrating article in the Wall Street Journal.
Unfortunately, this important piece has a serious flaw, at least in my opinion, it’s premise is just plain wrong.
“It's becoming clear the Arab Spring didn't merely shake up the ossified power structure of the Middle East,” Seib begins. “It launched a total transformation of the region—one that has reduced American influence and ultimately will compel the U.S. to rethink its stake in an area that for half a century was assumed to be central to its global interests.”
Seib is on the money when he says the Middle East region has changed in dramatic and important ways and that American influence there has been sharply reduced, and a re-thinking of America’s stake and policies in that region is both necessary and long overdue.
But dating those catastrophes from the uprisings in Tunisia and Tahrir Square and their sequels from Libya to Bahrain is both historically wrong and politically tainted. The strategic changes in the region, and the diminishment of Washington’s ability to manage them were obvious more than 5 years before that disrespected Tunisian street-peddler set himself on fire, and sparked the 2011 conflagration that consumed most of the Mideast’s ancien regime.
What had already changed the balance of power both within the region, and between the region and the United States, what demonstrated and confirmed both the fragility of many of the region’s dictatorships and the incredible shrinkage of Uncle Sam’s moral and transactional influence, was George W. Bush (and Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld)’s disastrous war in Iraq. And behind these shifts, was a deeply changed world of widely-available, personally portable weapons of selective destruction and easily-accessible media of immediate communication.
The effect of the gratuitous and ineffective American intervention (done in an even more gratuitous and ill-chosen alliance with Iraq’s one-time colonial occupier, the UK) made the US not only a definable and familiar kind of regional villain, but an inept, defeatable one.
Dreaming of a benign regional transformation from cruel dictatorships to benevolent democracies, the US bit off more than it could chew (at least within the budgets of money, manpower, and persistence prescribed for the mission; as if transformations ever came cheap!).
The once-irresistible force of America’s reputation was even more badly damaged than our actual fighting forces, which were damaged more than enough. The ignorance and foreignness of our concepts for the region appalled even those who had once given lip-service or more to them and us. Regional leaders, like our own, were somehow caught by surprise by the effectiveness of irregular forces with their mostly light or “improvised” weapons, and their rapid communications building pop-up tactical collaborations, and virtual strategic alliances.
Neither Vietnam nor the monthly recitation of technical developments in arms and media seem to have been observed.
That’s what is truly important here, and completely overlooked by Seib, is that the same changes manifested by the “Arab Spring” had been building up as obviously as a construction site in a city for decades. Here’s a short list:
(1) a widespread popular desire to oust “ossified,” cruel, corrupt leaders,
(2) the articulation via media both old and new, institutional and personal, of many revolutionary or reforming ideas,
(3) the increasing dominance of absolutist formulae, dismissive of compromise and collaboration with the “impure,” to create a unifying, and stable governing structure
(4) a myriad of short-horizon, but well-armed mini-states or mini-factions, ruling and only to be subdued by force, that feel like feudalism at its worst. These are growing, not just in the Middle East, but all around the world.
And what’s driving those changes, what drove the Arab Spring and doomed our dream-mission in Iraq (and Afghanistan)? Changes both broader, deeper, and more consequential than those above. The List of Changes continues:
(5) Medical advances which translate into more babies, who survive more often and live longer,
(6) We now live in a world whose demographic balance has tipped towards youth.
(7) These younger people are ever better educated.
(8) They conceive higher, more developed personal and political aspirations than did their predecessors.
(9) They are even more likely to be frustrated by poverty and underemployment, which they see as a detailed disgrace and a comparative failure through various media of communication. Among today’s younger generations bitterness abounds; and our list gets even grimmer.
(10) At least as abundant as bitterness are weapons, which themselves have radically changed over the past 10 to 40 years.
(11) Arms are becoming smaller and lighter, and thus more portable and concealable, and increasingly destructive in their impact.
(12) For these smaller but badder weapons, there is a comparable explosion of cynical sellers, as likely to pass death-makers to Goth-costumed high school kids in Colorado as keffiyah-shrouded jihadis in Yemen.
(13) The weapons are not only more numerous, they are cheaper. This is true for brand-name weapons, and for their “improvised” analogs being put together in cellars, garages, and tool sheds.
(14) And, the final blow: the communications revolution, ubiquitous mobile phones, computers and tablets – also getting ever less-expensive, ever more widely distributed – has made it easy to give angry rebels causes that satisfy their sense of self, justify their aggressions and solidify their paramilitary alliances.
All of that pre-dated and helped cause the Arab Spring. All of that pre-dated and doomed Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Re-evaluating what and where our stakes were in the Middle East, re-thinking the aims and values of American foreign policy, probably should have started with the conclusion of the Vietnam War and the launching of the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s. Each of these major events demonstrated changes that had transformed the battlefields and societies of the so-called Third World.
Not only were formerly subject peoples less likely to bend to our will, they were more able to formulate, articulate and organize against us. Whether the issue was as complex as local sovereignty in the face of external domination, or simply the price of essential raw materials, guns and bankers were increasingly free to work for the other side.
The revolution in global communications allowed “enemy” guns and financiers to work more effectively and market their successes more widely.
CNN showed the whole world how richer people lived, what lucky people considered normal, and posed for poorer, less fortunate people, the question, “Why not us?”
Al Jazeera showed the Arabic-speaking world how other people behaved as consumers and citizens, and proposed not just questions, but answers on how to realize the economic and political opportunities in their lives. You can, the channel and other competitors in the region and around the world told their viewers, have what they have, but your way. This is what the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring were after, the opportunity, respect and empowerment they saw being normalized in the US and elsewhere, but adapted to their own cultural and religious values.
American power and influence in the Middle East, and elsewhere through most of the world, have been in decline for decades. This is due, only in part to the increasing self-awareness and ambition of “them,” and the anti-modern, anti-secular, anti-western or just pro-independence polemicists pushing resistance to the US in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Yemen.
Much more, America’s reduction in moral and political force has been caused by what America and Americans have been doing for the past half-century. Where once we were known, and largely admired for Levis, Coca-Colas and social harmony and prosperity, now the world associates America with aggressive war and invasive surveillance, the repeated use of armed force outside our borders, high-tech snooping everywhere, and increasingly sacrificing the interests of the majority of our own citizens to the whims and prerogatives of the hyper-rich.
No one loves a bully; no one loves a snoop; no one loves a greed-head, but to much of a disaffected world, that trinity is as representative of America as red, white and blue. But Seib seems convinced, -- I have no idea why, and he offers no supporting evidence -- that if we double down on the use of force and spying and money, we can bring the brightness back to our tri-color.
“A lot of American influence stemmed from the belief that the U.S. could, and just might, intervene militarily to realign the balance of power in the region,” he says, adding, “After the exhaustion borne of more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the wake of a conscious decision not to intervene to help rebels in Syria's civil war, that idea simply isn't taken as seriously.”
American influence stemmed from the belief the US could succeed with military intervention. It is the failure to succeed in Iraq (or Afghanistan), not just “exhaustion” that has diminished our sway. Does Seib think “a conscious decision” to intervene in Syria will pay off?
Our re-think must be not just about “our foreign policy,” but about the world in which it must operate. Military intervention simply does not work anymore. Local forces do not need to “win,” just to bleed the invaders to a standstill. The realities of today’s weaponry and communications have created a planet of achievable quagmires.
As more people learn to read text, to interpret and create video, to ingest information about the world, and communicate what they think they know, real power is going “soft.” Respect and persuasion yield greater and longer-lasting influence than force and coercion. Insurgents can’t really rule, nations can’t really influence, until they win, not just military superiority, but popular consent.
What does America want, what do we stand for in the Middle East? If it is justice, then the Israeli land theft in Palestine must be halted and reversed. If it’s just stability, then we should say, we believe might makes right.
But as we say it, we should remember, in today’s changed world, almost everyone on earth can listen in.
That’s why the “American value” we should be advancing through our “re-thought” foreign policy should simply be this: seek consent of the governed, and sustain it through rule of law and justice. We should hold our fire, restrain our data-digging, and work towards restoring a real balance of power that entitles all citizens, not just the rich, aggressive and unscrupulous. If we can accomplish that, America will not only regain its stature and influence, but the respect and affection that was ours before military intervention and surveillance penetration replaced blue jeans and soft drinks as our global brand.