U.S. Mideast policy in a single phrase

While publicly praising the Arab Spring, the U.S. and Israel mourn the loss of "dependably loyal" despots

Topics: Egyptian Protests,

U.S. Mideast policy in a single phraseEgyptians chant anti-Israeli slogans as they hold Egyptian and Palestinian flags to protest the death of Egyptian security forces killed in a shootout between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants on Thursday in the Sinai, in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011. Egypt said Saturday it would recall its ambassador from Israel to protest the deaths, sharply escalating tensions between the neighboring countries, whose 1979 peace treaty is being tested by the fall of Egypt's longtime autocratic leader, Hosni Mubarak. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra) (Credit: AP)

The CIA’s spokesman at The Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius, recently announced that the glorifying term “Arab Spring” is no longer being used by senior intelligence officials to describe democratic revolutions in the Middle East.  It has been replaced by the more “neutral” term “Arab transition,” which, as Ignatius put it, “conveys the essential truth that nobody can predict just where this upheaval is heading.”  Note that what was until very recently celebrated in American media circles as a joyous, inspirational awakening of ”democratic birth and freedom” has now been downgraded to an “upheaval” whose outcome may be odious and threatening.

That’s not surprising.  As I’ve written about several times, public opinion in those nations is so strongly opposed to the policies the U.S. has long demanded — and is quite hostile (more so than ever) to the U.S. itself and especially Israel — that allowing any form of democracy would necessarily be adverse to American and Israeli interests in that region (at least as those two nations have long perceived of their “interests”).  That’s precisely why the U.S. worked so hard and expended so many resources for decades to ensure that brutal dictators ruled those nations and suppressed public opinion to the point of complete irrelevance (behavior which, predictably and understandably, exacerbated anti-American sentiments among the populace).



An illustrative example of this process has emerged this week in Egypt, where authorities have bitterly denounced Israel for killing three of its police officers in a cross-border air attack on suspected Gaza-based militants, and to make matters worse, thereafter blaming Egypt for failing to control “terrorists” in the area.  Massive, angry protests outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo led to Egypt’s recalling of its Ambassador to Israel and the Israeli Ambassador’s being forced to flee Cairo.  That, in turn, led to what The New York Times called a “rare statement of regret” from Israel in order to placate growing Egyptian anger: ”rare” because, under the U.S.-backed Mubarak, Egyptian public opinion was rendered inconsequential and the Egyptian regime’s allegiance was to Israel, meaning Israel never had to account for such acts, let alone apologize for them.  In that regard, consider this superbly (if unintentionally) revealing phrase from the NYT about this incident:

By removing Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian but dependably loyal government, the revolution has stripped away a bulwark of Israel’s position in the region, unleashing the Egyptian public’s pent-up anger at Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians at a time when a transitional government is scrambling to maintain its own legitimacy in the streets.  

That word “loyal” makes the phrase remarkable: to whom was Mubarak ”loyal”?  Not to the Egyptian people whom he was governing or even to Egypt itself, but rather to Israel and the United States.  Thus, in the past, Egypt’s own government would have sided with a foreign nation to which it was “loyal” even when that foreign nation killed its own citizens and refused to apologize (exactly as the U.S. did when Israel killed one of its own citizens on the Mavi Marmara and then again over the prospect that Israel would do the same with the new flotilla: in contrast to Turkey which, acting like a normal government, was bitterly furious with Israel — and still is — over the wanton killing of its citizens; in that sense, the U.S. is just as “dependably loyal” as the Mubarak regime was). 

But as remarkable as it is, that phrase — “authoritarian but dependably loyal” — captures the essence of (ongoing) American behavior in that region for decades: propping up the most heinous, tyrannical rulers who disregard and crush the views of their own people while remaining supremely “loyal” to foreign powers: the U.S. and Israel.  Consider this equally revealing passage from The Guardian:

Israel fears that the post-Mubarak regime will be more sympathetic to Hamas and could even revoke the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. “They feel the need to respond to the [Arab] street,” said an Israeli government official. “Instead of calming things down, they are being dragged.” The Egyptian statement was “a very dismal development”, he said.

“Arab street”: the derogatory term long used to degrade public opinion in those nations as some wild animal that needs to be suppressed and silenced rather than heeded.  That’s why this Israeli official talks about “the need to respond” to Egyptian public opinion — also known as “democracy” — as though it’s some sort of bizarre, dangerous state of affairs: because nothing has been as important to the U.S. and Israel than ensuring the suppression of democracy in that region, ensuring that millions upon millions of people are consigned to brutal tyranny so that their interests are trampled upon in favor of “loyalty” to the interests of those two foreign nations. 

This is why American media coverage of the Arab Spring produced one of the most severe cases of cognitive dissonance one can recall.  The packaged morality narrative was that despots like Mubarak — and those in Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere — are unambiguous, cruel villains whom we’re all supposed to hate, while the democracy protesters are noble and to be cheered.  But whitewashed from that storyline was that it was the Freedom-loving United States that played such a vital role in empowering those despots and crushing the very democracy we are now supposed to cheer.  Throughout all the media hate sessions spewed toward the former Egyptian dictator — including as he’s tried for crimes against his own people –  how often was it mentioned that Hillary Clinton, as recently as two years ago, was saying things such as: ”I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family” (or that John McCain, around the same time, was tweeting: “Late evening with Col. Qadhafi at his ‘ranch’ in Libya – interesting meeting with an interesting man.”)?  Almost never: because the central U.S. role played in that mass oppression was simply ignored once the oppression could no longer be sustained.

And, of course, it wasn’t the case that the U.S. Government decided to cease its democracy-crushing, or that the American media one day decided to denounce the U.S.-backed Arab tyrants and celebrate democracy.  They had no choice.  These events happened against the will of the U.S., and only once their inevitability became clear did the American government and media pretend to suddenly side with “democracy and freedom.”  Even as they indulge that pretense, they continued — and continue — to try to render the ”democratic revolutions” illusory and to prop up the tyrannies that are still salvageable.  In sum, American discourse was forced by events to denounce the very despots the U.S. Government protected and to praise the very democratic values the U.S. long destroyed.

This is what Ignatius means when he decrees that the U.S. should not try to be on “the right side of history” but rather, “what should guide U.S. policy in this time of transition is to be on the right side of America’s own interests and values” and, most critically, that “sometimes those two will conflict.”  The U.S. has always subordinated its ostensible “values” (democracy, freedom) to its own “interests” in that region, which is why it has crushed the former in order to promote the latter.  As we prepare to celebrate the reportedly imminent fall of Gadaffi just as we once celebrated the fall of Saddam — Juan Cole is already declaring large parts of Libya ”liberated” — that behavior should be kept firmly in mind; whether a country is truly “liberated” by the removal of a despot depends on who replaces it and what their “loyalties” are: to foreign powers or to the democratic will of that nation’s citizens.

For Americans in such consensus to celebrate the fall of evil Arab tyrants without accounting for the role the U.S. played in their decades-long rule was bizarre (though typical) indeed.  That “senior intelligence officials” are regarding these fledgling, potential democracies with such suspicion and longing for the days of the ”dependably loyal” dictatorial regimes tells one all there is to know about what we have actually been doing in that part of the world, and have been doing for as long as that part of the world was a concern to American officials.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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