Mubarak and Decaf Coffee
Until now Western foreign policy in the Middle East has gotten the substance without the true cost.
The renegade philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek once noted the absurdity of certain items in our modern consumer culture: The chocolate laxative, non-alcoholic beer and decaf coffee. What these products have in common is that each one offers you a much desired substance without its negative side effects. It is a way of enjoying, consuming something but avoiding the potential harm it might cause. The same tendency, according to Zizek, can be found in our politics.
What does this have to do with cascading revolts across the Middle East? Well, Western foreign policy in the region is pretty much like decaf coffee – until now we have gotten the substance without the true cost.
In the era of colonialism we wanted access to the trade routes and natural resources of the Middle East but did not want to have to deal with those nasty Ottomans, so we sent Lawrence of Arabia. Later we wanted oil, but not the Bedouins atop it, so we literally created an elite class of capitalist buddies to have lunch with. During the Cold War we wanted strategic allies in the Middle East, but preferred the Shah and Hosni Mubarak to the likes of Mohammed Mossadeq and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
And just last year, as human rights organisations were condemning Bahraini state (read Sunni) persecution of opposition political figures (read Shia), the US announced a $580mn expansion of its naval base there. After some bullets and a cancelled Formula One season opener, the world has learned a little more about Bahrain’s overwhelming majority Shia population ruled by a Sunni minority, policed by Sunni expats from Pakistan and bankrolled by Western patronage.
And Libya, that not-long-ago pariah oil exporter? Well what we did to land a lucrative BP oil deal and grease some extra arms sales is particularly nauseating now as Muammar Gaddafi declares war on his own citizens using the weapons we sold him.
Countless missed opportunities to learn from our mistakes may be leading to a final and lasting lesson – a Middle East without the US, the UK or Europe.
What the revolts tell us is not simply that Arabs, like other humans, demand accountability and transparency in their governing institutions, but that they refuse to remain humiliated; that they demand true independence, an independence where national aspiration aligns with government action and not Western political prerogatives. This change comes to the Arab world whose neighbours have already learned how to operate outside of the US’ sphere of influence.
For example, in addition to Turkey emerging as the unlikely power broker in the region, it has increased its strategic ties with Iran in spite of Western efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic. Earlier this month it was announced that it would aim to triple bilateral trade with Iran to $30bn in the next five years. Now Egyptians of all stripes are looking to the Turkish model for inspiration.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah has managed to gain full control of the fragile political system and thereby directly benefit from the hundreds of millions in US military aid to the country since 2006. (FYI: Hezbollah’s strategic use of democratic procedure is likely to be the model for the Muslim Brotherhood, not the quietism of Ankara’s Islamists.) Of course, the fiasco in Iraq where Tehran plays the sole kingmaker hardly needs to be mentioned.
Crumbling pillars of dominance
As Daniel Korski and Ben Judah have rightly pointed out, the West’s three pillars of dominance in the Middle East – military presence, commercial ties and client states – are crumbling in the sand.
This does not mean, however, the absolute end of American and European influence in the region. The US’ economy remains three times the size of China’s, so the feared “look East” policy of the Arab Gulf monarchies is likely an exaggerated concern.
Likewise, although many on the “Arab street” have long admired Tehran’s defiance, it is unlikely that centuries of mutual antagonism and three decades of outright hostility will be undone by a non-ideological shuffling of a few Arab governments.
To be sure, whoever emerges as victors in Tunisia, Egypt or elsewhere, whether of nationalist or Islamist stripe, the last things they will give up are the many perks of engagement with the West.
On its end the West, the US in particular, will need to learn to engage with all groups, not just those it can bribe or coax. A few names will likely need to be erased from the terrorist roll and the reliability of the oldest friends of the West will need to be soberly reassessed.
The changes taking place simply signal that Europe and the US will need to learn to adapt to an increasingly complex and multidimensional political field.
That said, while it has become a cliché to talk about the ways in which the Middle East will never be the same, it should also be clear that the days of American and European decaf coffee foreign policy are over.
Abbas Barzegar is a professor of Islam at Georgia State University and a fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was published by Al Jazeera on February 26, 2011: