Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Arab Spring," Insulting Muhammad, and American Impotence

I'm supposed to be working on final revisions of my book ("A Short History of Iraq" - not the title I want, but my publisher seems locked in), but some recent developments and comments both interest and irk me.

Pundits galore have weighed in on Muslim responses worldwide to the ridiculous, insulting video trailer of a (reportedly) full-length movie diatribe on the prophet Muhammad.  US embassies across the Middle East have come under attack, with especially horrific consequences at the US consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the killing of four Americans, among them, Chris Stephens, the US ambassador to Libya and a man truly dedicated to the advancement of democracy and human rights there.  Today, at an already hyper-sensitive moment geopolitically, comes news of a French magazine's release of cartoons lampooning Muhammad.  Accompanying that were comments from one source to the effect that the French people were not about to be "bullied" by angry Muslims.

Please . . . as if this is some huge, deadly game of "chicken" - or, who's gonna blink first? Or as if publishing these cartoons is some major triumph for "free speech"?  Merde. It's a ploy to make money, masquerading as journalistic bravery and integrity.  And the "movie" accomplished nothing more than incitement, as well as provide cover for one of Libya's more violent militias to launch an attack on the US consulate.

Nonetheless, it provided a launching pad for a new riff from America's "premier" foreign-relations pundit, the ever-pungent (and sometimes putrid) Thomas Friedman. (And yes, the "premier" is meant to be sarcastic.  See my review of Belen Fernandez's now justly celebrated book taking down Friedman's long and tortured history of bad calls and awful judgments.  The man deserves high marks for turning a phrase; but for overall intellectual acuity and geopolitical sagacity - not so much.)  

In today's NYT, TF has penned an essay ("Look in Your Mirror") in which he takes on an Egyptian demonstrator in Cairo who demands an Obama apology for the blasphemous Muhammad video by throwing back at him a hodge-podge of reports (all culled from those wonderful hasbara and Muslims-are-nuts purveyors at MEMRI), most of which have nothing to do with Egypt.  But it's one TF comment in particular that really gets me:

That is not how a proper self-governing people behave.

Words fail me.

Fortunately, they haven't failed Rami Khouri, whose essay in The Daily Star appeared even before Friedman's.  I paste quote:

One gets the impression over and over in the United States that Arabs and Muslims often are perceived as something akin to juvenile delinquents on parole – they have to behave well and obey the rules in order to enjoy the normal benefits of a free life. Arab freedom and sovereignty do not seem to be absolute rights, but rather are held hostage to American, Western and, in some cases, Israeli validation that we are behaving correctly.

Are you listening now, TF?  Probably not. That's a pity.  Here's more:

This is not new, and is only the latest twist to what we witnessed when the uprisings first threatened pro-American dictators in Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011.The reflexive, almost Pavlovian, first questions that many American analysts and politicians asked then were, “What does this mean for Israel, Iran and Islamist movements,” without first asking if this was good for the hundreds of millions of ordinary Arab men and women risking their lives to live in freedom.


That a handful of small, occasionally violent demonstrations last week could cause some Americans and others abroad to question the worth of the past 21 months of epic Arab struggles for liberty and democracy is a terrible reminder that deep chasms separate these two worlds in some critical areas.


The most important of these is a deep lack of respect for the other on both sides, including the widespread perception in many American quarters that the liberty of Arabs and Muslims is not an absolute God-given right, but rather a relative benefit that Arabs can achieve if they play by the rules of the West.


I wonder, should we see the Arab-Asian-Muslim demonstrations and these American reactions as a lingering aftershock of the colonial mentality and the anti-colonial wars of resistance of the past century?


Frankly, though, it's wrong to single out Friedman in this regard.  He's but a symptom of a broad, deeply rooted arrogance (or hubris) so widespread among the denizens of American pundity and think-tankery when it comes to the Middle East and its peoples, especially Arabs, though Persians and Turks are hardly immune.  That arrogance manifests itself in the now well-entrenched belief that the US has the role, responsibility, and right to somehow shape the Arab world's path to democracy - away from Islamists, if at all possible, and, especially, on a course that protects Israel.  

Michael Cohen has (at Foreign Policy) a superb corrective to the arrogance of Friedman and his ilk, in which he admonishes us to learn to "come to grips with [the US's] impotence when it comes to "fixing" the Middle East - and especially our broadly held belief (insistence, really) that it's the US president's job to do the fixing.  


Bush didn't do it (nor should he have tried).  In fact, perhaps it's time to put to bed Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rules" - i.e., when he warned W on the eve of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, "you break it, you own it."  Well, Bush surely broke Iraq - shattered it, really - and his actions and policies damn near shattered the US relations with the Middle East in general.  But the US never "owned" Iraq, and will never "own" the Middle East.  It was never ours to own, or control, nor will it be ours to direct, or whatever, in the future.  

So, Mr. Friedman, you can pass judgment all you want. Knock yourself out.  While you're at it, try pissing into the wind.  Ask Mitt to join you.

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