Some of the myths that drive Arab discourse about American behavior in the Middle East are fascinating for what they say about our relationship with the region. Though often profoundly wrong, they are nevertheless frustratingly persistent. I am writing on a plane returning from the Middle East where I spent several days catching an earful about what apparently too many folks believe America is doing and is not doing in the region, and the "why's" behind both.
What many Arabs understand is that important parts of their world appear to be spinning dangerously out of control and that an intransigent Israel and an aggressive Iran are emboldened and ascendant. What they do not understand is why, in the midst of these threats and challenges, America's role is either absent or less than decisive. And precisely because many Arabs stubbornly hold on to myths about America's wisdom and power, they conclude that the unraveling and the threats must be by design.
The persistence of these notions springs from feelings of powerlessness coupled with an acceptance of elements of America's own narrative. After all, it is we who call ourselves the "exceptional" and "indispensable nation". We proudly note how we emerged victorious from two world wars and outlasted the Soviet Union to become the sole superpower. And we properly boast of landing a man on the moon and of the advances we have made in medicine and technology that have benefited all mankind.
With people in the Arab World accepting our projection of this "larger than life" image, they ask: "if America could do all this: why did they allow Iran to gain the upper-hand in Iraq?; why have they allowed the blood-letting in Syria to go on for so long?; why did they make possible the removal of the Libyan dictator and then walk away leaving a civil war?; and why do they continue to allow Israel to not only run roughshod over captive Palestinians but to do the same in Washington?"
All of this adds up to a dizzying and confounding state of affairs. And so in an effort to make sense out of this confusion it appears that many Arabs have made a leap, not of logic, but of faith. In effect, they have concluded that if the region is unraveling, the bad guys are winning, and all-knowing and all-powerful America isn't acting decisively - then it must be that American policy-makers are either behind this state of affairs or are pleased with it because it is serving their interests.
I have heard commentaries by some Arabs who have argued that the US war against Iraq, far from a failure, accomplished its strategic objective. According to this view, the war was actually designed to remove Saddam, not to create a progressive democracy but to unleash Iran on the region thereby causing our Arab allies to seek greater protection and purchase more weapons from the US. Now this may be what, in fact, has happened. But I do not believe for a minute that anyone in the Bush Administration was clever enough to have thought through and executed such a complex scenario. And yet, because such fantastic explanations make sense out of chaos, they are believed by some.
In response, I try to disabuse my friends of the myths and ask them to recognize the sad truth that my country, as much as I love it, is not always smart or all-powerful. A close examination of the reckless behavior of the Bush Administration establishes this sad fact. Recall that the Bush war planners argued: that Iraq would be a "cake-walk" we would win in three weeks; that US troops would only need to be there for six months, at a cost of no more than $2 billion; that we would be welcomed as liberators; that a democracy would be born that would "be a beacon lighting the way for the region"; and that America's global leadership would be assured through the 21st century.
Instead, the exact opposite occurred resulting in incalculable damage not only to Iraq and the region, but to America, as well. The war showed the limits of American power; its total cost will run into the trillions of dollars; it exhausted our military and destroyed the lives of thousands of young American men and women and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis; and instead of ushering in promised democracy, it unleashed a devastating civil war, leaving sectarian Iran the ascendant power in the region, while at the same time spawning the deadly sectarian ISIS. In the end, the war left the region in turmoil and America weaker, and less respected in the world.
It also left most Americans war-weary and the military exhausted and wary of future engagements. Not only did many American Iraq and Afghan war veterans serve multiple tours of duty, at great cost to them and their families, but, as has been recently reported, the suicide rate among these battle-scarred veterans is a shocking and tragic 22 suicides a day!
This was the world Barack Obama inherited when he became president. He also inherited a Washington that was deeply divided. In his inaugural address and in the speeches he delivered in Europe and the Middle East, Obama promised fundamental change. But the promises he made and the expectations he raised, while well-intended, may have unwittingly fueled the myths of America's capacity to "move mountains".
For example, the President committed that his Administration would close Guantanamo, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and engage constructively with the Muslim World. However, he soon confronted the realities of a hyper-partisan and dysfunctional Washington.
From the beginning of his term in office, when Congress passed legislation impeding his effort to close Guantanamo, to Congress' recent shameful, and near treasonous behavior regarding negotiations with Iran - hyper-partisanship has limited the capacity of the President to act constructively in the Middle East. And while hawkish senators make flippant remarks about sending US troops or bombing country x, y, or z, they forget to ask the military if their exhausted and depleted forces can take on another long-term assignment.
So the explanation as to why the White House hasn't been eager to commit US troops or to supply advanced weapons, willy-nilly, to groups fighting in Syria or elsewhere, is not that they have a conspiracy brewing with Iran or that they simply want conflicts to continue. It is because this President, reading the mood of the American people and the military, has wanted to end old wars, while being reluctant to start or get dragged into any new ones.
Given all this, it may still be fair for Arabs to criticize the President's judgment or to decry his failure to provide leadership to a Middle East in the throes of traumatic change. All this can be debated or discussed. But what is neither fair nor smart, is to find conspiracies, where there are none, or to stubbornly cling to myths, which only avoid dealing with realities.
In this context, it is important that some Arab leaders, allies of the US, are recognizing that they must become the agents of change in their own region; that they must take the lead in building a military force to take on ISIS; that they must invest in rebuilding the region's economies; and that they must use their political leverage to resolve conflicts. This movement away from dependency toward self-reliance is significant. As Arab leaders take such initiatives, they have the right to insist that America supports their efforts, as an ally, not as an all-powerful savior. This development presents us all with the possibility of a new US-Arab relationship based on partnership, not on a myth.
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