US Policy Still Misreads the Middle East

By focusing on the how of “targeted killings,” not the why of Muslim anger, U.S. runs the risk of endless war, warns Lawrence Davidson. May 9, 2011

By Lawrence Davidson

Editor’s Note: The neoconservatives who dominate Washington opinion circles have settled on the need for a never-ending “war on terror” using large-scale U.S. interventions, like the Afghan War and NATO’s attacks in Libya, to support “targeted killings” of alleged Islamic “bad guys.”

For instance, the Washington Post’s neocon editors want NATO to eliminate Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his sons much like SEAL Team-6 killed Osama bin Laden, essentially a global version of Israel’s “targeted killings” of Palestinian militants. But this strategy ignores the root causes of the troubles, as Lawrence Davidson explains in this guest essay:

Last week, I was in Egypt, a country presently moved by an optimism that reflects a high state of political consciousness.

Almost everyone I met — be they workers (urban and rural), students, shopkeepers, and the ubiquitous taxi drivers — know why their country is beset by problems. They can itemize the structural flaws that led to massive corruption, economic deprivation and brutal repression.

For instance, they all know that the “laughing cow” dictator, Hosni Mubarak, had substituted his personal interests, and that of his friends, for the national interest.

Everyone has the same general notion of what needs to be done: destroy the power of this “party of thieves” and rid the country of the failed policies it has so long endured.

How all this will play out in the new environment of relative freedom, with its multiple-party formation and emotional debate, is uncertain. However, if the United States can refrain from its usual level of gross interference, things should end up better rather than worse. Hence the optimism.

What are the odds that the U.S. will leave the Egyptian reform process alone? In the long run, they are not good.

The new Egypt has already moved to repair ties with Iran and ease the blockade of Gaza. The latter, in particular, is immensely popular in Egypt and will be just as unpopular in the U.S. Congress.

Egypt’s military still exercises ultimate control and is supposedly guiding the nation on its path of political reform. That same military is the recipient of billions of U.S. aid dollars and Congress controls those purse strings. There is a lot of room for behind-the-scenes interference here.

The pressure to meddle will increase if the Muslim Brotherhood is successful in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. They are getting ready to contest up to half the legislative seats and their prospects look good.

However, such particulars are but catalysts that set in motion a more general, essentially structural, U.S. approach to places like Egypt. Ongoing meddling in the affairs of other “sovereign” nations has become a veritable part of the culture of the “intelligence” and military bureaucracies of the United States.

Here is a depressing example of this attitude: While in Cairo I picked up the April 29 edition of the International Herald Tribune. The story that caught my eye was entitled “New Missions, Blurred Roles.

In part, the opening paragraph went like this, “President Barack Obama’s decision to send an intelligence chief [Leon Panetta] to the Pentagon [as Secretary of Defense] and a four-star general [David Petraeus] to [be head of] the CIA is the latest evidence of a significant shift … in how the U.S. fights its battles: the blurring of the lines between soldiers and spies.”

What level of awareness does this maneuver reflect of the problems that have long beset America’s failed Middle East policies? In relative terms, certainly something short of that possessed by your average Egyptian cab driver.

The Egyptians now boldly think about and discuss not only what is wrong but also why it is so. A significant aspect of why their problems persisted so long was the decades of U.S. support for the country’s dictator.

They know that and there is popular sentiment for avoiding that sort of “aid” in the future. If they can achieve this the Egyptians have a genuine shot at a better future.

On the other hand, America’s leaders are fixated on what they think confronts them and have relegated the why of it all to irrelevancy. In other words, when it comes to foreign policy, U.S. leaders, to say nothing of soldiers and spies, are dismally short-sighted. Hence the policy failures.

The CIA, along with the rest of America’s so-called “intelligence” agencies, are designed to tell the country’s leaders what is going on in the world. Somewhere buried deep in these information-gathering bureaucracies are people who can also tell them why things are happening as they are, but these folks carry little or no influence.

This is because the explanations they often give for events conflict with or call into serious question the special-interest motives and ends that drive U.S. policies. You see, just as in Egypt, special interests have supplanted national interests.

With rare exception, American foreign policy in the Middle East is designed to respond to the desires of domestic lobbies such as the Zionists and not to any U.S. national interest, or even to the conditions on the ground in foreign lands.

If foreign opposition develops to what U.S. domestic special interests desire, we want to know what it is and then destroy it. Why it arises is a question to avoid because it opens space for questioning the influence of the special interests.

If the CIA is stuck at the “what” stage of things (say, the “what” of Israeli security or the “what” of Iranian nuclear energy development), the Defense Department is dedicated to designing tactical responses to the “what.”

Now the efforts of these two aggressive government organizations are to be closely coordinated within a political environment that refuses to look objectively at the roots of its own policies. So what can this move really mean?

In the post-Cold War era, the decision was made that ability to carry on classical warfare, the warfare between fielded armies, is a less immediate priority than “special operations” designed to “penetrate, disrupt, defeat and destroy” small militant groups which stand against U.S. policy positions in the Third World.

Beyond the supporting of dictators and their armies, how does this presently translate into practice?

Well, under Leon Panetta, the CIA oversaw “a sharp escalation” of the agency’s “bombing campaign in Pakistan using armed drone aircraft and an increase in the number of secret bases and covert operations in remote parts of Afghanistan.”

On the Defense Department side, in 2009, Gen. Petraeus, acting as head of the U.S. Central Command signed a classified order “authorizing U.S. special operations troops to collect intelligence in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran and other places outside of traditional war zones.” The intelligence gathered is to be used to “prepare the environment for future military attacks.”

What we have here is an admission that both the CIA and the Defense Department have taken up the tactic of assassination as a major adjunct to the support-the-dictator policy. These are not like the horridly romanticized James Bond “license to kill” actions, nor even the cruder, but still selective, operations of the 11th century Assassins.

What Washington has elevated to the level of high tactics is the extraordinarily messy fighter bomber and Predator drone attacks that are as likely to massacre entire families, wedding parties, mosque gatherings and café crowds as they are any intended victims.

And now the fighter bombers of the Defense Department and the Predator drones of the CIA will be oh so better coordinated. Of course, none of this touches on the question of why the “bad guys” are out there, in so determined a fashion, in the first place.

The refusal to consider why opposition to American foreign policy in the Middle East has grown steadily since the end of World War II and finally, on Sept. 11, 2001, reached an unparalleled level of destructiveness, suggests that this latest tactical maneuver will be of little long-term worth.

It will not alter the U.S. policy of allying with dictators and oppressors. It will not alter the U.S. policy of destructive economic exploitation. It will only intensify American violence against the innocent people who happen to be in the vicinity of those whom the U.S. government decides are guilty.

And, in doing so, this approach will drive them into the arms of extremists that is those who stand against the U.S. by pursuing tactics as extreme as those used by the U.S. itself. Keep in mind that the violence of the oppressed tends to rise to the level of the violence of the oppressor.

There is a difference between being smart or clever, and being truly intelligent. The men and women who run the United States are very clever, but they are not equally intelligent.

They are clever enough to design deadly responses to specific situations. However, the responses are almost always bounded by a priori domestic political positions. Our leaders never display the intelligence and the political courage to challenge those positions no matter how disastrous they prove to be.

The most recent example of this stuck-in-a-rut scenario is the national hoopla that followed the assassination of Osama bin Laden. In President Obama’s speech announcing this action, and the subsequent media discussion about what it might mean for the future, no attention was paid to why the 9/11 attacks were originally launched.

President Obama solemnly declared that “justice had been served,” but he dared not note the fact that bin Laden had launched the attacks of 2001 in order to obtain “justice” for what American policy in the Muslim world had wrought.

Unless the U.S. changes its policies in the Middle East the so-called “war on terror” cannot be won.

There is a symbiotic relationship between U.S. policies and the resistance the U.S. encounters, between “our” state terrorism and “their” non-state terrorism.
You cannot bludgeon the connection away by simply honing your tactical abilities to “penetrate and disrupt” because doing so does not “destroy” the reasons for continuing opposition.

That is the truth that comes from an objective consideration of the “why” of things. Unlike the Cairo taxi drivers, America’s leadership just does not get it.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.