The sanctimonious West

It has become a weary trope to say that the only development really born of the Arab spring is that of the Islamic State: government founded on brutal, quasi-religious authoritarianism whose power derives from a cooption and rehabilitation of God in the image of violence.

So does The Economist claim in its January 9 analysis of what it now calls the Arab winter and which others have grown fond of calling the Islamist winter. “In ghastly irony,” the Islamic State is “the only truly new model of government,” the publication writes, as if government founded on religious-based oppression were in anyway new. It is a necessity of the monotheistic conception of God that He is endowed with absolute authority, and from there, no matter the society, it can only be a matter of time before someone turns that authority to nefarious end.

Let there be no expectation that this column posit any sort of thesis about what should be done to help fix the wildfires that have consumed the region since 2011. I cannot do so, nor do I think it is my place to try. It is my view, rather, that Western observers and journalists are incapable of understanding the forces that have come to dictate state action in the Middle East given that they do not obtain in the Western world.

The paradigm from which the West operates is so fundamentally different from the reality of the Middle East that all of our criticisms and suggestions are of precious little more help than an especially loud thunderclap. And our actions themselves are positively destructive. Let us not forget what The Economist deemed “America’s spectacularly inept occupation of Iraq”. Not inept: ruinous. Iraq Body Count (IBC) estimates up to 171,000 documented civilian deaths following my country’s 2003 mission to liberate and democratise. And IBC only reports Iraqi civilian lives lost, an account that leaves out the West’s intervention and our subsequent exit served to destabilise power relations in the region. A destabilisation, which, among other impacts, has led to roughly 250,000 deaths in Syria alone.

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So when The New York Times Editorial Board sanctimoniously writes, “What is needed, and has long been needed, is an immediate end to the [Syrian] civil war,” one is forced to wonder how the editors of the paper of record are so “spectacularly inept” at not saying stupid shit. I allude, of course, to Obama’s explicit foreign policy of not “doing stupid shit,” which at the very least has for America the advantage of making it harder to blame us when things again go awry.

Obama’s might be the only cogent foreign policy that is coherent with my thesis. To really grasp how little the West understands the Middle East, let us look at its interactions with Israel, a country whose values are the same as its own: life, liberty, equality, justice and rationality. But Israel has on it a constraint, one that holds across the region: it exists under constant threat.

When Ben Franklin made his comment in Poor Richard’s Almanack about the inviolability of liberty in a true democracy, he was professing a truth in political philosophy. Truth in political practice is different. The state, democratic or not, ablest to defend against internal and external threats and thereby ensure its survival, is not the moral but the strong one. Hence why Israelis are willing to sacrifice some of their values and elect bullies like Netanyahu and far-right parties into office. They perceive their state as being under siege.

And when other democracies, ostensibly with the objective of convincing Israel to reclaim its morality, pile on with constant opprobrium, to the point where they seem to criticise more than support, the siege is only worsened and the sentiment of isolation further entrenched. Which is not to say we should not engage in criticism of Israel if doing so is what strikes us as right – but when we do, we must recognise that first, we do so for ourselves and second, we have so little conception of real fear that we spent trillions as the result of one terrorist attack.

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One can generalise from Israel. The rest of the Middle East faces the same dual external threat Israel does: coercive and moralising force from the West along with a deep, underlying schism pitting religious denomination against religious denomination. Hence, state leaders in the Middle East recognised that in order to maximise the strength they could exert in external protection, they had to suppress internal threat, which they accomplished by means of military or religion. There was, if not peace, then at least some form of equilibrium.

Act I     Scene 1

Enter BUSH and BLAIR