Obama & the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment?

9781137278395A recent article published in Mother Jones magazine headlined “Barack Obama’s Had a Pretty Damn Good Presidency” praises the current administration for its “top achievements” in foreign and domestic policy. Consistent with prevailing attitudes, Kevin Drum cites “[ending] the war in Iraq”, “[reversing] Bush torture policies” and “[eliminating] Osama Bin Laden,” as three of Obama’s several signature accomplishments. The fact that Drum was able to list these as “achievements” is a testament to the depth of historical illiteracy that has come to occupy such a prominent position in American journalistic circles. Fortunately, scholarship exists to challenge these ideological conventions. Fawaz Gerges’ Obama and the Middle East offers an insightful picture of Obama’s policies in the Middle East with a historical context that demolishes talk about presidential “achievements.” Spanning generations from the early years of the Cold War to the present, Gerges’ traces the “structural-institutional continuity,” that has shaped presidential policies in the Middle East. The genesis of US interventionism in the Middle East can be examined in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected premier Mohammad Mossadegh.

Mossadegh entered US cross hairs in 1951 when he nationalized the Iranian oil industry, freeing the country from the economic grip of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP). Truman responded to this move by adopting a plan conceived by Winston Churchill to “neutralize” the democratic leader and “restore the shah’s authority.” Truman’s policy was implemented under the Eisenhower administration on August 19th 1953 when the CIA in coordination with British intelligence deposed Mossadegh, ensuring the shah’s return to power and condemning ordinary Iranians to decades of US-backed tyranny. A “fifty-fifty profit sharing” agreement was installed under the control of “an international consortium  of western oil companies,” and Mossadegh was sentenced to three years in prison. Shortly after news of the coup reached the US the New York Times Editorial page hailed the fall of Mossadegh as a warning to other leaders who choose to go “berserk with fanatical nationalism.” “It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran’s experience will prevent the rise of Mossadeghs in other countries,” the Times concluded. The scorn for democracy within elite circles that emerged in 1953 persists in 2013. One of the more recent illustrations of this culture of imperialism appeared on CNN when former Obama administration official Van Jones reminisced on the days when “the U.S. could just sort of thump out dictators like in Iran.” No one questioned Jones on who this “dictator” was or what gave the US the right to “thump” him out.

Alongside Gerges’ examination of the US destruction of Iranian democracy he also dedicates a large portion of the book to examining the US-Israeli alliance and how the “Israel-first” school has undermined the prospect for a regional peace settlement. Beginning after the 1967 war, the Israel-first school is based on “assumptions of cultural affinity, common values, and shared strategic interests,” between the US and Israel. “Israel’s utility as a deterrent force against Soviet regional allies,” (powers that disobey US demands) was the main “strategic interest” fulfilled, one that continues today in US-Israeli criminality in their efforts to isolate Iran. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and international terrorist Henry Kissinger is one of the major proponents of the Israel-first school. Among his major contributions to Middle East “peace” was his decision to sabotage a diplomatic initiative launched in 1969 by Secretary of State William P. Rogers. This initiative was designed “nudge the warring factions”–Israel and Egypt–“to accept a peace settlement.” “My aim was to produce a stalemate until Moscow urged compromise or until … some moderate Arab regime decided that the route to progress was through Washington,” Kissinger proudly stated. More than four decades later in 2011 President Obama honored Kissinger’s legacy of warlordism when he condemned the Palestinian Authority for pursuing a bid for statehood at the UN General Assembly. “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.,” Obama proclaimed before the General Assembly. In accord with Kissinger and the Israel-first doctrine “peace” would  only come “through Washington.”

These well-documented and verifiable historical parallels escape respected intellectuals and journalists like Kevin Drum who suggest that while Obama’s “national security” policies are “pretty bad” we should assess his record by “ordinary human standards, not by standards of perfection.” Yet Obama’s policies are not only “pretty bad” by “ordinary human standards” but flagrantly criminal by the standards of international humanitarian law, an observation that holds true in several domains. Take for example the Obama administration’s economic sanctions against Iran, routinely portrayed as a legitimate foreign policy instrument or, more absurdly, a peaceful alternative to war. In a departure from this preferred narrative Gerges cites the analysis of the prominent Iran scholar Gary Sick  who concludes that the US policy of “cutting off from the US financial system any foreign banks that continue to transact business with the Central Bank of Iran … is intended to prevent Iran from receiving payment for its oil.” Gerges adds that this is “the equivalent of an act of war and effectively a financial blockade of Iran’s oil ports that would deprive the country of more than half its budgetary revenues.” Incidentally, it’s fascinating to observe how this act of war resonates with US officials. A recent Foreign Policy article on the Treasury Department’s participation this economic assault quotes former US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan Ryan Crocker as completely dismissive of, if not gratified by, this culture of criminality. “The Iranians called [the sanctions] illegal and immoral, … The message I took away was that meant yes, the sanctions are working,” Crocker reportedly stated when questioned about the future of US policy.

Similar departures from orthodoxy can be found in Gerges’ commentary on the Iraq war. Unlike Drum he acknowledges that Obama did not “end” the war in Iraq but was forced to terminate the war or as he writes “Iraqi prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki could not accede to America’s demand and grant legal immunity to American soldiers if they violated the country’s laws … Fierce popular opposition inside Iraq to continuing the American military presence forced [Obama’s] hand. Afterward, the Obama policy team portrayed the military withdrawal from Iraq as the fulfillment of the president’s pledge when he campaigned for office.” These are crucial insights because they reveal that the assertion that Obama “ended” the war is not only unfaithful to the historical record but an insult to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who courageously resisted US hegemony in forcing the withdrawal. In agreement with the “structural-institutional continuity” of the “free press” the urgent demands of the populations we punish are of marginal interest. After all, condemning President Obama for taking credit for the hard-won struggles of ordinary Iraqis wouldn’t meet the criteria of judging him by “ordinary human standards.” Such criticism  judges him by “standards of perfection.”

Gerges’ study is particularly timely in lieu of recent revelations in Rolling Stone magazine detailing how a US Special Operations unit euphemistically known as the A-Team participated in the kidnapping and murder of innocent Afghan villagers as a part of their so-called  counter-insurgency campaign. An accompanying video on the website shows an Afghan Security official brutally flogging a hogtied prisoner while US Special Forces indifferently watch. Apart from seriously calling into question Drum’s assertion that the Obama administration “reversed” Bush torture policies, this gruesome video is deeply symbolic of a culture of cruelty that has thoroughly permeated American political, academic, and media institutions. Indeed, the callous indifference of the US soldiers who witnessed this exercise in sadism is worthy of condemnation but how do we respond when an entire society adopts this reaction to much greater atrocities? How do we respond when a family from northern Pakistan visits Washington–as the Rehman family did recently–to expose the horrors of President Obama’s drone program and only five Congress members attend to hear their testimony? Are the Congress members who refused to attend any different from the soldiers coldly watching an act of torture as if it were an innocuous experiment? Are the journalists on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS and other channels morally distinguishable from these soldiers when they uncritically accept White House characterizations of dead civilians as “militants”? These are pertinent questions as we approach what may be the end of America’s “moment” in the Middle East, questions that we can begin to address more substantively through Gerges’ work.








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