U.S. Out of the Middle East!
by Lawrence Bush
From the Spring 2015 issue of Jewish Currents
IT TAKES A LEAP of the humanistic imagination to feel even a shred of understanding for radical Islamists who are terrorizing the Middle East. The alternative to making that leap, however, is simply to rage, “Let’s kill them, they’re inhuman!” — and who believes, after thirteen years of U.S. warfare in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and God knows where else, that missiles and drones will ultimately stop jihadis from feeling righteous about murdering people?
If the path to deterring terrorism is not simply to try to kill them all, what is the alternative? Talk to them? Now, that’s scary — but not only because of their unblinking fanaticism. What’s also scary is that once we hear from them, a moral accounting of the “war on terrorism” becomes quite complicated.
Writes Jason Burke (author of Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror) in The Guardian, back in 2004: The jihadis’ perception is that
a belligerent West is set on the humiliation, division and eventual conquest of the Islamic world… The militants believe they are fighting a last-ditch battle for the survival of their society, culture, religion, and way of life. They are fighting in self-defense and understand, as we in the West also believe, that self-defense can justify using tactics that might be frowned on…
Writes Mary Habeck in Foreign Policy (2012), quoting CIA director John Brennan: Their aim is “to terrorize the U.S. into retreating from the world stage… to use long wars to financially bleed the U.S. while inflaming anti-American sentiment… to defend the rights of Muslims; and finally… global domination.”
Writes Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute at The Huffington Post (2010):
[When] President Ronald Reagan inserted U.S. forces into a multi-sided civil war in Lebanon to aid the minority Christian government… the U.S. embassy and Marine Corps barracks became natural targets… In 1996 United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright was asked to justify sanctions against Iraq which, the questioner charged, had killed a half million children…. [Albright] responded chillingly: ‘we think the price is worth it.’ Muslims did not view as beautiful the assertion that Washington had the unilateral right to kill hundreds of thousands of Muslim children…
These commentators are not people of the left or anti-war activists. Yet implicit in their analyses is the fact that the U.S., with its war-making, its rhetoric of domination, and its “globalization” of the corporate economy and culture, has some responsibility to bear for the surge of Islamic fundamentalism. We have killed tens of thousands of Arab Muslims in the course of “avenging” 9-11. We have imprisoned and/or tortured thousands of others. We have given wan rhetorical support to the Arab Spring, then thrown billions of dollars in aid back into Egypt’s reestablished dictatorship — this after invading Iraq in the name of overthrowing dictatorship.
And we have showered the Middle East with weaponry, very profitable weaponry: The U.S. was responsible for 75 percent of international arms sales in 2011, totaling $66.3 billion, nearly twice the previous record, and heavily centered in the Middle East.
Why is our government doing all of this? Why is it our prerogative to have aircraft carriers forever on the alert in the Persian Gulf ? Why are we sustaining an incredibly conservative and misogynistic monarchy in Saudi Arabia and an enormously corrupt government in Afghanistan? How are the values of “freedom” that we’re allegedly exporting to Muslim countries reflected in the daily lives of people? For heaven’s sake, we don’t even need Middle Eastern oil any more, so why is the United States still playing the post-colonial cop role?
Even if one naively buys into the values-based, humanitarian arguments for U.S. interventions — and certainly, ISIS’s and Al-Shabaab’s grotesque actions have given a boost to America’s reputation for being civilized — the need for such interventions mandates a higher level of international governance rather than superpower domination. Yet the U.S. has refused to join the International Criminal Court. The U.S. has yet to renounce the Bush doctrine of preemptive war, aimed explicitly at maintaining U.S. supremacy. The U.S. adores economic globalization but despises political globalization. We seek a Pax Americana, not a peaceful collectivity. Under such circumstances, even genuinely selfless intervention would seem suspect.
YES, THE KILLERS WE’RE IN CONFLICT WITH ARE AWFUL. They behead, burn, and slaughter, and then display the evidence as if they were showing family photos. They seem horribly fanatical in their religious certainties. They are, in other words, the Catholic Church of the Crusades. Or the Maccabees of the 2nd century BCE, slaying Hellenistic Jews and forcibly converting the Idumeans and other conquered peoples. Islamic radicals are not unique in the history of religious brutality. The human race is simply living in several different centuries across the globe — and the U.S. can never militarily control that time warp.
Therefore, at the risk of appearing foolish or ignorant (which would place me in good company when it comes to Mideast policy), I suggest that alternative policies be explored. Had I decision-making power, I would:
1. Withdraw U.S. support from Israel if it does not permit and assist in the establishment of a Palestinian state. There is simply no legitimate excuse for stonewalling, at least not on the West Bank. As a Jewish state, Israel may forever be hated by some anti-Semitic Muslims, but the occupation of the Palestinians for forty-eight years only fuels that hatred, compromises Israel’s integrity and security, and keeps the U.S. in the line of fire.
2. Abandon Saudi Arabia’s rulers and other autocratic, misogynistic regimes to their own devices if they do not rapidly reform. The U.S. must be consistent in its human rights policies if it wants its belief in “freedom” to be taken seriously. Withdrawal of support is not the same as military intervention; it is a legitimate action for any nation to undertake to influence others.
3. Announce America’s military withdrawal not only from Afghanistan and Iraq but from the entire Middle East by the year 2018. We have our own country to rebuild. The unwillingness of the U.S. (so far) to send ground troops to fight ISIS is already compelling Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt to pick up the slack. That’s as it should be: It’s their neighborhood.
4. Maintain strict controls on immigration from countries that suffer from radical fundamentalist movements — but more importantly, I would have the U.S. offering asylum and assistance in escaping to all women and children willing to flee the sexism and de facto slavery of their homelands. Our peace dividend would pay for resettling them. Asylum instead of war — that’s what a civilized country offers.
There are obviously many difficult issues that my isolationist orientation does not begin to address. Most pressingly: What should the U.S. should do if Israel were reckless enough to go to war over Iran’s nuclear ambitions? And how can jihadis be prevented from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction without preemptive military action against them? Still, to press on with the “war on terrorism” as though it were a selfless campaign with the U.S. cast as the Lone Ranger is to court national tragedy. However “unrealistic” my proposals might be, staying the course will prove to be doubly so. In the long run, investigating non-violence would be far more transformative than investing in violence.
The great sage Hillel (in the Pirkei Avot), after retrieving a skull from the currents of a river, muses as follows: “Because you drowned others, others drowned you; and those who drowned you will in turn be drowned.” Perhaps American policymakers should contemplate this next time they’re confronted by an ISIS beheading. The terrified victim will likely be an innocent — but the context not entirely so. It is time to change that context; our meddling has not made the Mideast a better place.
Lawrence Bush is the editor and publisher of Jewish Currents.