by Patrick Seale
Faced with a dramatic outbreak of anti-American violence by Arabs and Muslims in a score of countries — including the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi — the American reaction has been one of puzzlement, outrage and a thirst for revenge. Send in the Marines! Few Americans seem to understand that their country is paying for decades of grossly mistaken policies.
Take the Palestine problem. Most Americans have long since dismissed it from their minds and consciences. But Arabs and Muslims have not. Israel’s 45-year-long oppression of the Palestinians — the cruel siege of Gaza, the relentless land-grab on the West Bank — remains a major source of humiliation and rage. The United States bears the prime responsibility because, having sustained Israel in every possible way, it has failed to persuade it to give the Palestinians a fair deal.
Some American presidents have tried to break the Arab-Israeli logjam but were defeated by domestic politics and by obdurate Israeli leaders. Jimmy Carter was defeated by Menachem Begin; George H W Bush by Itzhak Shamir; Bill Clinton almost clinched a deal before he left office but was sabotaged by pro-Israeli officials like Dennis Ross. Barack Obama’s defeat by Binyamin Netanyahu has turned the huge hopes he first aroused into bitter disappointment. The poison of the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict continues to inflict grave damage on the United States and to threaten Israel’s long-term future. There will be no peace in the region until a fair settlement is reached. But no president has dared exert American power in this cause.
Not only has the United States failed to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, it has also built Israel up into the regional bully, and must therefore be judged complicit in its numerous assaults against its neighbours. The origins of this policy may be traced to Israel’s comprehensive victory in 1967, which caused Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to view it as the guard-dog of America’s regional interests. Kissinger’s idea was to bolster Israel with funds and weapons in order to keep the Arabs down and the Russians out. His plan reached fruition after the 1973 October War, when he plotted to exclude the Palestinians from the post-war settlement and remove Egypt from the Arab military line up, thus laying the foundations for the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. “Remove a wheel, and the car won’t run,” was the triumphant Israeli version.
Indeed, the Treaty guaranteed Israel’s supremacy for the next three decades, while exposing Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians to the full force of Israeli power. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, killing 17,000 people. It expelled the PLO and sought to turn Lebanon into an Israeli protectorate. Syria fought back; the man who was to serve as Israel’s vassal was assassinated; and the American-brokered Israel-Lebanese accord was scrapped. But not before Israel seized Beirut and presided over the horrific massacre by right-wing Christians of 800 Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Israel remained in occupation of south Lebanon for the next eighteen years until driven out in 2000 by Hizballah guerrillas — whom the United States still insists on calling ‘terrorists’.
Americans have rarely paused to ask themselves why they were attacked on 11 September 2001. Palestine was certainly a motive. Another was the severe punishment inflicted by the United States on Iraq in expelling it from Kuwait in 1991 and then in starving it over the next thirteen years with punitive sanctions, which are said to have resulted in the death of half a million Iraqi babies. Yet another major motive was the callous way the United States treated the tens of thousands of Arab fighters from across the region — 25,000 from Yemen alone — whom it had recruited and armed to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Once the Russians withdrew in 1989, Washington dropped the mujaheddin. Large numbers of these ‘Afghan Arabs’, angry, alienated and battle-hardened, were let loose on the region. Some caused mayhem in their own countries; others joined Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida.
George W Bush’s ‘global war on terror’ after 9/11 was another grotesque misuse of American power. Instead of using police methods to hunt down Al-Qaida, the United States blundered into war in Afghanistan — where, twelve years later, it is still inflicting and taking casualties. It then allowed itself to be tricked by Paul Wolfovitz and other pro-Israeli neo-cons into invading Iraq — a country which the neo-cons, after the Iran-Iraq war, saw as a possible threat to Israel’s eastern front. Some 1.4m Iraqis are estimated to have died as a result of the occupation and destruction of Iraq, together with about 4,500 Americans.
This was the heyday of the militarisation of American foreign policy — brutal wars, extraordinary rendition and routine torture, the expansion of overseas bases (including half a dozen in the Arab Gulf states), a grossly inflated military budget — still around $700bn a year!
The catalogue of blunders continues to this day. Instead of engaging with Iran as he promised to do when he came to office, Obama has waged an undeclared war against the Islamic Republic with ‘crippling sanctions’ and cyber attacks — largely, it would seem, to prevent Israel from dragging America into yet another Middle East war. The chance of a ‘win-win’ deal with Tehran — which would have allowed Iran to produce low-enriched uranium for electricity generation while giving up 20% uranium — has been thrown away because Israel insists that Iran’s nuclear industry be destroyed altogether. The United States is now attempting to bring down not just the Iranian regime but the Syrian regime as well, indeed the whole Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah axis which has dared challenge Israel’s hegemony.
Little Israel has now turned the tables on its mighty patron: Instead of Israel being America’s guard-dog, it is the United States which has become Israel’s guard-dog, harassing, sanctioning, demonising and waging wars on Israel’s enemies on its behalf. Americans may have forgotten these facts, if they ever knew them, but the Arabs and Iranians have not.
If this were not bad enough, Obama has authorised a vast expansion of U.S. drone attacks against alleged Islamic militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, inevitably causing large numbers of civilian casualties and inflaming local populations against the United States. On the receiving end of brutal American policies, it is hardly a surprise that Arabs and Muslims hit back when they can.
Has the United States given the Middle East security? Or has it spread calamitous insecurity? Does the Gulf really need the U.S. 5th Fleet, squadrons of warplanes and thousands of infantry and armour? Is the U.S. presence stabilising or destabilising? Might it not be time to disengage? The Islamic revival, which has been such a striking feature of the Arab Spring, should be seen as a rejection of Western meddling and of Western controls, and a reaffirmation of Muslim identity. It is only the latest phase in the Arabs’ long struggle for independence. The vile film about the Prophet Muhammad may have been the spark which set Arab and Muslim anger alight, but it was only able to do so because of the large quantities of highly combustible material around.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).