These comments were made during a debate on Responding to Anti-Americanism in the Arab World: Has the United States Been Effective Since 9/11?, sponsored by The Donald and Paula Smith Family Foundation, which took place in New York City on September 12, 2006.
I remember landing in New York City for the first time about thirty years ago, and then driving into Manhattan and gazing at the majestic beauty of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers. For me they were symbols of New York and what it represented: The energy and excitement of its people, commerce and culture.
In 1977, when I got to New York, there was a lot of excitement in the city. On Broadway, the hit, A Chorus Line was playing. There was Studio 54 and the launching of a new television show, Saturday Night Live. John Travolta was doing the disco on Saturday Night Fever and everyone was wearing polyester suits. And there was… Woody Allen.
For me – personally, and for many members of my generation – Americans and non-Americans — the movie producer and actor Woody Allen and his artistic energy and sense of humor was and continues to personify that New York that I love and its great spirit.
So I was not surprised a few weeks after 9/11 to read in the New Yorker an interview with an Iranian woman by the name of Ava who was in love with America and who told the writer Joe Klein how devastated she felt watching the images from New York on 9/11:
“Do you want to know what I was really worried about? Woody Allen. I didn’t want him to die. I wanted to know that he was all right. I love his films.”
Now… since 9/11 America has lost Ava from Tehran — she lost that loving feeling towards the United States — as well as the hearts and minds of most Iranians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Turks and many, many others in the Middle East and around the world.
My guess is that Ava remains a fan of Woody Allen. Who knows? Perhaps Osama bin Ladin —- hiding in a cave in Pakistan — is watching Annie Hall on his plasma television screen and enjoying that unique New York Jewish humor…
But it’s not about Woody Allen. It’s not about the Way We Were in 1977 or in 1991. It’s not about – to quote President Bush — Who We Are. It’s About the Policy, Stupid! In this case, it’s about U.S. Policy in the Middle East.
Many Americans – reflecting the sense of American Exceptionalism – assume that if they punish other nations, invade other people, and bomb other countries, well, that’s something special. After all, we Americans are good people. Our intentions are benign. Our values are unique. It really hurts us when we have to do all that “collateral “amage” here and there. But, hey, unlike the Romans, the French, the Brits, the Germans, we mean well.
In the real world nations use their diplomatic and military power – their policies —- to advance their interests. And sometimes nations go to war. They punish other nations, invade other people and bomb other countries. And guess what? Those other nations tend to get angry.
These are some of the high costs of war, which explains why most nations go to war but only as a last resort. And this International Relations 101 applies also to the United States. It applies also to terrorist groups. In a way, terrorism in a means to achieve specific policy goals and it is usually a response to concrete policies.
It would not be Blaming America First to suggest that during most of the Cold War the U.S. pursued a policy in the Middle East that was neither benign nor altruistic.
That policy had a geo-strategic component – replacing Great Britain and France as the major western powers in the Middle East and leading the efforts to contain the Soviet Union in the region. A geo-economic component – providing western economies with access to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf. And an idealistic component, reflecting moral and historical commitments that had to do with the support for Israel’s security. American attempts to achieve peace between Israelis and Arabs was part of that policy than involved juggling U.S. historical support to Israel and its strategic links to Saudi Arabia.
That was a very costly policy involving alliances with military dictators and medieval despots. It included covert and overt military intervention. For example, deposing a democratically elected government in Iran and support for Saddam Hussein in Iraq in his confrontation with the Mullahs in Iran.
And it was a policy that ignited a lot of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. But if you accepted the notion that based on calculations of national interest — the U.S. should have been engaged in the Middle East during the Cold War – as I did – you were willing to accept the costs involved – including: anti-Americanism that produced oil embargoes., embassies held hostage, and of course, terrorism.
I believe that when the Cold War ended, Washington needed to reassess its Middle East policy —- its Middle East Paradigm. It needed to replace it with a policy of U.S. “constructive disengagement” from the Middle East. Instead — mainly as a result of the emergence of a unipolar system with no checks-and-balances on U.S. power – the Middle East Paradigm not only survived. The United States policy was now aimed at achieving a strategic dominance in the Middle East.
From Gulf War I to Gulf War II there has been an effort to maintain that U.S. hegemony. Under Presidents Bush the First and Clinton that was done through a “Cost-Free Pax Americana” that included the “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran and creating the impression that Washington was “doing something” to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But that only ignited more anti-Americanism and led to the Second Intifadah and 9/11, demonstrating that if you want hegemony – you’ll have to pay for it.
Since 9/11 the U.S. hegemonic undertaking in the Middle East is looking more and more like a rerun of the British imperial project in the region. And one can say about the imperial designs of great powers in the Middle East what Oscar Wilde once said about a second marriage: That it was the triumph of hope over experience.
In the old movie: The British created Iraq. They put the Hashemittes and the Saudis in power. Maintained influence in Egypt. They tried to end this or that cycle of violence between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land. We know how that movie ended: The costs of the British Empire in the Middle East were higher than the expected benefits.
This time the name of the movie is the American Unilateral Moment in the Middle East. But we have a feeling that we’ve seen that movie before. Different actors. But a similar script: Recreating Iraq. Navigating between the Saudis and the Hashemittes. Preserving influence in Egypt. Bringing an end to another cycle of Arab-Jewish violence.
This hegemonic project –like its predecessor —- was bound to ignite counter-pressures in the form of nationalism — including tribal, ethnic and religious identities.
Now the neoconservatives added a Wilsonian soundtrack to the old script. America was going to achieve a strategic hegemony in the Middle East – while making the region “safe for democracy.” It’s a vision of a Democratic Empire, a creature that could have been conceived only through an unnatural union between President Woodrow Wilson and Queen Victoria.
What America ended up doing in Iraq and the Middle East is making it safe not for democracy – but for the revival of tribal, religious and ethnic identities —- for nationalism — — a force that is more powerful than democracy. This force is challenging the current hegemon – taking a clear anti-American form.
So we here we are trying to impose an armed hegemony: Directly in Iraq, indirectly in Lebanon, or through proxies in Palestine. And at the same time we provide power through elections, to the religious Shiite parties in Iraq, to the Hamas/Moslem Brotherhood in Palestine, and to the Hizbollah in Lebanon. And then we are surprised that we helped energize these powers —- who want to stick it to the Man – to us, to the United States.
We then think that by going around and repeating — again and again – like a Parrot on crack – Freedom is no the March! Freedom is on the March! — we are going to win the hearts and minds of the same people we invade, occupy and bomb.
And now that this marriage between hegemony and democracy, between President Wilson and Queen Victoria helped to shift the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Iran – we need to correct that by attacking Iran. But if we do that, we shouldn’t be surprised that the woman watching Woody Allen in Tehran is going to turn against us.
What we need are not more empty rhetoric but different policies that lead to reducing U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. We need a new Middle East Paradigm that is based on the following elements:
- Creating a new Congress of Vienna system, that is a concert of Great Powers, a Northern Alliance that will include also the European Union (EU) and Russia, and eventually also China and India that will help contain with the instability in the Arc of Crisis, including terrorism. We don’t have the military power and economic resources to do that job by ourselves. We need to replace the concept of American Monopoly with that of a U.S.-led Global Oligopoly.
- In that context, we should be encouraging the Europeans to play a more activist role in the Middle East which is after all, their “strategic backyard,” what Mexico and Latin America is to the United States. There is the geographical proximity and the demographic ties in the form of immigrants from the Middle East. And the European economies – and not that of the U.S. – are dependent on the energy resources in the Middle East. It’s time for Washington to cease providing the Europeans with “free riding” in the Middle East and create incentives to them to start paying the costs of maintaining their geo-strategic and geo-economic interests in the Middle East. The deployment of the French and Italian peacekeeping troops in Lebanon is a step in the right direction.
- Creating incentives for the formation of regional balance of power systems in the Middle East that will include Turkey, Israel, the leading Arab states and Iran. Indeed, we need to begin adjusting to the reality that Iran will become the hegemon in the Persian Gulf and that its nuclear military power will be counter-balanced by that of the region’s other military nuclear power, Israel.
- Adopting a policy of “benign neglect” towards the many tribal, ethnic and religious conflicts in the Middle East. We need to understand that we don’t have the power to resolve or control them and that not all Middle Easterners want to be like us. We should engage in the Middle East through trade and investment and provide support to those who want to be our friends. But by trying force our mind-set and values on the nations of the Middle East we are only going to erode our power and produce more anti-Americanism, ensuring that fewer people would be watching Woody Allen in Tehran.