Why Police The Middle East?

Who wants to intervene in the Syrian civil war? Opinion polls on both sides of the Atlantic make it clear that while events in Syria are tragic there is no desire for involvement in another war in the Middle East. Recent experience has taught the public lessons about their cost and futility. Instead, it is the diplomats and the journalists who ache with war fever. You can read it in the rigorous application of double standards about democracy and human rights by the Clinton State Department. You can read it in the slanted framing of the Syrian tragedy by the major English language news sources.

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among the trash in al-Qsair
A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among the trash in al-Qsair

Double standards are unmistakable in the differences between the manner and frequency with which the multiple internal political struggles comprising the Arab Spring are discussed in the Daily Briefing at the State Department. Any fair comparison of what has been said about Syria and Bahrain over the past year would reveal both much more commentary about Syria than Bahrain and very different treatment of repression by the two governments. While Damascus is subjected to harsh condemnation, Manama is treated with the soft language of patient admonition. A neutral observer would be entitled to conclude that Washington cares rather less about the human rights and democratic aspirations of the people of Bahrain than Syria.

Slanted framing is obvious from the unusual consistency with which the press has identified actors and events in the conflict. News audiences are instructed to disapprove of the Syrian government by describing it as the “Assad regime” and to approve of the Islamists attempting to overthrow it by describing them as the “opposition,” “activists” or “rebels” rather than as insurgent s or terrorists. News coverage also highlights expressions of humanitarian concern by the United Nations and by the powers funding the Syrian National Council while largely ignoring the geopolitical interests of those same powers. What is lost is an appreciation of the significance of events in Syria for the struggle between an alliance of the United States and its European and Middle Eastern partners against Iran.

Although the American public still thinks it is at war with the Sunni Islamists of al Qaeda and the Taliban, the U.S. State Department is now focused on containing Iran, the major Shia Islamist state in the region. What that means is strengthened alliance with the militarily powerful or wealthy Sunni Islamist states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the small Gulf states. If they succeed in helping Sunni Islamists take power in Damascus, Tehran would be deprived of an important ally. That it might also be a human rights disaster for the Alawi (Shia), Druze and Christians who support the current government of Syria does not seem to count for much in this geopolitical calculation. But then neither does the fate of the Shia majority in Bahrain who are oppressed by a Medieval Sunni monarchy.

Cynically deploying democratic and humanitarian rhetoric threatens to undermine international support for those values. Diplomats ought to denounce authoritarian rule, bombing civilians, mistreatment of prisoners and the suffering of refugees, but consistently. That is how the world knows that they mean what they say.

If few doubt that liberal democracy is the best way to govern a society, many rightly doubt that it can be successfully imposed by foreign powers. To date, the sole recognizably liberal democratic government established in the Arab Spring is in Tunisia. Everywhere else in the Middle East it has either meant the emergence of new leaders whose liberal and democratic commitment s are in doubt, political chaos, or successful repression by decidedly illiberal traditional monarchies. What marks Tunisia as different is that NATO governments watched as Tunisian dictator Ben Ali was overthrown by a popular rebellion, without intervening. Compare that with the military intervention by NATO in Libya to remove Gaddafi, which plunged the country into continuing chaos from which Sunni Islamists appear to be benefiting.

Americans are likely to hear increasingly insistent demands for military intervention in Syria in the days and weeks to come, perhaps for Turkish Army units on the ground supported by the air and naval units from the U.S., Britain, France and Italy. Sacrificed in the mounting excitement of war will be any discussion of what to do with yet another Middle Eastern country whose infrastructure has been bombed into rubble and of a population determined to expel its foreign occupiers and take revenge on countrymen willing to betray the nation to take power. Even less likely than serious consideration of the butcher’s bill is an answer to the following question: Why is it the foreign policy of the United States to police the entire Middle East?

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Photo from the FreedomHouse flickr photostream and used under creative commons license.
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.