Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

There are no free riders

As different as they are politically, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have both argued that this region has benefitted from, but not paid for, US influence. This argument is wrong, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

The search is still on for the causes of the current state of the Middle East, described as the worst historical period the region has experienced since the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. Whether or not the description fits (drawing comparisons between catastrophes somehow defies reason) the search takes as its starting point the storm known as the “Arab Spring”.

Former US defense secretary Robert Gates said in an interview on Fox News that in taking the decision to support the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, President Barack Obama ignored the views of his entire National Security Council (NSC) team. Instead, according to Gates, Obama took the advice of a junior backbencher who said, “Mr President, you’ve got to be on the right side of history.” The understanding was that the removal of Mubarak would open the door to democracy.

The story is not entirely new: Gates mentioned it in his memoirs, Duty. But it has acquired a new dimension, as was revealed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover story for The Atlantic Monthly that appeared on 14 March. According to Goldberg, Obama believes that for the US the Middle East is a region that should be avoided because it is a region that “could not be fixed — not on his [Obama’s] watch, and not for a generation to come.”

History did not pan out as Obama had expected. Middle East history headed in cruel directions. Egypt needed another revolution to rectify the first and all revolutions ultimately exact heavy costs.

In his memoirs and in an earlier TV interview, Gates said that Obama, during the NSC meetings, always believed that he was the smartest guy in the room. But perhaps the matter has less to do with intelligence than with an ideological belief that he is on the right side of history, or that history is inherently on his side.

Liberal and “progressive” thought is generally informed by no small degree of pride for the sake of which facts can be manipulated. If, in 2011, Obama proceeded from the premise of his initial assessment of circumstances in Egypt, today his approach to the Middle East proceeds from the twofold premise that, first, the problem falls on the shoulders of the people of this region and, second, the countries and governments of the region must be prepared to pay the costs themselves, rather than relying on the US.

In other words, leaders of the region should not insist on being “free riders” or “freeloaders” on the US. Amazingly — all the more so as it appears that no one in the US, at least, has picked up on this — there is a meeting of minds on this point between Obama and Republican nominee Donald Trump, despite the political and ideological distance between the two. The latter is constantly lashing out against US allies in Europe, Japan and the Gulf, and vowing that, when he becomes president, he will know how to obtain what is “owed” to America.

Regardless of whether Obama or Trump is doing the political diagnosis, it appears that a certain political culture has begun to prevail. It holds that the US is inevitably on the good side of history, which gives it certain rights over others, whether allies or enemies, but totally ignores some of history’s major truths. Perhaps the foremost of these is that when other countries of the world allied with the US they did not necessarily do so on the basis of a common ideology or shared beliefs, but rather because they felt this served their own national interests.

When Arab countries (with the exception of South Yemen) chose to reject communism and fight it in this region and abroad, this was informed by their own interests, as well as their own perspectives regarding identity and strategic interests based on historical and geographical circumstances.

Therefore, the Western victory in the Cold War, which may have been the greatest victory in modern history, was at least in part thanks to Arab and other Middle Eastern countries, some of which were directly allied with Washington and others of which were non-aligned or somewhere in between.

The result was to create alternatives to falling into communist clutches for the entire Third World. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the interests of Middle Eastern states converged with the Western camp on the need to defeat the Soviet Union because a Soviet victory would not only lead to a distortion in international balances of power, but would give Moscow a strategic position near the Gulf, Gulf oil and many other interests. Middle Eastern countries paid heavily for that war against communism.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saudi Arabia led a regional Arab-Islamic coalition, alongside the US and its international coalition, to resist that invasion. The contribution was both financial and military. US writers agree that the Gulf war was the first “profitable” war in history.

Afterwards the US tried to ride the crest of that war to reshape the Middle East according to the vision of the neoconservatives of the Bush Jr era. Towards this end they invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, dismantling two states and producing the greatest catastrophe ever, not just for the US but also for its allies, especially in the Middle East and the Arab world in particular.

The US proclivity for regime change and to organise states according to evil constitutions is not on the right side of history: it is on the side of chaos, disintegration and civil war. The consequences of the US position were three: terrorism in various forms and degrees, civil wars and sectarian division. Washington did not pay the costs of all this. Arab and Muslim countries in general did.

They were the victims (95 per cent of those killed by terrorism were Muslims, contrary to the general impression in the West; also, the cost of the alleged Arab Spring came to 600,000 dead, more than two million wounded and 14 million refugees and displaced persons). The Arab countries up to now have sustained the lion’s share of the burden in the actual resistance against terrorism and the attempt to reassemble dismantled states.

Arab countries were never riding for free in the US car. They were pursuing their own interests, not those of the US. When interests converged, the price of oil served those same interests, as well as those of the US, the industrialised countries and the entire world. Sometimes the purchase of US Treasury bonds by well-off Arab states was important because the welfare of the US economy is an important part of the global economy. Also, whether it took the shape of an Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty or the Arab Peace Initiative launched by Saudi Arabia, the realisation of peace in the Middle East is certainly in the both US and Arab interests. There are numerous other examples.

The US cannot wage battles and nurture animosities and then conclude reconciliations and agreements on the basis of the vision of every newcomer to the White House and then expect the absolute submission of other countries. International politics is, above all, the pursuit of interests for which countries pay up front. Just as there are no free lunches in life, there are no free riders in international politics.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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