Our son of a bitch
It is plausibly the most brutally realistic assessment ever made by a head of government of one of his country’s allies: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” It is most popularly attributed to Franklin D Roosevelt, who reputedly said it about unlovely Nicaraguan autocrat Anastasio Somoza Garcia. It says much about US foreign policy – and about foreign policy in general – that every president of the United States, from George Washington onwards, could have said something of the sort about many of America’s diplomatic partners, and generally with good reason. If the current occupant of the White House has not yet had the opportunity, it could be that recent events in the Middle East have left him, along with everyone else, uncertain as to whose son of a bitch is whose.
How the West was won
The Middle Eastern regimes which have wobbled, tottered and collapsed since the beginning of 2011 have all relied upon American – and before that British, French and Italian – patronage and protection. Hosni Mubarak inherited Egypt’s presidency in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar El-Sadat, murdered by his own soldiers who were enraged at his efforts to make peace with Israel. Mubarak’s ruthless junta in Egypt received an average of US$2 billion for each of its 30 years in power, much of it in military aid, including 240 F-16s, which would have been comfortably sufficient to see off Libya’s flying circus of Soviet-built antiques, if whoever is currently in charge in Cairo had been willing – or, perhaps more charitably, able – to display some regional leadership.
“Middle Eastern regimes which have collapsed since the beginning of 2011 have all relied upon American
patronage and protection”
President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, now wanted by nobody but Interpol, was a recipient of Western largesse throughout his quarter century in office. He was already prime minister when he helped himself to Tunisia’s presidency in 1987, after declaring – probably correctly, in fairness – that his predecessor, 84-year-old Habib Bourguiba, was no longer mentally capable. In the aftermath of Ben Ali’s own fall, claims emerged that his rise had been partly orchestrated by SISMI, the Italian intelligence service, in the interests, naturally, of stability. Ben Ali indisputably provided this, winning five consecutive elections, usually endorsed by around 90 per cent of the vote, although it was occasionally observed that the races might have been tighter had any meaningful opposition been permitted.
The ruling al-Khalifa clan of Bahrain have been our sons of bitches since signing a treaty with Britain in 1820, and the Persian Gulf archipelago remained a British protectorate in some shape or form until 1971. Bahrain is still very much a family firm, despite the religious schism between its Sunni rulers and mostly Shia population. Approximately half the royal-appointed cabinet are blood relatives of King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa (Hamad, incidentally, was a mere Emir when he followed his father into office in 1999; he declared himself King in 2002). Bahrain presently hosts the headquarters of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, and Muharraq Airfield, a vital way-station for all US military operating in the region. In return for this hospitality, the Khalifas can feel confident that their invitations to royal weddings will not be rescinded over such trifles as ordering police to open fire on their own people.
“America, the UK, France, Italy and the rest of the Western world desire stability in the Middle East because instability inflates fuel prices”
Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, in contrast, took a long time to become our son of a bitch. He was only 27 when he overthrew King Idris in 1969, and spent most of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s regarded as an irredeemable pariah, funding terrorist groups around the world. Nowhere more so than Britain, which saw its buildings and citizens blown to bits with Semtex explosive that Gaddafi shipped to the IRA. Libyan-supplied Semtex was used in the IRA’s attempted assassinations of the British government at Brighton’s Grand Hotel in 1984 and Downing Street in 1991, and the infamous massacre at Enniskillen’s 1987 Remembrance Day service. Despite this record as an accessory in the murder of hundreds of Britons, Gaddafi was offered restored relations in the early years of the twenty-first century, after coughing up compensation for the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, and dismantling some weapons programmes.
The mantra underpinning this cynical pragmatism has been stability above all other considerations. The sharifs of the Middle East desire stability because they know that transfers of power in their part of the world rarely result in a dignified retirement for the outgoing ruler. The elected leaders of America, the UK, France, Italy and the rest of the Western world desire stability in the Middle East because instability inflates fuel prices. Oil crises of one sort or another followed the Yom Kippur war in 1973, the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. By the end of March, to a soundtrack of incessant bulletins of confusion from the Middle East, oil prices had almost returned to the vertiginous heights reached during the global financial convulsions of 2008.
Your son of a bitch
If you tune out the party-line pabulum of official Middle Eastern media, and tune in to the region’s relentlessly hospitable people, the complaint you hear about American foreign policy is essentially a knowing inversion of Roosevelt’s (possibly apocryphal) aphorism. The local King, Sheikh, Emir, President, General or Colonel is, they’ll tell you, assuredly a son of a bitch – but he’s America’s son of a bitch. The irony is heartbreaking. For all of America’s shimmering rhetoric about supporting self-determination in the Middle East, especially in the last decade, the US still doesn’t understand quite how badly many Arabs want it, and how bitterly they resent the connivance of freedom’s self-proclaimed champion in denying it to them.
The West’s history of lofty caprice in the Middle East is perfectly encapsulated by the name given by Saudis and Jordanians to the vast dent in their common boundary: “Winston’s Hiccough”. This miles-long kink in the border has no obvious topographical, geographical, tribal, religious or political rationale. It may not be true that Churchill drew that line after an especially long lunch, but the legend’s widespread currency says a great deal about what Arabs think of what we think of them. And certainly it’s hard to ignore the colonial influence imprinted on the very DNA of Arab countries at a geographical as well as a political level. Of the 22 Arab League countries, 18 have at least one completely straight line as one of their borders (the classic sign of creation by bureaucrats in London, Paris or Rome) and two are islands. Which leaves only Lebanon and, er, Palestine. For purposes of comparison, there’s not a single straight-line border in the whole of continental Europe.
“It is certain that Finland has an opinion about the Middle East and does its best to influence events. But nobody cares”
The stability fetish of the West is rooted in a pessimistic view of the people of the Middle East, the fear that, given the chance, they might elect sons of bitches even worse than our sons of bitches. There is some evidence in favour of this proposition. In 2005, Gaza delivered a thumping mandate for Hamas, essentially the Klan in keffiyehs. Algeria’s ghastly civil war of the 1990s was prompted by the military-backed cancellation of an election which looked likely to be won by the Islamic Salvation Front, a Talibanesque cabal of grim fanatics. Inside and outside Egypt, there is considerable nervousness at the prospect of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood translating their undeniable popularity into power. For most of the modern era, the West’s general assumption has been that positive change in the Middle East is unlikely and, that being the case, that no change at all is preferable, so therefore the status quo should be upheld at all costs.
This is why the West bet on Mubarak, Ben Ali and Gaddafi, and, once upon a time, on the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein and various unpleasant Afghan warlords. It’s why we still haven’t folded on Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan. It is simple to believe that this is deliberate and sinister policy. But the diplomacy of every country that has existed or ever will exist is a chaotic sequence of fudges, best guesses, wild stabs and blindfolded tail-pinning by people attempting to construct the possible in an impossible world. It’s just that when America does it, it has concomitantly greater consequence. It is certain that Finland has an opinion about the Middle East and that it does its best to influence events in the region to its advantage. But nobody cares.
We’re still standing
Of the six countries which hold the largest known oil reserves, five – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – are located in the Middle East (Libya ranks ninth, and also in the top 20 are Qatar, Algeria and Sudan). Altogether inconveniently, with the ironic exception of Iraq, the governments of these countries are opposed, in varying measures, to many things the Western world purports to hold dear: democracy; freedoms of speech, the press and association; laws written by man rather than God; racial equality; social liberalism; indifference vis-à-vis sexual orientation; religious plurality;
and transparency and accountability in politics and business. It’s a persistent geopolitical headache.
There are no sons of bitches more our sons of bitches than the House of Saud. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in the twenty-first century to date, Saudi Arabia has been the world’s biggest spender on military equipment as a percentage of GDP. In September 2010, the United States authorised the further sale to Saudi Arabia of a £39bn package, including 84 more F-15 fighters. By the same token, it doesn’t require lengthy contemplation to understand why those rebelling against Colonel Gaddafi are being provided Nato air cover, and why those rebelling against the al-Khalifas are not receiving so much as good wishes. This is an arena in which the line between cynicism and practical politics is vanishingly slender.
That the US and former colonial powers have behaved badly in the Middle East is indisputable. Especially in hindsight, some interventions appear utterly inexcusable. The CIA-backed coup which removed nationalist reformer Mohammad Mosaddegh from the prime ministership of Iran in 1953 has still not been forgiven by the many Iranians who might have preferred to spend their lives as citizens of a (potentially) civilised democracy than as subjects of a tyranny, and, subsequent to the Shah’s overthrow in 1979, as hostages of a demented theocracy. Hindsight cuts both ways, however, and some American non-interventions now look just as regrettable. If we knew then with what we know now, even the hapless Jimmy Carter might have acted decisively against Khomeini and George HW Bush would surely have spared the people of Iraq another dozen years of Saddam Hussein.
In a speech to the National Defence University in Washington in late March, President Barack Obama defended America’s intervention in Libya. Much of what he said was plain sense. Obama observed that Gaddafi had clearly announced his intention to mete vicious vengeance upon rebel-held cities, and that the world had been faced with a choice between watching a bloodbath, or preventing it (if only Bill Clinton had grasped that neither Bosnia nor Rwanda was any more complicated). He admitted that realpolitik was a factor: the last thing needed by Libya’s volatile neighbours, Egypt and Tunisia, is an influx of aggrieved refugees. But he also – being Obama and being American – pitched the dispatch of aircraft as highflown moral purpose. “Some nations,” he said, “may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.”
Obama, a smart man, will have known that this is astonishing bullshit.
Andrew Mueller is the author of ‘I Wouldn’t Start from Here: The 21st Century and Where It All Went Wrong’.
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