Thursday, July 4, 2013

What's really wrong with Aaron David Miller?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Last week, readers of Foreign Policy were treated to another installment of the “distinguished scholar[ship]” of Aaron David Miller (he of the recent ‘Tribes With Flags’ notoriety), this time entitled, ‘What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East?’ 

So breezily are the facts distorted, so woefully are the points missed, and so cheerfully are the region’s more than three hundred million people insulted that it prompts the arresting question: What’s really wrong with Aaron David Miller?

The piece comprises Miller’s diagnosis of the “top five” reasons for the “jumble of violence, sectarianism, and incompetence” that have been the real fruits of an Arab Spring that was supposed to be the “big transformative moment.” These are, in order: the mistreatment of women, the lack of secularism, excessive conspiracy theorizing, “narcissism” (yes), and lack of leadership.

In addition to the many generic, or what might be called orthodox, ways in which the overall argument is wrong-headed, there are some particularly egregious bits of mendacity and nastiness that are worth highlighting.

First is his callous jab at the Lebanese, all of whom (in their narcissism) “think what happens in Beirut is on the minds of U.S. policymakers from morning till night.” Perhaps I’m ill-trained in the hard-nosed, cut-the-crap school of “realism” in which Miller affects to excel, but I feel those Lebanese who have taken serious risks (and paid serious prices) to stand against the menaces of Syrian Baathist totalitarianism and its murderous proxies deserve something better than the scorn of those they were led to believe were their friends.

Second, and speaking of the Damascene dictatorship, it’s simply contemptible of Miller to pretend that “America’s loss and lack of credibility” is what prevents it from providing meaningful assistance to the Syrian opposition (who also, evidently, have an inflated impression of how much attention is paid to their sacrifices in Washington). Instead, it’s perfectly obvious that it is the Americans’ failure to lift a finger in defense of the revolution that is eroding what was left of their credibility – as the cartoonists of Kafranbel have been trying to tell everyone for two years now.

Things only get worse when he turns to the Holy Land dispute, complaining of being “really tired of Israeli peaceniks […] and of Arabs” asking America to work toward peace (his patience for Israeli hawks, apparently, has not yet waned). His message for these irritating supplicants is as crass as it is dishonest:

“Here's a news flash: the cavalry isn't coming. Maybe if this sinks in, the locals will do more for themselves. But I doubt it.”

A pretty straightforward reason why this won’t “sink in” is because, for one party, the cavalry in fact arrived a very long time ago, and is showing no signs of disappearing soon (indeed, its ranks grow with each passing year). An administration that has used its veto power to protect Israel at the UN Security Council, upped the annual military aid package to an unprecedented $4bn a year for ten years, while throwing hundreds of millions of additional dollars at programs like the Iron Dome and David’s Sling missile defense systems can hardly be said to have washed its hands of the Middle East quite yet.

Nor has the “cavalry” exactly neglected other areas of the region. Miller is, of course, perfectly right that many of the Arab world’s greatest villains are fellow Arabs, but when the young men and women of Bahrain took to the streets in 2011 to peacefully challenge their despot, it was with American-made bullets and tear gas canisters that their efforts were quite literally shot down. Since then, while Martin Luther King-quoting human rights activists have been rounded up and tortured before being sentenced to life imprisonment, Obama has responded by selling the Khalifa regime $53 million in arms.

Which is why it isn’t at all “ironic,” as Miller claims, that the “authoritarian monarchs” of Jordan and the Gulf have proved to be “the most durable.” Their durability, while partly sustained by popular will, is also quite openly guaranteed by American policy, with Bahrain being merely the most brazen example. It isn’t just the massive weapons sales to Islamist autocrats across the Gulf, including an eye-watering $60bn consignment of fighter jets, attack helicopters and missiles to Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s bloggers in the UAE and Jordan, poets in Qatar, or clerics belonging to the wrong sect in Saudi, Gulf regimes crush every conceivable form of dissent without ever incurring tangible reproach from Washington.

Indeed, if I were to propose a real irony, it would be that the poorest performers of all Arab nations on Miller’s criteria of women’s rights, secularism, and religious fundamentalism are precisely the US’ most cherished allies and business partners.

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