Monday, September 5, 2011
The Tea Party and the Middle East
As President Barack Obama's approval ratings decline, pushed ever downward by a global and domestic recession that shows little sign of abating, the prospects of a Republican in the White House in 2012 loom ever larger. It is not at all out of the question that, if a Republican is elected, she or he will have strong ties to the Tea Party.
Thus far, little attention has been given to the implications of a Tea Party dominated White House for US foreign policy, especially in one of the world's most volatile regions, the Middle East. What would be the consequences of a Tea Party administration for US policy and interests in that region?
As others have already been noted, there are (at least) two trends in the Tea Party movement regarding US foreign policy. One, a neo-isolationism advocated by the supporters of Ron Paul (but perhaps by those of Rick Perry as well), reflects the isolationism that characterized much of US history prior to World War II.
The other, which argues for the decisive use of force against our enemies in the region, calls for strong support for Israel and relying on it to fight terrorism in the Middle East and to help restrain Iran. This policy is considered especially important for the US and the international community's efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. At least two candidates with close ties to the Tea Party, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum, fall into this camp.
The problem with the Tea Party is that it has no policy for reconciling declining American economic power - both in absolute and relative terms (especially in relation to China) - with sustaining US global influence. The US has faced severe constraints in fighting two wars simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the US were forced to militarily engage Iran, especially if it were to attack Israel, as well as simultaneously confront an outbreak of hostilities in the Korean Peninsula, an unlikely but possible scenario, the US would be hard pressed to mount the forces necessary to meet such as a challenge.
Tea Party advocates either call for US withdrawal from much of the world to improve the budget deficit or the use of military force to intimidate our enemies. Both of these perspectives fail to appreciate the implications of our economic crisis for US "hard power" (the use of military force). They also fail to comprehend the opportunities for enhancing US policy in the area of "soft power" (public diplomacy, technical and educational support, and direct engagement of our adversaries where appropriate).
Tea Party supporters make an important point when they argue that US government spending has outstripped its ability to pay for this spending. Clearly the US economy is experiencing serious economic difficulties caused largely by the mortgage lending debacle that came to a head in 2008.
But do the US' financial problems imply the need for an isolationist strategy? Likewise, is there an alternative to the second policy prescription, namely a reliance on force as the primary element of our foreign policy in the Middle East? Is there not a third way that could achieve our objectives in the Middle East but without "breaking the bank"?
As the "Arab Spring" has shown, there is considerable convergence between Arab and US political interests in the Middle East. The warmth of the Libyan people towards the US over the past 6 months, especially now that the Libyan dictator, Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi has been overthrown, is just one indicator of those interests. It suggests that, even in a country that has been under repressive authoritarian rule, citizens can both quickly embrace democracy and reject decades of anti-American and and anti-Western rhetoric and propaganda.
Rather than making an effort to better understand the political, cultural and economic dynamics that currently engulf the Middle East, Tea Party candidates have, to date, opted instead for a simplistic approach to US foreign policy. Either we need to withdraw into "fortress America" or hit our enemies hard when they challenge our interests in the Middle East or elsewhere. The problem is that neither of these approaches will work, Indeed, they both pose a serious threat to the US' national interests in the region.
What, then, are the dynamics that Tea Partiers have failed to grasp? First, the Middle East is ripe for serious and positive change. It has a "youth bulge" which means that a large percentage of the region's youth, 70%, is under the age of 30. As my current research with Iraqi and other youth in the region indicates, many of these youth admire American popular culture and values, especially our values of freedom of expression and creative freedom.
Although most youth in the Middle East have not had the benefit of a social science education, either in secondary schools or at the university level, many intuitively understand that there is a strong relationship between individual freedoms and personal success. They also realize that the countries where individual freedoms reign are precisely those countries that enjoy prosperity and political stability - key factors for these youth if they are to have any hope in the future.
Second, Tea Partiers fail to see the need to reach out to other cultures which they often assume are hostile to American values. Many Tea Partiers have wrapped themselves in a mythical American Golden Age during which the United States was supposedly close to being a perfect society.
While the US did make tremendous progress throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries to become the world's industrial and military superpower, such thinking forgets that such growth had its dark side - the political and economic marginalization of women and African Americans, labor strife, the Great Depression, two world wars and the struggle against communism. This is not to direct criticism at the US, but simply to point out that selective readings of history do not produce good domestic or foreign policy.
The US should be proud of its values and accomplishments. The desire of so much of the world's population to emigrate to the US is a striking reminder of that. However, we are now a global society in which "Golden Age" politics, in whatever form, no longer has a place. Inter-cultural understanding is not a matter of being "politically correct." Rather, it is absolutely necessary that our political leaders make a serious effort to understand the cultures of the Middle East and engage its peoples so that they can make the most effective decisions as they affect US interests in the region.
While Israel is a strong and trusted ally, the idea that we can rely on Israel alone to pursue American interests in the Middle East is naive. To link US support for Israel to Christian Biblical injunctions is no substitute for a rational foreign policy, nor is it in the interest of Israel, much less the peoples of the Middle East. As the most prominent Tea Party candidate to view the Middle East through the prism of the Bible, Michelle Bachman's advocacy of a foreign policy based on her interpretations of Biblical texts is a strong example of why our Founding Fathers sought to keep religion out of politics.
In the Christian world, the idea that God has bestowed His (Her?)grace on a particular group of people brought us the the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the 100 Years War, and many other examples of religious intolerance. Voltaire noted the absurdity of the notion of a "Chosen People" in Candide when he described the (Christian) Bulgars and the (Muslim) Ottoman Turks praying to God for victory over their enemy as the sun began to rise over the battlefield on which they would fight later that day.
The US has lost many allies in the Middle East in recent years. Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Yemen, and Libya (yes Qaddafi supplied the US with intelligence after agreeing to end his WMD program in 2006) are the most prominent examples. Likewise, Israel finds itself more isolated than ever in the Middle East.
With the election of an Islamist government in 2002, Israel no longer has a close ally in Turkey. Following Husni Mubarak's ouster in Egypt, ties with that country have deteriorated as well. Turkey's recent recall of its ambassador from Israel and the conflict with Egypt over containing Hamas in the Gaza Strip are only the most recent examples of Israel's deteriorating relations with its former allies.
If the Tea Partiers sincerely want to reduce the deficit, enhance our influence in the Middle East, and help strengthen Israel, our closest ally in the region, they need to eschew basing foreign policy on Biblical injunctions, and prescribing withdrawal, or an exclusive use of force as the main tools in the US' foreign policy arsenal. The NATO success in Libya is probably not going to be replicated elsewhere in the region anytime soon (although US and EU cooperation in squeezing Syria economically may end up ousting the Ba'thist regime of Bashar al-Asad as well).
Using American technical expertise in the Middle East, much as it has been done by developing Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, should become the model for encouraging economic growth and development, along with improvements in education, health care, housing and agriculture. Such assistance, especially if it is based on local needs (rather than prescribed by the West), can help to develop close ties with the countries of the Middle East. There is a reason why developed countries do not engage in wars or experience serious political instability - the citizens of these countries have very little incentive to engage in such activity, especially when they have hope in the future.
Offering US technical assistance (a great way to put unemployed American professionals to work overseas), offering Middle Easterners scholarships to study at American universities, and engaging the peoples of the Middle East, especially youth, whether thorough social media and/or exchange programs, would cost much less than military engagement and building new weapons systems that were appropriate for an earlier era of wars among nation-states, but now are much less effective in fighting terrorism and "asymmetric war."
Engaging the youth who have been the main force behind the Arab Spring will demonstrate that our rhetoric of supporting democracy has teeth. Many Middle Eastern youth realize that autocrats such as Qaddafi used anti-Zionism as a propaganda tool to distract attention from domestic repression and lack of government services. If the US can move forward the creation of Palestinian state, living side by side in peace with Israel, along with engaging the peoples of the region, much of the region's anti-American rhetoric and radicalism will dissipate.
As we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, all those who aspire to the US presidency owe it to the American people to offer them well thought through foreign policy alternatives. We need to develop a smart foreign policy in the Middle East which views the peoples of the region as potential allies, not as inherently hostile to our interests and way of life. With the stakes so high in the Middle East, and with the economic challenges facing the US, empty rhetoric is clearly unpatriotic.