Middle East policy in an age of unforeseen consequences
September 11th nearly passed by without incident last week – after more than a decade, the date can finally be commemorated with quiet, personal remembrances rather than sensationalist productions. There were simple memorial services with only moderate news coverage, and even as unrelated protests simmered in Cairo and Benghazi, I thought little of it. I went to sleep that night thinking that, despite the past decade — and decades of questionable interference before that — the United States may finally be coming to a place where it can engage the countries of the Middle East in a more constructive way, that respects the will of the governed in the region and empowers individuals and fledgling democracies.
When I woke, Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was dead.
I raise this in the context of September 11th because, to me and probably many of my generation (Jason Stern, who blogs at Ibn Larry had a similar reaction), it is hard to separate that context from the way we approach the region. In the way that the Kennedy assassination was the loss of innocence for my parent’s generation, September 11th was for mine; like the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq was my generation’s political coming of age. Four years after the Iraq invasion, as a freshman in college, I took a class on that country’s modern history and realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my career studying the Middle East, that I could spend decades trying to understand and better the relations between my country and the region and the work would never be complete. There would always be something more to know. That thrilled me, and still does — but what drove me to that was the failures I had already watched. It all seemed so tragically avoidable, which seemed so easy to say at the time.
The Arab Spring has given the United States a fresh opportunity to approach the Middle East. The United States cannot ignore its history at this juncture — Arab populations certainly won’t and there will still be the burden of the decades of U.S. support for Hosni Mubarak and Ali Abdullah Saleh, and continued support for the Gulf monarchs, the United States’ close ties with Israel, its involvement in coups stretching back more than half a century. What the United States can do now is approach the transitional countries of the Middle East with the recognition that they are embracing the self-determination the United States has championed, and with that will come freedom. (For more nuance on an interests-based U.S. engagement strategy for the Middle East, see here.) The U.S. government was largely caught off guard by the Arab Spring, and its actions have been mostly reactive rather than proactive, but for the circumstances, they’ve done remarkably well at meeting and supporting the new credible actors in these countries.
Freedom is a double-edged sword — it empowers the best in people and enables the worst. That is what I was reminded of as I learned about Amb. Stevens’ death and the riots that engulfed U.S. embassies over the rest of the week in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, and elsewhere. He was killed by extremists that took advantage of an angry mob that had gathered to protest a video that depicted the prophet Mohammed as a bastard, a pedophile, and a criminal. The mob in Benghazi was free to protest, though they were protesting against speech, something we take for granted as being protected here in the United States. They took that further, though, and there is no excusing their violence. But are the filmmakers also, in some part, culpable (although it’s still uncertain just who the filmmakers are)? One of the films’ promoters, Terry Jones, staged a publicity stunt in which he burned a copy of the Quran, provoking riots in Afghanistan that killed at least a dozen individuals including United Nations staff. Now he has incited violence that targets U.S. citizens abroad again.
When Jones’ Quran burning led to riots in Mazar-i-Sharif, Justice Stephen Breyer commented:
“[Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell] Holmes said it doesn’t mean you can shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. Well, what is it? Why? Because people will be trampled to death. And what is the crowded theater today? What is the being trampled to death?”
At some point — the point at which a poorly produced youtube video can be watched by thousands and be used to incite a group of extremists to kill an American emissary in cold blood — the whole world is a crowded theater. I don’t mean this as a legal argument; Breyer caveats his comment to death by saying any such legal argument would be the product of a series of cases yet unargued. I simply mean that we live in an age where small actions — actions that should be inconsequential — have outsized effects. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross observed, “In 1991, Jones would most likely have been consigned to the letters-to-the-editor section of the local newspaper.” For all the time spent thinking of all the potential spoilers for the United States’ Middle East policy, there will be any number of acts and events that we never see coming, and these will inevitably undo so much work and care and lives.
I’m considerably more pessimistic today about the United States’ chances to foster new relations with the Arab world than I was last Tuesday, on September 11th. But this is the situation as it exists, not as we would have it be. It is still the beautifully, overwhelmingly complex region that I started studying and never want to stop. That is what’s brought me here, to this site, and I’m very excited to be writing and editing for The Jerusalem Review. I don’t pretend to understand all of this or even very much of it, but I’m trying, and I think we could all stand to try to understand more. Most of all, I look forward learning from the people who take the time to read these posts. As long as there’s more understanding out there, then maybe there’s room for more optimism as well.
J. Dana Stuster is a Senior Editor for The Jerusalem Review.
Photo credit: News of the Yemeni Revolution/Facebook