Beware of Westerners bearing gifts
With a Bible in one hand and the US Constitution in the other, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in Cairo: “America is a force for good in the Middle East.”
This is not Barack Obama’s America, Pompeo said. Obama got it all wrong “in falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East,” he said.
With the evangelical Pompeo, however, the Trump administration has a direct line to the angels. Armed with God’s Truth — the official transcript used a capital T — Pompeo insisted that Washington has recovered from Obama’s misguided flirtation with the Antichrist. The United States, he assured his audience at the American University of Cairo, will no longer “partner with enemies.” Under Trump’s leadership, Washington will set everything right, Pompeo implied.
Even as US forces from Afghanistan to Syria prepared to obey the president’s directive to retreat, Pompeo’s solution to the shortcomings of US policy in the region, both real and imagined, is more not less American intervention.
The idea that the West’s presence is a selfless sacrifice by those offering the gift of progress is as old as the modern Euro-American romance with intervention. Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt lasted only three years but established a pattern of foreign rule and the parallel mobilisation of local opposition that has repeated itself with sobering regularity over the last two centuries.
Like the United States today, Britain in its imperial heyday also fashioned itself as a “force for good.” British General Stanley Maude on March 19, 1917, proclaimed “to the people of Baghdad” after the entry of the victorious British Army to that Ottoman city: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators. It is [Britain’s] wish that you should prosper even as in the past.”
The commitments embodied in Maude’s gracious words proved more difficult to establish than to declare.
His speech was drafted by one of the modern era’s most self-interested imperial architects, Sir Mark Sykes, the famous co-author of the secret treaty that carved up much of the Middle East between the war’s victors — London and Paris — and set the stage for today’s miseries.
Maude died from cholera within months of his announcement, a telling metaphor for the West’s bittersweet sojourn in the Orient. Britain ruled Iraq for decades — a “forever occupation” of unanticipated consequences that spanned two world wars and helped create a political system that produced Saddam Hussein. Yet the aspirations and ideals that Maude’s remarks embody continue to inspire new generations of Western occupiers and administrators from Kabul to Baghdad, Mosul and Raqqa.
This history is forever etched into the national consciousness of the region’s people. Foreign occupation has assumed many forms since Napoleon. The British and French administered Egypt’s affairs before British forces occupied Cairo in 1882 and remained pre-eminent until the Suez crisis. The Mandate system imposed after World War I created a contest between foreign rule and local leaders that was resolved only when the occupiers’ flag was lowered.
The defeat of this system by local nationalists after World War II set the stage for military regimes whose power has withstood all challenges — from both the ballot box and the battlefield.
To this list of good deeds, one must now add Washington’s post 9/11 rationale for Western intervention — saving the peoples of the region from the atrocities of Islam’s extremists.
In the last four decades, foreign armies have occupied four Arab capitals — Beirut, Tripoli, Baghdad and Kuwait City — and citizens have challenged rulers in many others, a testament to both the enduring attraction of the region in Western councils and the pervasive weakness of a region that invites such adventurism.
The “forever wars” of the post 9/11 generation show no sign of abating. If Pompeo is correct, Washington, with or without the president himself, will stake its claim as a force for good by bringing the fight to its enemies with a virulence and commitment unequalled by its hapless predecessors.
Victory, however, even with God on your side, is not preordained. The team on the other side of the chessboard has a vote in the outcome. Indeed, America’s conquest of Iraq in 2003 is the best and most instructive example of the perils of the kind of self-deception championed by Washington.
“The war produced profound consequences,” concludes a recent two-volume report on the Iraq conflict by the US Army. “An emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor. Iraq, the traditional regional counterbalance for Iran, is at best emasculated, and at worst has key elements of its government acting as proxies for Iranian interests.”
Washington can choose to waste capital and essential resources in “forever wars” but who can blame the long-suffering people of the Arab world who continue to pay the price of the not-so-benevolent legacy inspired by this agenda?