Mar 12, 2006 1:56 am


A colleague of mine, an expert on Indonesia, says that every time he goes to interview leaders of militant Islamist and terrorist groups there, he sees on their shelves books by radical Western authors which bash the United States and the West in general. Often, they even cite such works as proving their claims that America and the West are evil, corrupt, and their sworn enemy; that the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis didn’t happen; or that September 11 was an American or Israeli conspiracy.

Now, a new Hollywood film, “Syriana,” reinforces many of these stereotypes. The plot of the film is that there is an American plot. A good Arab prince wants democracy and reform but the CIA kills him to install a terrible, repressive dictatorship.

This is the classical leftist narrative in such matters, but it has nothing to do with the Middle East or with U.S. Middle East policy.

To understand the situation better, let’s contrast the Middle East with Latin America. There, such arguments do make sense. In Latin America, military dictatorships rotated with civilian, often elected governments. There were strong democratic movements which always offered alternatives, as well as mass opposition to military regimes. At times, U.S. support for dictatorships were a significant factor in their taking power or staying in power.

The Middle East, however, has been totally different. There is not a single Arab government in power because it was helped into office or kept there by the United States. With the exception of Lebanon, there have been no real democratic alternatives in the past. The dictatorial regimes, both radical Arab nationalist and traditionalist monarchies, have enjoyed mass support. Indeed, in sharp contrast to Latin America, where only Communist Cuba was at odds with the United States, the worst repressive regimes in the Middle East were not clients but enemies of America.

There are many ironies in the newly minted notion that the United States is responsible for Arab dictatorships. One of them is that any American pressure on such regimes was portrayed not only by the rulers but by Arab intellectuals, academics, and journalists as imperialistic, anti-Arab and at times anti-Muslim. Even many of those who are now relative liberals who complain about U.S. policy were in the past on the regimes’ side and attacked any American efforts to encourage moderation and reform.

Another factor is that the United States did periodically push for change, as one can see not only from the public record but from the diplomatic archives. In the early 1950s, U.S. policymakers believed—albeit wrongly—that young, clean-cut, earnest army officers might bring honest government which was both nationalist (and anti-Communist) and modernizing. Only when these rulers, notably Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, showed themselves to be both pro-Moscow and bent on dominating the region did the United States turn against them.

In 1958, when U.S. forces did intervene in Lebanon to end the civil war there, they pressed the government to make reforms to balance out ethnic grievances. President John Kennedy’s urgings of reform in Iran had some effect on the shah’s policies, while President Jimmy Carter’s similar efforts helped unintentionally spark the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 which led things in quite the opposite direction. Even during the revolution, the U.S. government never urged the shah toward repression and tried—again a miserable failure—to bring about a transition to a moderate, nationalist, democratic regime.

In the mythology of radical Islamism, the United States was the reason for their failure to make revolutions in the 1990s. What is notable, however, is the lack of U.S. intervention. Not a single Arab regime sought American troops, counterinsurgency advice, or special military aid to combat the Islamists. During the Algerian civil war, for example, U.S. policy followed what might be called a position of strict neutrality. The Islamists don’t want to admit that a combination of their own failure to win mass support plus the clever maneuvering of the regimes was the cause of their defeat everywhere.

The notion that Saudi Arabia is not a democratic state because of U.S support for the monarchy there is ludicrous, given the legitimacy enjoyed by the regime, the strength of its controls, and the even more totalitarian nature of its—extremely limited—opposition up until very recently.

Part of the problem is that the radical Arab nationalist regimes which have ruled Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and several other countries during the past half-century have been able to present themselves as “progressive.” In fact, though, they have been miserable failures at modernization, the most ruthless in terms of repression, and pursued social policies that were generally conservative. A citizen of the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, or Jordan has been far better treated by his government than a counterpart in Iraq, Libya, or Syria. The truly repressive regimes have been Soviet clients and the main proponents of anti-Americanism. If the United States helped to a limited degree to prevent a radical Arab nationalist takeover in, say, Jordan, this was a blow for a less repressive regime.

And all of this leaves out the fact that for the last few years the United States has been the main proponent of democratic reform in the region, truly putting this issue on the agenda. At a time when European states did relatively little, it was the U.S. policy that urged reform. All of this has led Gamil Mattar, director of Arab Center for Development and Future Research, to conclude that the result of the U.S. pro-democratization policy has been at least to make Arab government pretend to be doing more for change while their people are watching them more critically and might some day demand that those promises be fulfilled. He concludes: “If I were one of the architects of Washington's reform offensive, I would feel quite smug at the effect I produced.”

So here’s my proposal for a Hollywood big-budget film. Courageous Arab liberals, inspired by the United States and admiring its democracy, struggle to reform their society while being murdered and intimidated by repressive Arab nationalist officials and Islamist revolutionary terrorists. The rulers mouth left-wing, Third Worldist, anti-imperialist clichés while looting their own countries; the Islamists proclaim their piety while menacing respected traditionalist clerics.

Why do I doubt this film will be coming soon to your local theatres?

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