America’s Lasting Stranglehold on the Middle East

People who actually work for the military empire and aren’t running for office tend to be very honest about America’s monstrous foreign policy. The fact that America has helped prop up barbarous dictatorships throughout the Middle East for decades isn’t really allowed in the polite political debates of the day, never mind that they badly want that system to continue.

Aaron David Miller, who has been an advisor to six Secretaries of State and is now a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, isn’t like the lying politicians, though. He is honest when he laments the troubling prospect of America’s Middle East puppet-dictators going the way of the dodo bird. “Many of the big and not-so-big men who held America in thrall and their own people hostage,” Miller regretfully mourns, “are now gone or going.” The Arab Spring, he fears, is changing America’s system of domination over the region.

Miller reminisces fondly about what he calls “the acquiescent authoritarians, those presidents and kings on whom America depended to help protect its interests.”

They were constant, if not always agreeable, companions. Egypt’s Mubarak, Jordan’s King Hussein, Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Yemen’s Ali Saleh, Morocco’s King Hassan II, Saudi Arabia’s kings Fahd and Abdullah. The PLO’s Yasir Arafat rounded out the group photo.

America’s arrangements with the acquiescents (and their sons, relatives, and successors) weren’t pretty, but they were clear: In exchange for their cooperation in matters of war, peace, oil, and security, the United States supported them and looked past their prodigal ways, human rights abuses, authoritarian behavior, and faux reforms.

While the events of the last year have certainly shaken the foundations of the longstanding U.S. approach to the geo-strategically important Middle East – that of keeping brutal yet obedient dictators in power – the system is far from extinction. Change is sweeping the region and some nations are in a state of flux, but American influence is still working very hard to suppress that change. And for the most part, it’s working.

In Yemen, long-time U.S. client dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh is no longer president. Yemenis voted in February in a referendum on a U.S.-backed transition deal to formally depose Saleh and elect his deputy Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who was the only name on the ballot. The deal granted Saleh total immunity for the crimes he committed while on Washington’s dole. U.S. aid to prop up Hadi is now back in full force, partly in exchange for allowing Washington to dramatically escalate the drone war there with impunity, just as Saleh did. Much of Saleh’s cronies are still in power in Yemen and nothing substantive has changed in the government as far as the U.S. is concerned.

In Egypt, the veritable epicenter of the Arab revolutions, the military junta that served under ousted-U.S. puppet Hosni Mubarak still rules the country. Parliamentary elections have taken place, a constitution is being written up, and presidential elections are on the way. But few doubt who is really in charge. The military rulers recently barred ten presidential candidates from the election, including two front-runners. The constitutional process is in shambles and the secular, liberal forces in the country that sparked the revolution have been marginalized all along the way. Much of this is because of the internal politics of Egypt, but the U.S. is still sending billions of dollars in aid to Egypt and continues to arm the military rulers, even as they have brutalized peaceful protesters. The future isn’t certain but as things stand, much of the status quo has been maintained.

In Bahrain, the repressive monarchy is still in place after a year of protests urging reform and terrible murder and systematic torture in response, thanks to the Obama administration’s dedicated support. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is considered by Washington as a geopolitical asset in the strategically important Persian Gulf, also serving as a bulwark against Shiite Iran. Over $92 million in aid has been sent since Obama’s inauguration and another $22.4 million slated for 2012 and 2013. The Obama administration has quietly moved forward with a new package of arms sales to the regime in Bahrain, after international pressure forced them to delay its planned $53 million arms sale. Despite claims of reform, the dictatorship is as entrenched as ever.

After an invasion and occupation which Americans were promised would result in a free and democratic Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has consolidated power and is carving himself out a dictatorship. Sectarian violence is widespread and freedom is a lost a concept as ever, and Washington continues to support the Iraqi regime. The services rendered are the same as they’ve been throughout the Middle East for decades: comply with Washington’s demands, suppress democracy for your people.

We can go on like this. Miller actually admits that U.S.-supported dictatorships in the Gulf Arab states “have fared considerably better than the presidents of the phony republics.” But this isn’t something to shrug off. The puppet authoritarian governments on the U.S. dole include Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Jordan. Together with the aforementioned, its clear the U.S. still has a stranglehold on any sort of democracy in the Middle East.

Miller’s lament ends with this:

In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly quipped about the Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza that he may be a son of bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch. Those days are over for America in the Middle East. SOBs may still emerge, but they won’t be ours. That may prove to be very good thing. But for now, America is in for a very rough patch in the new Middle Eastern Oz. And unfortunately, unlike Dorothy, we can’t just click our heels and go back to Kansas.

It remains to be seen what will come of this period of flux. But I’m thinking Miller should be more optimistic. American-induced despotism still reigns.

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