Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why blame the Middle East problems on Obama?

Americans or at least some prominent ones are quick to criticize Obama's handling of the various Middle Eastern problems.  He is too soft, too indecisive and just plain wrong.

It is easy to fault any one action, but one should realize the choices are not all that clear.  People tend to forget the background to the decisions and overlook some of the critical details.

Where to start?  Palestine might be one logical place.  The Palestinians are continually pictured as less civilized and controlled by terrorists.  Why do they seem so ungrateful and hateful?  If you realize the fight is for land and for freedom you might understand why.  They too were promised things, but either they weren't forceful or clever enough and they have been effectively stifled.

Israel has an ancient history and we Westerners rightly consider it one of the essential sources of our culture.  Jews gave the world a monotheistic view.  They were forced out of their land and spread mostly across Europe and later around the globe.  By hard work, intelligence and focused behaviour they were successful to the point of stirring resentment some of which was expressed as anti-Semitism.  The Nazis took it to a new level of hate and after World War II the world realized six million were killed under horrifying circumstances.  Jews did not feel safe in Europe and worried about anti-Semitism wherever they located.  Political movements, mainly Zionism sought out a permanent home and the most logical was Palestine.  The only problem was that other people already were living there.

The world felt guilty and ironically anti-Semitism also played in role in agreeing to set aside land for the Jews in Palestine.  The newly formed United Nations had a vote which declared specific land for the Jews, but also land for the Palestinians.  An article by William R Polk reminds me that the British presided over the independence of India including partitioning off Pakistan that resulted in millions dying.  The British also controlled Palestine when it was divided and literally thousands also died and many others relocated.  Through a series of events (some self inflicted by the Palestinians) the Jewish territory expanded and the Palestinians never did get their promised share. Although oil rich Arabs surrounding the area did invest some of their money and lot of their rhetoric to support the Palestinian cause they never got the support that the Jews did from America, Europe and the rest of the world.    There is a mix of resentment and fear also mixed with some Biblical self-rightiousness.  Some of the significant support for the Jews actually comes from American Evangelicals who await the second coming of Christ and believe that for that to happen the Jews have to control the Holy Land.

An obvious source of distrust is that the Israelis persist in making Jewish settlements in occupied territory although they have been told (it is hard to believe they would need to be told) this is very offensive.  They restrict Palestinians in countless ways at the borders not only for crossing, but for business.  Yes Israeli Arabs are better off.

The Palestinians have been ignored and abused for many decades and they are pictured in our media as uneducated with an insane desire to kill Jews.  There very definitely are a lot of fanatics who hate Jews and unfortunately this number is probably increasing. They have their own version of the situation, but it hasn't gotten much credence in the American mainstream media.  But if you think about it there are some grounds for their resentment.  Other Muslims around the world use what they see as very unfair treatment of their co-religionists by Westerners in their fight against us.

Syria and Iraq.  Let's go back a few years.  Both countries had their borders defined after World War I to the convenience of the wheeling and dealing winning powers.  Ethnic and religious concerns were not considered as important as oil and European maneuverings for colonial power.   The western powers felt dealing with relatively secular dictators superior to fairness to the teeming masses.  It seemed likely that any alternative to the dictators might be religious fanatics who would be much more difficult to deal with.

George Bush Sr was confronted by a problem and was able to organize a coalition to force Iraq to give up Kuwait.  He stopped short of conquering Iraq and replacing Saddam Hussein and that upset some right wingers in the United States.  It was a very delicate situation.  The American government had received United Nations authorization and had negotiated a coalition of many nations with differing perspectives.  Saddam Hussein proved himself adept at taking advantage of the situation to restore himself to full dictatorial power.

9-11 caught a lot of people off guard.  Why would anyone want to do such a horrible thing?  There really is no justification for killing so many innocent people.  Ignorance, resentment and hate played a role.  Quickly it was realized that the deed had been organized in Afghanistan (a story in itself) and Americans planned to attack in order to root out the terrorists.  Nobody much quarreled with that decision, but others saw it as an opportunity to get back at Saddam Hussein who they felt had suckered Americans in their last conflict.  Saddam had more reason to fear Al Qaeda than did Americans, but nonetheless some political factions claimed there was a tie-in.

The Iraq invasion proved to be an expensive distraction that has hurt America immeasurably.   They had not captured Osama bin Ladin and although they had greatly diminished the Taliban, they had not replaced it with anything solid.  On one side the Taliban (with help from Pakistan, a supposed ally) rebuilt itself and became a major factor again.  On the other side where Iraq had not harboured Al Qaeda  now became a recruiting base for them.  Religious and ethnic factions became unbottled and in effect a civil war resulted.  The Americans made at least two big mistakes--they had been advised to go in with a much larger number of ground troops, but authorities ridiculed that notion.  They were never able to clamp down enough to control the situation.  The second big mistake was to get rid of the bureaucratic and military infrastructure, men and women with necessary skills and knowledge to get things done.  Underlying these game changing errors was a basic ignorance of the country.

Iran is another country often depicted as uncivilized.  Americans forget they engineered a coup d'etat of a democratically elected Iranian ruler.  If this is brought up, the right wing points out that the Iranians were planning to nationalize their own oil as if the Westerners should have total control over it.  The Western powers favoured the Shah of Iran who with their help set up a harsh secret police force to control the masses.  As the Pope helped bring down Communist dictators so Ayatollah Khomeini helped bring down the Shah.  The Americans were delighted when the Iraquis  decided to invade Iran and supported them with amongst others things poisonous gas.  We, in the West  looked at them as fanatics who stormed and controlled the American Embassy for 444 days.  So each side blames the other, but they had begun to work together for mutual concerns.  Although they had received some Iranian help in the fight against terrorists, the Americans thought to frame Iran as one of the "Axis of Evil."  Now Iran is trying to assert itself to become a nuclear power causing fear in the rest of the world.

The so-called "Arab Spring" opened up another big can of worms.  Many factors were involved such as food prices, youthful unemployment and political agitation.  The results are very mixed and again a lot of factions have seized the opportunity to force their ideas on others.  Americans could probably had been more helpful if their credibility and resources had not been depleted by mistakes before.  From a conservative point of view Egypt, Libya and Syria were all better off before, except even conservatives wouldn't accept dictatorships in their own country.

Obama has a very complicated mess and limited resources.  It is very easy to offend a faction who feels Israel should be the focus of American foreign policy or those who feel fanatics should be killed at every opportunity  or our energy needs ought to be protected.

Conservative Americans think we ought to forget George Bush Jr's mistakes as if they have no impact on today's circumstances, but how could they not?  Obama has to work with the little credibility we have and try to develop more trust.  He has to balance a lot of domestic (unemployment, inequality, immigration, climate change) and other foreign (Ukraine, North Korea) concerns when his party can easily be blocked by the Republicans in the House of Representatives.

The biggest problem is ignorance and it is on most sides.  Most Middle Easterners and Muslims around the world have many higher priorities than killing Jews or Americans.  Most Westerners have many higher priorities than killing Muslims.  Unfortunately most of us let those with an agenda dictate our agenda.  There are some bridges between cultures, but not nearly enough.  Shed enough light on the situation and you will realize we have more in common than we differ on.

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