The first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole, so goes an old saying, is to stop digging. And yet, scorched by an inferno of Arab outrage, Washington refuses to deal honestly and intelligently with its source. Instead, it just keeps on digging. Muslim anger, conservatives bloviate, is the harvest of President Barak Obama’s failure to stand up for friendly dictators. From Rabat to Baghdad, U.S. diplomats will continue to huddle inside walled embassies, estranged from their host peoples. Back home, American lawmakers indulge the worst instincts of Likudnik Israel, abetting an occupation of Palestinian land that remains the wellspring of Muslim antipathy to the West. Though holding firm against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demands for a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear program, Obama has staked his credibility on his promise that the mullahs will never be allowed a bomb, which makes a U.S. strike all but inevitable.
The motivations behind this week’s protests, which included a tragic and inexcusable attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya that killed the American ambassador and three other diplomats, range from the cynical to the sincere. Certainly Islamist groups, now empowered politically by the Arab Spring and expert in the black arts of cultural warfare and the politics of fear, seized upon a primitive anti-Muslim video as proof that Islam is under an apostate siege. (In America this is called “red meat for the base.”) Others are simply tired of Westerners defiling their faith, be they oafish film makers or lunatic preachers burning copies of the Koran.
The roots for this most recent Arab uproar, however, extend well beyond a puerile depiction of the prophet Mohammed. A century ago, European governments partitioned the Levant to control its oil and to create a Jewish state in the heart of the Muslim world. In doing so it extinguished a city-state based system of trade and commerce that dated back to the Roman Empire. Gradual economic decline was hastened by the political chaos that followed the West’s war on Arab nationalism along with the Non-Aligned Movement generally. Dispossession and occupation, residuals of the Arab world’s failed wars with Israel, discredited what was left of the nationalists and created a vacuum for political Islam. To counter the Islamists, Washington bankrolled a fraternity of secular autocrats who plundered their nation’s treasuries and criminalized dissent. Much of the region’s secular professionals and intellectual elites – Jews and Christians as well as Muslims – emigrated, taking their wealth and expertise with them and leaving behind a desiccated and Islamized Middle East.
Sadly, the politicians and pundits in America who interpreted last week’s violence as proof that Arabs are congenitally incapable of ruling themselves are as politically potent as they are historically illiterate. The notion that President Obama or any other U.S. president can manage events in that benighted land, compromised as he or she may be by the nation’s close association with an aggrandizing and increasingly illiberal Israel, is absurd.
If nothing else, the asperity expressed in Arab cities last week provided a sample of what may come should Obama make good his pledge to attack a nuclearized Iran. Imagine the specter of U.S. Marines deployed throughout the Muslim world to protect American embassies and to evacuate their non-essential personnel on the eve of such an attack. It may well happen. Largely because of pressure from its political right, the hole that Washington has dug for itself in the Middle East may as well be a bottomless pit.