This morning on the metro I was listening to a Leonard Lopate Show podcast where Leonard interviews Fredrik Logevall on his new book Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. What struck me as interesting was how Logevall described Ho Chi Min’s travels to New York and Boston, his great admiration for the U.S., and how his fierce anti-colonialism was inspired by the Declaration of Independence. As a matter of fact, most anti-colonialist movements after World War II were inspired by America’s independence, yet ironically, the U.S. was at the time, and continues to be to this day, staunchly pro-colonialist.
Logevall attributes the U.S.’s choice immediately after the World War II to side with French colonialism in Vietnam against independence not so much to the fear of the spread of communism, but for its desire to have a strong France strike a power balance across Europe.
Whether or not the same is also true for North Africa and the Middle East, the U.S. consciously choice to support colonialism, neo-colonialism (the replacement of a foreign power with an internal regime that treats its own country as if it were a colony), and right-wing dictatorships over populist, secular and pro-democracy movements in the name of fighting communism.
Morocco is a perfect example. After having suffered a generation of French and Spanish imperialism, when the U.S. troops arrived on Moroccan coasts, the contrast was striking (as Fatima Mernissi describes nicely in Dreams of Trespass). The American soldiers were clean, kind and respectful, unlike their European counterparts. After the War and prior to independence, when grassroots, pro-democracy groups were forming, armed with American democratic values, the U.S. government chose the French. And after Morocco achieved its independence some 10 years later, the U.S. government then chose the monarchy. It was better to have a dictatorship you could finance and military bases where you could park artillery than the threat that free elections posed: labor unions, socialism, dominoes falling.
Does this sounds familiar? It should. Flash forward another 50 years, and while the dictatorships in North Africa and the Middle East are all vestiges of the U.S.’s post World War II Cold War policies, our continued, unadulterated support for those regimes (with the only exceptions of Iraq and Libya) have evolved into support based on shielding our interests from the threat free elections may lead to Islamic fundamentalism. Even now as the Arab Spring has been an overwhelmingly secular expression of peoples’ thirst for democracy, the U.S. has been adamant in its ongoing support for its oppressive puppets. So where was George W. Bush’s freedom crusade when during the first days of unrest in Cairo, Hillary declared her close family ties to the Mubaraks? How is it that the U.S. can hold Israel up on a pedestal as the only democracy in the Middle East when the U.S. has supported and continues to support each and every dictatorship in the region (with the sole exception of Iran)? You wonder whether Israel’s democracy is purely anecdotal and the U.S. would continue to give its Congressional standing ovations to Israeli prime ministers even if they were undemocratic tyrants.
Well, you might say that the U.S. did not support Kaddafi in Libya and has included Syria in the Axis of Evil, and thus doesn’t support all of the region’s despots. But, that’s just pure rhetoric. In Kaddafi’s final years, John McCain, Condalezza Rice and Lindsey Graham all traveled to Libya, courted the General, and made the peace. We even gave him U.S. military technology. What did we get in return? Promises on terrorism, his torture chambers, and probably some good oil deals (both olive and petrol). The same goes with Mr. Assad in Syria. Syria may be the enemy but it is the enemy we know and love. Besides having provided the U.S. government with vital intelligence and “interrogation” services, the Syrian regime is also a known known that has gracefully maintained the status quo with Israel. The last thing the U.S. (or Israeli’s want) is the unknown uknown that a democratic Syria could unleash.
So what I find so interesting in all of this is not that the U.S. acts entirely in its sole geo-political interests (be them the War on Terrorism, energy issues, or support for Israel) in opposing democracy and promoting dictatorships in the Middle East, its that the whole Clash of Civilizations narrative – the idea that Middle Eastern culture is on a collision clash with the West because it hates our values — is a complete fraud. What we are seeing today throughout the region is that people want the same basic political and civil freedoms that we have in the West. And here is the irony: the more that people are inspired by the same principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and in the founding principles of Western democracy, the more likely we in the West become suspicious of them. What we would have called a patriot in 1776 Massachusetts, we would call a terrorist or insurgent in 2012. Our Constitution would be considered Jihadist, terrorist propaganda even, in the hands of an Arab.
Thus, the Clash of Civilizations isn’t so much a clash between Western and Middle Eastern cultural values but between Western Geo-Politics and Western Ideology.
As an aside just to highlight how similar our cultures are, during recent trips to Morocco, I have been watching a popular local TV show similar to America’s Got Talent. And guess what? Practically every act revolves around urban American culture from breaking dance, beatboxing, skateboarding, to music. Watch any TV commercial (a great indicator a society’s aspirations), soap opera, or music video, and you’ll see that the Clash lies not in culture but in the impediments will erect that preventing them from having a modern society. But you may add that the Middle East if full of Islamists who anti-women, want to impose their radical ideology and bomb the world. Have you ever listened to a Republican stump speech?