A Middle East Policy in Deep Denial

articles by Michael H. HuntDenial is a well known defense mechanism that keeps unpleasant realities at bay. U.S. policymakers seem well practiced in this common coping device. Heaven knows they have good reason, no matter which direction of the Middle East they turn.

Afghanistan seems right now to occasion the deepest denials because the realities are the grimmest. Two reports by the London-based International Council on Security and Development (from March and July of this year) were so gloomy that most U.S. media simply averted their gaze. The reports painted an unambiguously awful picture of the effects of recent military operations inspired by the new U.S. counter-insurgency doctrine. These operations appear to have not just failed but been counterproductive.

At the heart of the two reports are surveys of Afghan men (one group of 427 and another of 552) scattered across the hotly contested southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Two thirds or more regard NATO forces unsympathetically, judge NATO operations as harmful as well as ineffective, oppose a NATO presence either locally or nationally, and dislike countrymen who work with NATO forces. This group holds the Taliban in higher regard than the Kabul government security forces (71 to 57 percent). Tellingly, 84 percent view the ongoing contest for hearts and minds in the context of their ultimate loyalty, which is to Islam (with attachment to the nation of Afghanistan a distant second at 32 percent). Even more tellingly, 75 percent think foreigners are disrespectful of local “religion and traditions.”

In this losing battle, the report depicts the Karzai government as a non-presence. Short-term support for refugees no less than long-term projects for economic development are a crying need, the analysts found, especially to offset the harm to civilians and property done by military operations. Yet the Karzai regime that the American patron imagined would send essential support in the form of “a government in a box” delivered an empty package.

On the Iraq front, the White House added another dollop of unreality by making a media event of the end of combat operations on 31 August. The great gap between the Iraq of American political discourse and the real Iraq was forcefully underscored by a set of interviews conducted by New York Times staffers on Iraqi reactions to Obama’s speech. Those interviewed come across in the main as humiliated, longing for a normal life, and anxious about the future. As a middle-aged man in Mosul put it, “It is Iraq and its people who have lost and will keep losing.”

Demographic data recently compiled by the Population Reference Bureau underlines the terrible state of affairs that was the background against which these Iraqis spoke. Infant mortality, a prime indicator of social welfare, now stands at 84 babies lost per every thousand born, far in excess of neighboring countries, with the exception of Afghanistan’s horrendous rate–twice Iraq’s. The figure for life expectancy, another common indicator, is 67 years, significantly behind almost all countries in the region. Only Afghanistan, where the life span is a stunning 44 years, makes Iraq look good.

Obama’s speech heralding the end of combat operations was most notable for its failure to speak candidly about the future of Iraq. The country is going to stay firmly in the U.S. orbit, and the substantial stay-behind American presence is there to guarantee that outcome. The remaining 50,000 U.S. troops are, however branded, the most formidable armed presence in the country. Behind them is an enormous U.S. diplomatic presence with thousands of personnel, an embassy built like a bunker, a security detail of some seven thousand, and a fleet of armored vehicles. The overall situation gives off the odor of neocolonialism that Iraqis will notice even if Americans preoccupied with their investment of roughly a trillion dollars and their loss of 4400 lives cannot.

Finally, while pretending to write the end of a chapter in the Iraq adventure, Washington was defying reality on another front. It launched — for the umpteenth time and with great fanfare — negotiations over Palestine. In one more demonstration of the power of wishful thinking, Washington plunged ahead professing optimism despite an Israeli record of relentless expansion into occupied territory and dogged resistance to the notion of a real Palestinian state emerging there, a Palestinian Authority drained of prestige and lacking in authority, a Palestinian public no less embittered than Israelis by decades of conflict, and the absence of Hamas as the one Palestinian political entity with some claim to popularity and functioning political institutions. I tremble at the thought that Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama really believe that Netanyahu and Abbas “cannot afford to let [peace] slip away.” Of course they can — and the strong odds in the reality-based community is that they will.

Evidence is a terrible thing to ignore, and a sense of reality an even worse thing to lose. Two presidents, their senior advisers, and a cheer-leading media have indulged in denial on a broad and systematic scale for a decade, and they are in turn part of a pattern going back over the last half century of deepening involvement in the Middle East. Getting beyond denial seems a good idea. A first step would be putting the current brouhaha over Islamophobia at home to one side and instead taking seriously the U.S. impact in the region as people there experience it.

Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.