Fixing Bush’s Mess Rather than Re-Branding It

I am an Obama supporter but I still think that Resa Aslan’s editorial is a must read for every American voter and elected official:

It’s just this sort of blunder — naive, well-meaning, amateurish, convinced that everyone understands the goodness of U.S. intentions — that worries me again these days. That’s because a curious and dangerous consensus seems to be forming among the chattering classes, on both the left and the right, that what the United States needs in these troubling times is not knowledge and experience but a “fresh face” with an “intuitive sense of the world,” and that the mere act of electing Obama will put us on the path to winning the so-called war on terror.  . . . That is how the post-Bush “war on terror” must be handled. Not by “re-branding” the mess George W. Bush has made, but by actually fixing it.  

Aslan then explains the complexities and cntradictions of the national security challenges that confront the United States in the Middle East.  Enjoy!



  1. Thanks Hellmut. I concur. What America needs is an end to empire-building. I like this piece from the same article (emphasis mine):

    He is angry because of Washington’s unconditional support for Israel; because the United States has more than 150,000 troops in Iraq; because the United States gives the dictator of his country some $2 billion a year in aid, the vast majority of which goes toward supporting a police state. He is angry at the United States because he thinks it has hegemony over almost every aspect of his world.

    What to do about Israel is a real conundrum. I subscribe to the blow-back theory (bad foreign policy eventually bites you in the a$$), and an interventionist foreign policy like Bush’s (and some of his predecessors’ policies) almost always comes back to haunt the US.

    As far as re-branding, I’m a bit upset that congressional Democrats haven’t stepped up this past year as we had hoped they would. They’ve backed some of the latest FISA proposals, Clinton talks of keeping troops in Iraq, and on the more extreme side, they haven’t done much to curb the Gitmo problem, the Military Commissions Act, the PATRIOT Act, and other civil liberties crises. It’s almost like they think they know for certain that the next president will be Democrat (a boy can dream, right?), and that they want to maintain much of the (illegal & unconstitutionally expansive) executive authority for themselves. I hope that’s not the case.


  2. I am not sure what to do about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict either, David. It seems to me that the root cause of the problem is the weakness and incapacity of the Arab states.

    That results in three deleterious effects. First, instead of using their military to protect their states from external enemies, Arab governments misuse it to dominate their people and to a lesser degree prey on even weaker neighbors such as Lebanon. Second, the Palestinian government does not enjoy a monopoly of coercive/violent resources. There are too many private militias, which make it impossible to give Israel security guarantees. Third, the imbalance of power tempts Israel into inconsiderate and illegitimate behavior such as settlement construction in the occupied territories.

    The problem is that the people who hate us most, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, have actually the greatest capacity to built more effective Arab states.

    My sense is that it might be possible to recognize more opportunities if we resist the temptation to demand immediate solutions.

    Instead we need to analyze Arab politics with a fine toothed comb and act on the limited opportunities that present themselves. In the process, we might be able to transform not only our reputation but Arab politics by developing win-win solutions.

    Unfortunately, neither our media, political leaders nor American citizens posses even the rudimentary qualifications to see such a policy through. The first step needs to be to learn enough about Arabs that we can begin to understand them on their own terms.


  3. Well said, Hellmut.

    The US (hereafter “we”) has a terrible track record at Middle East dealings. We’ve got Rumsfeld (!) of all people shaking hands with Saddam in 1983, and Carter toasting the Shah like your article mentioned, the Egyptian/Libyan problem, Bush family financial ties to the Saudi elite (including bin Laden, whose link to 9/11 is, at best, indirect), etc. etc. Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and the sequel “Collapse” both outline the modern geo-political hotbeds and the demand for natural resources. Sure enough, the two overlap nearly 100%. So although your points are all correct, I would add that the energy situation needs to be part of the Middle East issue as well (if not THE issue – the US usually doesn’t play “global philanthropist” without expecting something in return). Even though our ties to Israel are less tangible in terms of natural resources (more theological/ideological than anything), the energy equation and relations with Israel are not entirely seperable. How do we do it? I don’t know for sure, but “re-branding” it, like you mention above, doesn’t stop the problem at its core, it only (temporarily) heals some of the symptoms.

    Sometimes I wonder if strict isolationism is really the only policy that can work over there (my only concern is what would the backlash be among the Jewish/Christian contingent in the US by not backing Israel’s every wish. I know CUFI would have a hissy fit, but who else?). It would take quite a lot of work to understand Arabs “on their own terms” as an entire nation, especially after what most folks feel they did to the US on 9/11. Perhaps Obama is a good segue into Middle East understanding. I haven’t studied him out much – I suspect he’ll get these sorts of questions in the debates.


  4. During the last decade, political economists have developed the rentier state hypothesis, which argues that Arab states are not becoming democracies because their governments can rely on oil revenue.

    It’s a no taxation without representation argument. In western Europe, kings, the experts of coercion, had to rely on their subjects to raise money for war. As a result, institutions such as parliaments emerged that facilitated the cooperation between the crown and the population.

    If a government can rely on mining proceeds then there is no need to reach an accommodation with the people and states will remain relatively weak in spite of sufficient funding.


  5. So you’re suggesting that all attempts at exporting (American) democracy to the Middle East are moot because of potential economic turmoil within the Arab states? Because I fervently agree with that. It’s nice that you illustrate the economic angle (rentier state hypothesis), because I arrived at the same conclusion through the ideological angle (they don’t want Bush’s brand of democracy because it would disrupt long-held ideologies about the West).


  6. It actually goes farther than that, David. The rentier state hypothesis explains why strong states, much less democracy, did not occur in any of the oil states.

    If the rentier hypothesis is correct and the financial autonomy of governments due to mining proceeds are the obstacle, then foreign interference may cause the same problem. Foreign aid, be it military or development assistance, also creates rents that render the government autonomous from society.

    Worse, in some cases the same logic might even apply to foreign investment. In places such as Indonesia, for example, the World Bank, the IMF and foreign corporations have been rewarding political elites with jobs and property in ways that have completely redefined the incentive structures for members of the government.

    Instead of cooperating with Indonesians in pursuit of their priorities, officials now work towards their next job with an international organization or a share of joined venture for one of the members of their extended family.

    These are unintended consequences and I know of no study that has attempted to estimate the extend of the problem but there are a number of anecdotes that suggest that the rentier state hypothesis might apply to both foreign aid as well as foreign investment.


  7. If you’re looking for an audience that holds the World Bank and the IMF in disgust, you’re preaching to the choir with me. I totally see where you’re going and I like it.

    It seems to me that most forms of interventionism have negative blowback of some kind. The difference with Bush, however, is that the blowback with his foreign policy is not as delayed as, say, Reagan’s (helped Hussein fight the Iranians) or Eisenhower’s (used the CIA to install the Sha in Iran), or every president, to some degree or another, since the 1940s with Israel (I have a bumper sticker that reads: “America is Israel’s Bitch” and it’s true). All of these other blowbacks took a longer time than Bush’s to manifest themselves. Bush’s interventionism stunk from the beginning, and it only took the country 2 years for 75% of the people to swing that way (incidentally, these 25%-ers who think he is doing fine – I’ve never met one, not a single one. Who are they?), let alone the rest of the world to notice it.

    Okay, since it seems that democracy is not a successful export to the Middle East (ideologies rarely are), the question I have is: Do they really need democracy? What makes us think that they need it?


  8. Arab states need good relations between governments and societies.

    Otherwise, Arab states will be too weak to deliver anything. That’s most obvious with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

    Israel has legitimate security concerns, which the Palestinian leadership cannot satisfy because their government does not enjoy a monopoly of legitimate violence. Instead you have a number of autonomous militias and terrorist groups that can torpedo the peace process at will.

    The Syrian government, for example, is so dysfunctional that it cannot satisfy the needs of its constituents without plundering Lebanon. If there were good government-society relations then the economy could grow and the political elites could sustain power by capturing a share of the growing pie.

    The absence of strong Arab states contributes to problems as diverse as inadequate education and infrastructure, environmental degradation, lack of health care, and domestic and international violence.

    Scapegoating Israel and ethnic minorities is to some degree a function of Arab governments’ incompetence. Stoking ethnic violence can be a convenient distraction from one’s own incompetence.

    Finally, weak Arab states create an unhealthy imbalance of power, which tempts Israelis to pursue their interests (affordable housing, water etc.) at the expense of Palestinians. The resulting grievances then undermine the security of Israel.

    My argument with respect to the World Bank is powerful insofar as one can assume that the decision makers have the best intentions but the unintended consequences of their actions undermine the political development of third world countries.

    The achilles heel of America’s strategic posture since the end of World War II has traditionally been that we focussed on governments to the detriment of people. That’s how we lost China, Cuba, Iran and Nicaragua.

    During the Cold War that was fine. Rebuilding the economies of Europe and Japan, we contained Soviet expansion and outgrew that challenge.

    The war against Islamic fundamentalists, however, is about the people. The people shelter terrorists and insurgents. The people generate the information that is necessary to find, detain, and kill our opponents.

    Fortunately, our fanatic and cruel opponents have antagonized people even more than we did. Rather than relying on the mistakes of our enemies, we can do a better job ourselves.


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