Pulling Out: Debating Middle East Disengagement (Negative)
In his affirmative case Dr. Finel has presented very little evidence to support the claim that disengagement from the Middle East will have advantages for us or for the people of the Middle East. Indeed, in comments he has noted that he doesn’t really favor complete disengagement from the Middle East. I don’t believe that satisfies the resolution being debated and it certainly doesn’t have enough specificity for me to identify exactly what he proposes. If the claim is that a little less military involvement will result in a lot more security, there are good reasons to believe that’s not true.
The approach that Dr. Finel has proposed is a characteristically American one: Americans are always actors, never reactors; people in other countries never have agendas of their own but are merely responding to American overreaching; the solution is to withdraw to our own shores and leave them to their own devices and problems. I recognize it because I recognize the isolationist tendencies within myself. It is tempting but America will never be Switzerland; our footprints are simply too heavy, our fingerprints too large.
Dr. Finel is, essentially, making a comparative benefits argument. comparing the status quo to some level of disengagement from the Middle East. I don’t believe there is any reason to believe that we can achieve 100% of the benefits of disengagement from the Middle East without withdrawing completely from the Middle East and that, for good or ill, is beyond our grasp since it would be both unconstitutional and politically difficult. In order to eliminate what Dr. Finel has characterized as our fingerprint from the Middle East we would not only need to remove our military bases from the Middle East but we would need to ban travel between the United States and the Middle East, trade with the Middle East, prohibit American NGO’s from operating in the Middle East, and so on.
It would be possible to debate what proportion of the benefits could be achieved by some lesser degree of disengagement. I believe that the answer is zero; there is no fractional solution.
Without more compelling evidence Dr. Finel’s plan is little more than handwaving and wishful thinking.
To begin the history of our increasing engagement in the Middle East with the Carter Doctrine is to misunderstand it. From World War II to the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine and increased U. S. engagement with the Middle East, the countries of the region went to war with each other and European countries more than 15 times. The U. S. wasn’t a party to any of these conflicts. When the Carter Doctrine was promulgated Lebanon was engaged in a lengthy civil war, the Soviet were engaged in a war in Afghanistan, Iran had overthrown the Shah, invaded our embassy, and was holding our diplomats hostage, and relations between Iran and Iraq had already deteriorated. This deterioration culminated in the war between the two countries that took more than 800,000 lives. The entire region threatened to descend into chaos. That’s when we became involved.
Since our increased involvement there have been additional wars in the Middle East but their tempo and severity have decreased. Nothing has approached the level of tension evident in 1980 at least until the deterioration of the situation in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 following the U. S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (don’t look to me to defend the invasion of Iraq—I opposed it).
I believe the evidence speaks clearly: the increased U. S. engagement in the region has overall been a stabilizing force.
In my negative cross-examination Dr. Finel challenged me to produce an explanation for negative views of the United States among people in the Middle East:
If you can explain 83% unfavorable ratings—in countries that are largely American allies—with some other data point, I’m open to reconsidering my argument. But I just think the data leads one to the conclusion that it is American involvement that is generating a backlash.
I have two.
The first is that our simple existence presents a challenge to traditional Islam. In his 1964 pamphlet Milestones Sayyid Qutb wrote:
The Western ways of thought … [have] an enmity toward all religion, and in particular with greater hostility toward Islam. This enmity toward Islam is especially pronounced and many times is the result of a well-thought-out scheme the object of which is first to shake the foundations of Islamic beliefs and then gradually to demolish the structure of Muslim society.
In his earlier article, The America I Saw, he singled our country out for special criticism. Western modernity, as exemplified by the United States, was to Qutb intrinsically a threat to Islam. Qutb is among the most important intellectual godfathers of contemporary Islamism. The Islamists who have followed Qutb and were inspired by him have included Khomeini, bin Laden, and Zawahiri.
For them there is nothing short of our conversion to their own repressive form of Islam that would satisfy them and they preach violence against both us and the more moderate in their view apostate countries of the Middle East to achieve their goals. Our engagement with the Middle East provides a pretext for their actions but that engagement is not the cause of their actions and, consequently, disengagement would have little effect on them while ceding most of the advantages we have in the region.
The second is that we don’t control what’s said about us in the Middle East and most people there get their information about us from sources that aren’t favorable to us for their own reasons. A recent poll of Iraqis found that a majority of Iraqis had an unfavorable view of Americans and that only a very small minority of Iraqis had ever seen an American including American soldiers. Iraq is undoubtedly the country in the Middle East with the greatest American presence. If the Iraqis’ knowledge of Americans is second and third hand, what must its nature be in Sudan where our presence is significantly smaller?
However, I share Dr. Finel’s dissatisfaction with the status quo and I would like to present a counter-plan. I propose a significantly increased level of engagement with the Middle East but an engagement in which the mix has changed substantially with reduced military engagement, a prospect which is already under way, and increased social, intellectual, and economic engagement.
American soft power is an asset not a liability. We should be encouraging it and spreading it. The remedy for bad second-hand information isn’t no information: it’s good first-hand information. We should be spreading American soft power via American tourists, American products, American students, and, especially, American businessmen. Historically, we have been very successful at liberalizing trade. That should be a prime objective of our foreign policy, we should continue to encourage it. More trade means more prosperity, more prosperity means an increasing tendency to embrace modernity, a greater tendency to embrace modernity means a more favorable view of America, the emblem of modernity.
Yes, this will provoke violent radical Islamists. It will be good for us and for most people in the Middle East and in the long run it will promote greater security for all of us.