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.
Fairly well said.
However, I’m surprised that you (Dave) didn’t spend any time on the Palestinian issue. Much of the hostility towards the West emanated from the U.N. decisions after WWII. I’m of course not going to suggest that Israel shouldn’t exist or that Jews had no argument for the land (they most certainly did, and good ones at that), but the failure to immediately address the Palestinian issue has made it almost impossible to solve now. And it has festered.
Many if not most Islamic extremists are young college-educated men and see injustices done against their people, a.k.a. innocents getting blown to bits. The Iraq war and other military intervention does the opposite of helping moderate this view, so I’m pleased that you are generally against those. I need far more evidence than one quote to be convinced that they hate us just because of our way of life. At best, it seems like a very, very small part of it.
And I don’t deny there’s a cultural aspect to it it (jihad, jihad, jihad). But there are plenty of moderate Muslims who are rejecting that view, much like most modern Christians reject the oddities of the Old Testament. And my opinion is that, like Shuler, diplomacy and other soft powers are what drive a bigger wedge between the moderates and extremists.
We can’t be an honest broker in the Middle East anyway we are too tied up with Israel…we favour them no matter they do.
I hope PE Obama’s approach will be much more tolerable to allow talks with all sides and not keep favouring just one.
How can peace ever be achieved over there when we allow one side so much freedom to do what they like and the other have to tow the line….that is not acceptable.
In my constructive (this post) I attempted to lay out the contours of a criticism of Dr. Finel’s affirmative case and present a counter-plan. In my rebuttal I will address his specific points (terrorism, energy, Israel).
Since the essence of my negative case is that Dr. Finel’s plan won’t have the consequences he envisions, I took the opportunity to connect American intervention in the Middle East to the greater stability observable in the region since 1980.
Dr. Finel… Dr. Finel… Paging Dr. Finel… lol, I feel like I should be writing a prescription for someone.
Bernard is fine.
And yet you provided even less evidence in opposition to his claim, than he did in support of it. I was quite disappointed in the fact that your negative case amounted to little more than a verbose “would not!”.
The burden of proof is on the affirmative. With any evidence at all (which I’ve provided through historical analysis), in the absence of a compelling evidentiary case on the part of the affirmative the negative should be considered to have prevailed.
And he offered what he considered as a reason to believe that his hypothesis was correct. I was hoping that you would offer counter-evidence showing that it was wrong, but you didn’t, you just claimed it was wrong.
That works in science, but not so well here. You’re not arguing matters of fact, you’re arguing matters of policy, where the “negative” is actually just “the opposite”, and lack of evidence for one position doesn’t mean the opposite position should be presumed correct.
As one who is firmly in the middle here (my heart is with Dr Finel, but my head is in Dave’s camp) I am reading this with great interest. But Dave, your statement,
has left me a little puzzled. What would be unconstitutional about disengagement from the ME? Especially in light of our isolationist beginnings?
“Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Finel, Dr. Howard… Dr. Howard, Dr. Finel, Dr. Howard…”
“Inspired” is not the same as “primary or major motivation”.
You’re missing the key question – what effect would it have on the muslim populations as a whole? Qutb may have believed that accommodation with the US and West was impossible, but if it just him and a few others believing that, then they don’t matter anymore than the small group of people who think we should simply nuke the Arabs off the face of the planet then convert the remnants to Christianity (by force, if necessary).
In other words, while Qutb and some of his ilk may have believed accommodation was impossible, that’s not necessarily what most of the people (and even many of the leaders of the Islamist movement) necessarily believe; most of the violent sects almost always phrase their justifications (to each other, not just in propaganda releases) in defensive terms. “The West invaded the lands of Islam; The West is sitting in the Holy Land; The West invaded Iraq to steal its oil and kills orphans/widows/etc.”
It’s very, very questionable as to whether attacks against the US would hold salience among most muslims in the absence of interventions like this, particularly when you read the works of authors like Rashid Khalidi (who points out that views of the US were very positive in the Arab World up until after the 1973 War, even though the US recognized Israel). And if it doesn’t have salience, then Qutb and his small band of successors can blather all they want, but nobody will take them seriously in the Muslim world.
I also question your attempt to portray this as an “all or nothing” involvement type of situation. We know that other states can interact quite well with the Middle East, trade with it, and so forth, even if they aren’t muslim (hell, even if they are actively repressing a muslim population in their home country; witness China). More importantly, though, here’s an important question – before the Iraq War, what was the general muslim reaction to the US toppling of the Taliban regime? Right now, you’re seeing foreign fighters turning up in Afghanistan (diverting away from Iraq) – what was the situation like before the Iraq War with regards to foreign fighters?
Iraqis and much of the politically active Arab population in the Middle East don’t have to see Americans doing good or bad stuff first-hand to form an opinion on it; they have media (Al-Jazeera, and even Western Media), plus all manner of Internet sources. Why do you think the Abu Ghraib torture pictures had such an impact on Arab public opinion towards the US?
With all due respect, Dave, I think you’re jumping to the “Essentialist” argument about Arab motives far too quickly; you’re arguing that much of the reason for not only Islamist animosity but actual terrorism and violence derives from deep-seated beliefs that would be salient regardless of US action at this point. I think that’s wrong, that these actions depend heavily on what Arabs see the US doing, and in what historical context they put that into. If they see the US actually treating Israel and Palestine evenhandedly, or the Arab populations in Iraq and Afghanistan fairly, or doing good stuff and not conducting odious and dubious military interventions that just happen to occur in areas with lots of oil, I believe their opinions will change considerably.
Hardly. While the US didn’t sit military troops in Saudi Arabia until 1990, there had been strong economic and political ties between the two countries going back to the 1930s. Lebanon actually continued in its civil war in spite of a US military intervention (remember the barracks bombing in the 1980s that killed nearly 300 Marines?), and Iran is actually an example of active US policy in the Middle East that drastically failed.
Before the overthrow of the Shah, Iran was one of the US’s main regional partners in the Middle East, if not the biggest. The Shah was our guy, put into power when Mossadegh’s regime started falling apart. The regime was given major US support, including military equipment (most of Iran’s F-14s were those that were given to the Shah’s regime) and economic aid.
Yet what did that get us? The fact that we coddled the Shah even while his regime was brutally putting down dissent created a coalition against him of which Khomeini’s faction was only a part, although he was popular for speaking out against the regime among Iranians.
Would things have been better if we had just stayed out of the whole affair? Perhaps, or perhaps not; it depends on who was going to succeed Mossadegh when he came crashing down. But at least that animosity wouldn’t have been directed at the US.
Some of that is US intervention; one of the reasons why there haven’t been as many broad-scale wars in the Middle East as of late (other than the ones we started) had to do with the fact that the main shaper of Arab military coalitions (Egypt) is in a peace treaty with Israel that we helped negotiate, although another reason is that Israel has nukes now. This is one of the criticisms I have of Finel’s argument; I think the US can actually play a positive role in negotiations, as long as it is seen as a fair dealer.
Brett, you might want to read some primary sources rather than second- and third-hand reports.
I’ve read the actual released transcripts of communiques from Al-Qaeda both to the US (propaganda) and to each other, among other things. What have you read, Dave, and how does it dispute the points I’ve made?
It’s impossible to quantify the benefits of our military presence in the region, but the costs are clear. More than four thousand soldiers killed, and multiples of that figure injured. Arguments should be backed with hard numbers.