“America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.”
So said our new president in his interview Tuesday with Al Arabiya, the Arabic-language satellite news channel. At first the words washed over me. Then I did some simple math. Let’s see… 20 or 30 years ago… that would be 1989 or 1979.
What was happening in relations between America and the Muslim world back then? Not relying on memory alone, I consulted Bernard Grun’s reference book, The Timetables of History.
It turns out that in 1989 U.S. fighters shot down two Libyan jets over the Gulf of Sidra. The last Soviet troops left Afghanistan, creating a vacuum that would eventually be filled by the Taliban. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie’s death for “blasphemy.” Hundreds died in Lebanon’s long-running civil war while Hezbollah militants were torturing to death U.S. Marine Colonel William “Rich” Higgins, who had been kidnapped the previous year while serving as a UN peacekeeper in Lebanon.
And 1979? That was an even darker year-in many ways a turning point for the worse in the Middle East. That was, after all, the year that the shah of Iran was overthrown. He was replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who launched a war against the West that is still unfolding. One of the first actions of this long struggle was the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran and all of its personnel as hostages. The same year saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which led to the growth of the mujahideen, some of whom would later morph into Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This was also the year that Islamic militants temporarily seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, an event that drove the Saudi royal family to become ever more fundamentalist.
In other news in 1979, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, was hanged by General Zia al-Hak, inaugurating a long period when Pakistan would be under the effective control of the army in alliance with Islamic militants. That year mobs also attacked U.S. embassies throughout the Muslim world from Kabul and Islamabad to Tripoli. The one bright spot in 1979 was the signing of the Camp David Accord between the US, Egypt, and Israel, which did not, unfortunately, auger a “new” Middle East as many optimists hoped.
So this is the sort of “partnership” between the U.S. and the Middle East that President Obama would like to see? If his predecessor had suggested any such thing he would by now be a subject of ridicule for late-night comedians and daytime talk show hosts, and rightly so.
This is actually a revealing slip. To wit, it reveals two things: First, Obama’s profound ignorance about most aspects of foreign policy, including the recent history of the Middle East. A second, and related point, is his tendency to blame the ills of the region on the previous administration-something that is only possible if you started following the Middle East around 2001 and have little idea of what came before. It is then all too easy to claim, as Obama did on the campaign trail, that it was George W. Bush’s “disengagement” from the peace process and his “disastrous” war with Iraq that messed up the Middle East. Only someone with a longer view would realize how profoundly messed up the region was long before Bush came into office.
Even if we go back before the current era of religious extremism that began in earnest in 1979 we find evidence that from the American perspective the Middle East was hardly a happy place. Think of the OPEC oil embargo that began in 1973, the numerous wars between Israel and the Arabs, Eisenhower’s landing of marines in Lebanon in 1958, the Suez Crisis of 1956, the overthrow of Iran’s prime minister in 1953, and so on.
To the extent that we had any stability in the region it was purchased at the expense of alliances with distasteful regimes like those of the Shah of Iran and the Saudi royal family, once considered the “twin pillars” of American policy in the Middle East. Obama is dreaming if he thinks there was a wonderful “partnership” with Arab or Muslim regimes that he can “restore.”
UPDATE: In the comments section, “Elen” writes: “I wonder if Columbia/Harvard education is overrated or Obama is simply an idiot. I think the answer is both.” I think the answer is neither. From everything I have seen, Obama is a smart man who received a good education at Columbia and Harvard. The problem is that he spent his entire career in domestic policy and politics. He has little knowledge or background in national security affairs—probably about the same amount as anyone who was kind of paying attention in college more than twenty years ago but hasn’t paid much attention since. My guess is that when it comes to foreign policy he knows only marginally more than Sarah Palin—another smart person who simply didn’t have to bone up on this subject before running for national office. You can see the difference when Obama is talking—he is crisp and confident on domestic issues, halting and uncertain on foreign issues. I only hope for all of our sakes that he is a fast learner.