Commentary Magazine


Does the Mideast Want an Isolationist U.S.?

Anglo-Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the darling of the moment among the anti-Western intellectual set, has a New York Times op-ed today which seems to translate his wishful thinking–he desires America to leave the Middle East to its own devices–into a prediction that we will in fact do what he desires. I very much doubt that we will do so, no matter who is elected president in November–and if we do the entire region will pay a devastating price. His history is as shaky as his prognosticating.

It is hardly reassuring that Mishra compares the U.S. departure from the Middle East to our defeat in Vietnam in 1975. He seems to imagine we were evicted from South Vietnam by a spontaneous nationalist demonstration. In reality, of course, South Vietnam was conquered by a North Vietnamese armored blitzkrieg. There was never a popular uprising in South Vietnam to express preference for rule from Hanoi; indeed southerners remain resentful to this day of the northern-dominated government (as I discovered on a recent trip to Vietnam).

Mishra falls for the old Communist propaganda line that Ho Chi Minh was happy to work with the United States but that, in a fit of anti-Communist paranoia, we foolishly rebuffed his overtures: “As early as 1919,” he writes, “Ho Chi Minh, dressed in a morning suit and armed with quotations from the Declaration of Independence, had tried to petition President Woodrow Wilson for an end to French rule over Indochina.” Mishra seems blissfully unaware that just a year later, in 1920, Ho Chi Minh (or, as he was then known, Nguyen Ai Quoc) was a delegate at the Congress which founded the French Communist Party and just a few years after that he went to work as agent of the Russian-run Comintern (Communist International).

If he had bothered to read William Duiker’s definitive biography, “Ho Chi Minh,” he would have found out that, while Ho was a dedicated nationalist, he was an equally dedicated communist–and one who did not hesitate to kill and lock up large numbers of domestic enemies. In other words, hardly an ideal American ally. Ho was willing to work with the U.S. in a common cause (fighting Japan) and he surely hoped for U.S. aid after the war–but then Stalin was willing to receive American aid too. That did not mean that he was a good bet as a long-term American ally. Neither was Ho. Ironically, Mishra goes on to write of the Middle East: “Given its long history of complicity with dictators in the region, from the shah of Iran to Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak, the United States faces a huge deficit of trust.” Apparently he does not consider what views of the U.S. would have been in Southeast Asia if we had spent decades cooperating with a Communist dictator like Ho or his even more brutal successor, Le Duan.

He seems to imagine that the Middle East will do as well as Vietnam did after the American defeat in 1975–conveniently ignoring the boat people of Vietnam, the reeducation camps, and the killing fields of Cambodia, all the direct result of American withdrawal. “Although it’s politically unpalatable to mention it during an election campaign,” he writes, “the case for a strategic American retreat from the Middle East and Afghanistan has rarely been more compelling. It’s especially strong as growing energy independence reduces America’s burden for policing the region, and its supposed ally, Israel, shows alarming signs of turning into a loose cannon.”

There are multiple levels on which one can object to this astonishing statement (what, exactly, has Israel, a true and not “supposed” ally, done to be termed a “loose cannon”–expressing alarm about the Iranian nuclear program?). But what is most striking to me is the way in which a self-styled spokesman on behalf of the Third World ignores what people in the Middle East are saying. What, exactly, is his evidence that the people of the Middle East want us to leave?

He writes: “It is not just extremist Salafis who think Americans always have malevolent intentions: the Egyptian anti-Islamist demonstrators who pelted Hillary Rodham Clinton’s motorcade in Alexandria with rotten eggs in July were convinced that America was making shady deals with the Muslim Brotherhood.” But do the anti-Islamist activists in Egypt want the U.S. to sever our relations with their country? Hardly. They want a more active American role. So, too, Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, does not want America to leave–he wants our aid, especially our financial aid.

The same case could be extended across the region–from the United Arab Emirates in the east to Morocco in the west, the Middle East is mainly made up of governments that desire close relations with the U.S. and are petrified of the consequences of American withdrawal, which they know will give a free hand to the Iranian mullahs, al-Qaeda, and other malevolent forces. Mishra might dismiss the desires of these governments because many of them are unelected, but even in Libya, the region’s newest democracy, the dominant desire is clearly to ally with the United States, which is why we saw anti-extremist demonstrations in Benghazi recently to protest the killing of the U.S. ambassador.

Mishra should not make the mistake of confusing his own desire (for a post-American world) with the actual views of the people he arrogantly claims to speak for.

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