Playing Dumb, Playing With Fire

By Francesca Fiorentini
Sep 19, 2012

With protests at U.S. embassies across the Arab and Muslim world, it’s high time to stop playing dumb and start changing policy

“Fool me once, shame on… (pause) …shame on you …(longer pause)…it fool me can’t get fooled again.”                                                           -George W. Bush, 2002

It is a classic line from Bush Jr.’s presidency. Hilarious and painfully ironic for both the lesson it holds and the masterful way it was bumbled. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.” A simple saying that when it comes to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Washington has epitomized with astounding pigheadedness.

Because in the Middle East, the United States has been fooled time and time again. Not by the “cultural and religious backwardness of Islam” that has “taken advantage of American goodwill” as mainstream media would have us believe. Rather it has been fooled by its own attempts at exerting American empire and economic interests upon the region at any and all costs, effectively sowing the seeds for decades of political blowback—violent and nonviolent alike.

This has been the U.S.’ unbelievably dangerous strategy for over the last 60 years, since the end of WWII, the decolonization of the Middle East, on throughout the Cold War and the foreign policy of “containment” that claimed so many lives.  What it amounts to is a tried and true hegemonic formula for the region, proven to bring short-term benefits for the superpower and long-term consequences for the entire world.

It goes something like this: When leaders in the Arab world put their own nation’s interests before those of U.S. business and military, those leaders must be removed. So for the Middle East that would mean attempts at nationalizing oil, agrarian reform, regional economic cooperation, and of course buddying up with Russia. The U.S. and former colonial powers (Britain, France) via the CIA then fund opposition groups to help them gain power usually by force (Iran 1953, Iraq 1963). If your country is (un)fortunate enough to have a government that cooperates with Western economic and strategic interests, you are safe from such direct meddling. Doesn’t matter how authoritarian, patriarchal, Islamist, or extremist; or even if it’s a safe haven for terrorists, it just has to be a safe haven for U.S. business interests too (Saudi Arabia).

The unwritten part of the formula is what happens next. What happens when those we helped in power fall out of line with the West (Iraq 1991), or galvanize a popular revolution against their authoritarian ruler and back a new and Islamist leader (Iran 1979), or plot large-scale attacks on the United States with the skills, weapons, and training that we have provided them (Taliban/Al-Qaeda, Afghanistan/Pakistan 2001-today)?

For anyone who’s been paying attention to the last decade of war and occupation, we know how the story ends: it doesn’t. Because after wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, millions dead on all sides, and a Taliban stronger than it was in 2001, the people of the world are not safer—not from Islamist terrorism and not from the terrorism of war, torture, drone strikes, and occupation.

More than a video

So now. Now that we weren’t born yesterday,let’s talk about that pesky video that some very shady individuals put together to take their first amendment rights for a spin. (First amendment rights that should be protected, unlike those of the hundreds of thousands of protesters peacefully camping in parks as apart of the #Occupy movement. Nah, just sweep those babies up.) It was a catalyst. A catalyst for a lot of justifiable anger at the U.S. I say justifiable because the media has been making a big stink about that word. I don’t think that killing is ever justified, but when I saw the angry protests outside the U.S. embassies I thought to myself only one thing: “Of course.”

This anger is no surprise. Because beyond the body count, the only results after a half-century of misguided U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East are more unjust, polarized, and fragmented societies, ripe for extremism. Meanwhile nonviolent movements for democracy have been systematically sidelined and/or domestically disciplined by the constant threat of U.S. attack. (This can be clearly seen in Iran, where international sanctions and U.S. war posturing has helped the Iranian government shunt the 2009 Green Movement calling for democracy.)

And it is why, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor sets himself aflame in protest of the appalling economic conditions and harassment of the poor, he set aflame an entire powder keg of resistance throughout the region to despotic leaders in the pockets of West. And in a cruel rewriting of history, the U.S. State Department and the media have the gall to take credit for the Arab Spring, like some gift of freedom bestowed upon the region by the West. Like all empires throughout history, we have assumed the role of the benevolent brute: a well-intentioned, abusive father-like figure, scratching our heads as to why his children would forsake him so. Rather, it was the resilience of the Arab people in spite of the West’s attempts to undermine their democracy at every turn, who began to reclaim their countries for themselves.

And Obama?

While much of the above sounds like a description of the Bush years, all of it also applies to Obama’s Presidency. (If your head is in the elections, bear with this cause it’s important. I’ll get to that later.) As someone whose heart skipped just a half beat when Obama gave a speech in Cairo back in 2009, it’s painful to look at his foreign policy and admit that his actions have spoken much louder than his words.

While his administration has taken down the Islamophobia rhetoric, and he is slowly but smartly extracting the U.S. from two “losses” in Iraq and Afghanistan (reparations talk aside), the CIA’s covert operations are stoking the same dangerous flames as overt warfare.

The expanded drone wars under the Obama administration in countries like Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan have caused hundreds and most likely thousands of civilian casualties—with numbers regularly concealed and all military-aged males killed considered combatants. It’s war all the same, except “our guys” are safe, and “their guys” die. This secretive and extrajudicial war has made even more enemies out of the people in the region, so it’s no surprise that there have been anti-US protests in most of these same countries in the past week. It has effectively ruined relations between Islamabad and Washington, a key piece in responsibly exiting Afghanistan, and led some in the intelligence community to question whether it is causing more harm than good. Um, yes.

Without pontificating on whether or not the Obama will go to war with Iran if Israel strikes etcetera, let’s be clear: the U.S. and Israel are already committing acts against Iran that, by U.S. standards, would be considered provocations of war. Surveillance drones, cyberattacks on the country’s nuclear program, an expanded network of spies, and training an Iranian opposition group that has been responsible for the murder of scientists, have all made up apart of this covert war. Talk about playing with fire.

Add to this an expansion of military bases in the Asia-Pacific, a (yes) still rising Pentagon budget, and as co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus John Feffer says in his excellent piece, Obama’s expansion of much of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy “has left the hawks of the other party with very little room for manoeuver.” Those hawks, Feffer agrees, would be worse than Obama and move the country back to the Cold War. But nearly as bad as going back to the Cold War is not learning from the mistakes made during it. The U.S. needs real diplomacy in the Middle East. Yet as Feffer discusses, the State Department “is plagued by a serious shortage of diplomats and, as State Department whistleblower Peter van Buren has written, ‘The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement abroad one aircraft carrier.’”

It all just makes you want to scream:

Luckily there’s Islamophobia to save broken foreign policy. And as we have learned from those who believe Obama adheres to a revolutionary Kenyan guerrilla ideology, when you’re too ignorant to think up a good argument, you can always rely on racism and xenophobia.And that’s where, yet again, the mainstream media’s “angry Arab” the “backwards Muslim” rhetoric comes in again. It’s a nice headline. Then when a hate-crime or mass shooting on temple or mosque happens again, they’ll have another.

Crazy and KKKrazy

Given that little wiggle room on foreign policy as Feffer points out, the Republicans—pretty much wholly neoconservative—have gone impossibly further to the right and broken the shrill apocalyptic clash-of-civilizations-psychodometer. Romney, now the unabashed and admitted candidate of the 1%, has said that when it comes to what to do in the Middle East he’d get on the phone to his friend Bibi Netanyahu and ask him what to do. And in the recently leaked video of his speech, he said “there’s just no way” to peace between Israel and Palestine. Even Bush didn’t go that far. As Juan Cole writes, by ignoring a stateless and occupied four million Palestinians, Romney is essentially “kicking a live grenade” in the region.

There’s always worse. Romney is rallying around fear. Fear of immigrants, fear of Iran, fear of a “brown planet.” But so is the other side. I know that many on the left are afraid of a Romney presidency and, if they vote, will do so out of fear. In our broken political system, I can’t say it isn’t a good reason. But what we can’t do is allow that fear to tame us, make us lazy, or weigh down our work for real change.

Forty-seven percent of every U.S. tax dollar goes to the military. Each drone costs between $4-$12 million, while unemployment is at 9% and public schools, libraries, homeless shelters, and childcare centers close for lack of funds. Our fates and those of the people in the countries we plunder are inextricably linked. We can’t afford to play dumb any longer. Shame on Washington, the people won’t be fooled again.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Francesca Fiorentini is an independent journalist and comedian based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Before working with War Times she was an editor with Left Turn magazine andWIN: Through Revolutionary Nonviolence, the magazine of the War Resisters League. She writes, produces, and directs the comedy video blog Laugh to Not Cry.  Follow her @franifio

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