Whether you believe The United States is fundamentally driven by our own (often insatiable) self-interests or, conversely, that we truly and honorably want to spread freedom and liberty to others, it is undeniable that America’s current policies in the Middle East reek of hypocrisy.
Consider Hamas: In the months leading up to the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections—elections strongly encouraged and supported by the United States—the terrorist-cum-political organization Hamas campaigned as the “Change and Reform” party, spending enormous amounts of time and energy distributing food, water, and medicine and helping to build shelters for those who had no place to live but the streets. They focused on aiding the less fortunate, focusing not so much on promoting an ideology, but rather on simply improving the deplorable quality of life, one Palestinian at a time.
It paid off. When it came time for the casting of ballots, Hamas won more than 44% of the vote, resulting in an all-out majority of legislative seats—amazing when you realize that they outdrew not only Fatah (the heretofore ruling incumbent party), but nine other parties also vying for seats.
Here in America there was outrage; cognitive dissonance set in, steel talons clawing into the hearts and minds of a populace that knows what freedom is, that knows what democracy means, that knows that seeing an organization like Hamas freely and fairly elected just isn’t right.
It turns out that we only like democracy when we also like the results. If the candidates we want to win, don’t… well then…
Flash forward a few years to Egypt: Following a long and painful chapter in the Arab Spring, the Egyptians forced Mubarak to let his people go and then, with all due haste, looked to elect a populist government to replace the interim military leadership. It turns out that the winner in that particular election was one Mohammed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party—which we know by the name of “Muslim Brotherhood,” an influential Islamist organization which believes that “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law.”
We don’t much like those results, either and, not surprisingly, those steel talons remain firmly entrenched. Britain’s Guardian, in an article written just after Morsi’s election, said that “The American public will not come away better informed, but they will come away more scared.”
The worst examples will equate the Brotherhood and al-Qaida and leave out the central, constructive role the Brotherhood has played for millions of Egyptians and Arabs elsewhere. What bad there is to say about the Brotherhood – its attack on secularism, its historic tolerance of violent ideologies, its subjugation of women – will be amplified until all else is drowned out. The narrative will be that the "Islamists" have taken over Egypt, and the world is less safe. The subtext will be that the revolution in Egypt was a terrible mistake.
“In the American view,” the article concludes, “democracy in the Middle East is good, until it is bad.”
I’ll say it again: hypocrisy. The people have chosen. It’s just not our people or our choice.
Forget for a moment that since these respective elections, nothing fundamentally has changed. Hamas has done no more (and likely no less) damage in the seven years since rising to formal power, and while the nascent Egyptian government is certainly less friendly to the U.S. than in the past, there aren’t any serious signs of saber-rattling at this point.
And now, Libya. Again we supported—both spiritually and physically—the efforts of the Libyans to throw off a long-standing and cruel dictatorial regime. Shortly thereafter: elections. The results this time were again not exactly what we wanted, the victory (albeit requiring numerous backroom deals) going to the National Forces Alliances, an organization that claims a desire for a “moderate Islam” Libyan state.
And, through it all, the continuing threats from extremists, sometimes—as in the case of the recent assassination of our Libyan ambassador, Christopher Stevens—resulting in tragic action. Such incidents are the perfect opportunity to conflate all of the Middle East (if not all of the Muslim world) with those things that the author of the Guardian piece so aptly noted would leave us no better informed, but all the more scared.
Is it even rightly considered a foreign policy at all, or is our activity in the Middle East nothing more than a series of misguided events that make us feel, every day, a little less safe? It certainly feels like the latter….
So what can be done? Well, on the one hand, it might be time for us to realize that America’s “my way or the highway” approach to spreading freedom just doesn’t work. We would do well to remember the words of Thomas Jefferson who, in a letter to Gouverneur Morris, wrote:
We surely cannot deny to any nation that right whereon our own government is founded, that everyone may govern itself to whatever form it pleases, and change those forms at its own will.
Translated into twenty-first century language, Jefferson is basically saying this: “It’s their country and their government. Get over it.”
Perhaps some countries will continue to elect governments that don’t share our worldview. So what? Why must our worldview be the only one? And the way we’re doing things now, much of the world resents us for our arrogance. All, I think, would appreciate it if we showed less hubris and more understanding.
Secondly (and, in my mind, more importantly), we need to do a much better job of educating the public, of raising the volume on truth so that the extremism, lies, and fear-mongering that dominates the subject becomes a background whisper. Felix Morley (as staunchly conservative as anyone to use that brand) writes in Freedom and Federalism that
…the problem of empire building is essentially mystical…that a German…is superior to a Belgian as such; an Englishman, to an Irishman; an American to a Mexican…. And people who have no individual stature whatsoever are willing to accept this poisonous nonsense because it gives them a sense of importance without the trouble of any personal effort.
Morley wrote those words in 1959. I have no doubt that, we he writing them today, he would add “that a Christian is superior to a Muslim.” The point is all the stronger—and the reactions all the more dangerous—for the addition.
We, in this case, is all of us: our government, our media, ourselves. As Morley’s quote shows, there will always be those who will continue spreading and believing “this poisonous nonsense.” We—all of us—can fight for sanity, sanity for all of us. In doing so we can make ourselves safer through understanding and promote actions that are good for all.
That’s a policy we should promote.