Whitewashing the Middle East

Removing America from the Picture

It bears repeating what George Orwell said about propaganda, that what is left out is often more telling than what is left in. To take a sampling of two recent mainstream articles on Syria, it’s painfully obvious that Orwell had a point. A piece for CNN by Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Brookings Institute and Middle East specialist, called, “Why Sunni-Shia conflict is worsening”; and an article for the New York Times by Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Wilson Center, entitled, “Imagining a Remapped Middle East.”

You’d think, reading essays from two “distinguished” regional experts, all your bases would be covered. You’d imagine these specialists would delineate the various sources of conflict in the region. But then you’d be wrong.

Abdo trots out Sunni Egyptian cleric Yusuf al Qaradawi, whose ideology-cramped visage broadcasts his Sunni theology to millions across the Arab world. Over the summer, Qaradawi launched some vehement broadsides against Shias and Alawites, both sunk in the quicksand of Syria’s civil, sectarian, ethnic, and proxy war. Qaradawi wants more disgruntled Sunnis to flood across the Syrian border and help destroy the al-Assad government. Given Qaradawi’s recent penchant for spray-painting the non-Sunni world as infidel faiths, one can only imagine the Sharia Elysium he envisions for the post-Assad Levant.

Against Qaradawi, Abdo poses Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, who has led Hezbollah fighters into Syria to defend Assad against their eternal Sunni nemeses. Nasrallah, too, says Abdo, has enflamed sectarian divide between the two strains of Islam. Then there is Iraq’s Nuri Kamal al Maliki, branding the Sunnis terrorists and marginalizing them at the federal level.

So there we have it, the impetus of the factionalism across the region. Even the astute reader is left to wonder why these clans can’t pull themselves together and live in republican amity like we in the West. The astute reader then turns the page, reads with a kind of dumb fascination about the government shutdown, though never draws a parallel between the two cultures riven by sects.

But here’s the kicker: Abdo says nothing about America’s role in any of the conflicts it spotlights—not Syria, not Palestine, not Iraq. It’s as if the United States is some partial observer, gazing judiciously across the wide gulf of cultural superiority that separate us from them. No article claiming to explain the source of rising Sunni-Shia infighting can exempt American antagonism from its explanation without losing credibility.

Yet no reader without the imperialist back story will know this. What is more likely to happen is that the liberal page-turner drops into Starbucks the next morning to sip a steaming latte and peruse the heady journalism of the Times. There he or she encounters another article about the regional chaos, this by another “distinguished” scholar, Robin Wright. Quickly confirming that this is not Robin Wright, the actress and star of the imperishable Princess Bride, our reader naively imbibes Wright’s whole-born narrative. Surely, this byline has the ring of authenticity. Wright namedrops historical events like Tea Partiers namedrop Founding Fathers.

Within a few paragraphs everything is clear. It was the European colonial powers a century ago that lit the fuse. Visions are conjured of Sykes and Picot wielding their long knives and “carving up” the flayed carcass of the Ottoman Empire. Hence the Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan, and Yemeni chaos. One has the feeling of reading from the vantage point of post-history, as if we’ve buried our errant colonial impulses, and moved forward into a well-lit world of democratic liberalism, where we gently impart our values to the benighted nations of the East who, in Dutch politician Pym Fortune’s memorable phrase, “haven’t yet been through the Laundromat of the Enlightenment.”

Wright then maps out—with the help of a Times cartographer at his elbow—a new Middle East composed, essentially, of several fascinating new nations, including Sunnistan, Shiitestan, Kurdistan, a Mediterranean Alawistan, and an African Tripolistan and Cyrenaicastan. You have to concede—in the best Sykes-Picot tradition—that this new map seems to make some sense. After all, all the nations are aligned along tribal or ethnic lines. One could see it working out. And yet this evidently easy-to-achieve remodeling of the colonial architecture fails to note even in passing the influence of the arch neo-colonialist currently plaguing the region—the United States. It’s as if Wright, like Abdo, suffers from a historical blind spot, into which plummet cruel sanctions, forgotten incendiary interventions, imperial occupations, and the incessant floggings-by-drone of the entire region.

Neither Wright nor Abdo once mention that America brutalized Iraq for twenty years, and turned Sunni against Shia in a nation in which the sects had lived in amicable proximity, albeit under the Baathist Saddam Hussein regime. Neither notes that but for American arms, training, and cash—plus the help of its local proxies—the Syrian rebellion, such as it was before metastasizing with foreign infusions, would by now have been put down by the Syrian government. Nor is NATO’s pernicious role in the destabilization of Libya given the slightest column width. Forget the drone strikes in Yemen—another dustbinned piece of nonhistory.

Of course, Wright and Abdo are constricted by the unspoken taboos of their publishers—two centrist pillars of the corporate/state media. They likely would’ve faced rejection or redaction had they scrutinized the U.S. role with even the slightest disapproval. Even so, our reader is left to conclude something on the order of believing that our noble attempts to bring a semblance of humanitarian calm to the region is a futile endeavor. That we (with our ahistorical impatience) will never pacify the enmities that enflame these obscure sectarian tribes. The reader shakes his head despairingly, swigs the last of his spiced latte, and exits into the bright day of his brand-saturated cityscape. In America, the reader ponders, we have consumer tribes, harmless in their affectations, gentle in their fangless rivalries: Apple versus PC, Coke versus Pepsi, Target versus Walmart. Capitalism, he thinks, is such a benign thing. If only we could better export it to peoples abroad, how much better off they’d be. Yet it is this same capitalism that underlies the xenophobic uproar of the Middle East. Not its first cause, to be sure, but its latest irritant. And if our own scholars are the agents of our geopolitical blindness, what hope do we have of ever awakening to the omissions at its core?

Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at: jasonhirthler@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jason.