Thursday, December 18, 2008

Palling around with terrorists

Rashid Khalidi spoke at AUC yesterday on “The Cold War in the Middle East: The War on Terror and the New Administration,” which is from his forthcoming book, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Hegemony in the Middle East. Khalidi, you may recall, was brought up by McCain and Palin in the recent presidential campaign because Obama had a relationship with Khalidi, a former University of Chicago historian now at Columbia. All of the charges were ridiculous and probably designed to scare voters by associating Obama with a Palestinian guy named Rashid. Innuendo was sufficient. Khalidi is sometimes controversial, but is quite moderate. Even yesterday, he combined his criticism of US and Israeli policy with a sharp indictment of Arab governments. Rather than scaring me off, the willingness of Obama to have relationships with people like Khalidi, arguably the foremost expert on modern Middle East history in the US, makes his presidency most promising to me.

I first saw Khalidi speak in the early 1990s at Wesleyan when I was an undergraduate. At the time he was an advisor to the Palestinian delegation at the Oslo talks. In March 2003, he visited a seminar I participated in at the GC, as I was finishing my dissertation. He gave a public presentation and visited our interdisciplinary seminar of about 10 faculty and 5 graduate students from different disciplines discussing imperialism. He was incredibly insightful and equally kind. Khalidi discussed some of his recent work on the history in anti-colonial resistance in the Middle East, including Iraq, and how US policymakers’ ignorance of this history would be devastating. (This became Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East.) Sadly the US soon invaded Iraq and proved him right.

Last night’s talk made a profound and concise argument that the Bush administration, fueled by domestic considerations, has created a ineffective war on terror based on the flawed presumption that full-fledged war is the best and only way of dealing with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (by conflating these with a range of other groups and organizations, none of which have ever targeted the US, who have unique, independent, and discrete political histories).

He observed that US policy, which is intent on destroying the Afghan and Iraqi states, can only lead to the power vacuum in which instability and violence thrive. The war on terror enables the US to achieve several aims, all of them based on domestic interests. It justifies the US defense budget which has continued to grow since the end of the cold war, at a time when every other country’s defense budget has shrunk dramatically. It enables the US to establish military bases throughout the region, and justify their permanence. (The US has bases in 24 countries in the region.) By contrast to the current war, the Cold War against communism had state actors at its center and included the existential threat of nuclear annihilation.

What are the possibilities for change? Khalidi offered several including the emergence of reform-minded Arab states. He also suggested the influence of other major powers confronting the US to assert their interests in the region by taking a more active role in regional security issues like the US-Iran conflict and Israel’s nuclear proliferation. There is also a possibility for change in how the US deals with the region, which, given the incoming administration’s need to focus on the domestic economy, is only likely to emerge in response to a crisis in the region. He sees the Middle East as a very low priority for the incoming administration.

Ultimately, Khalidi argues, it is not tenable to destroy regimes and states in order to fight shady transnational networks. Bush’s success has been in framing the war on a terror as a war that must be fought exclusively militarily. As a result, there has been a decline of US influence in the region which has created opportunities for other countries, which have huge interests in the region, to participate. One regional example he pointed to was Turkey’s role in brokering talks between Israel and Syria. I look forward to reading the new book, which I know will articulate these ideas much better than me, and hope that folks in the incoming administration do so as well.

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