By Sharmine Narwani
I recently spoke with a friend who has been in and around Washington’s Mideast foreign policy establishment for three decades. “I have never seen policymakers so confused,” this political insider told me in regard to US plans in the region.
The old paradigms of supporting Israel unconditionally, marginalizing political Islam and propping up dictators we whitewash as “moderates” do not hold when the region is experiencing such fundamental shifts. Especially when our policies were such dismal failures before the Arab Awakening even hit our television screens.
So it is disheartening to see so many analysts, reporters and commentators still transfixed with old narratives – none of which serve to encourage the innovative policy reassessments needed to deal with this spanking new world.
Two recent examples:
Plumbing New Depths in Support of Israel
“In 2003, France and Germany’s decision not to allow coalition troops to use their territory in the effort to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq not only was a blow to their alliance with the US, but set in motion circumstances that ultimately helped create the insurgency.”
For the record, I don’t blame France and Germany for jumpstarting a legitimate insurgency against occupying US forces. But Jonathan S. Tobin, writing in Commentary last week, did just that. Except, instead of invoking France and Germany – also close US allies who refused to participate in our misguided Iraqi adventure – Tobin was writing about “Turkey.”
Sounds just as stupid with “Turkey” in there, now doesn’t it?
The backdrop to Tobin’s bizarre conclusion is the recent emergence of a more assertive Turkey on the global stage, which – like other emerging powers – gently nudged aside the United States from its post-Cold War role as the sole arbiter of All Things. While Washington remained cautiously watchful of Turkey’s new direction, all attempts at diplomatic neutrality came to a screeching halt when Ankara dared to criticize Israel for its brutal assault on the Gaza Strip in 2009 and for its 2010 killing of nine activists on the Turkish-origin Mavi Marmara flotilla ship headed for Gaza.
As the war of words escalated between the two countries, our no-space-between-us-and-Israel clause in The Contract kicked in and we got nasty. Washington pundits began to question Turkey’s strategic importance to the US and started dropping the dreaded “Islamist” moniker in all references to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP-led government. Punishing Turkey took many forms – including approving in committee a contentious congressional resolution declaring the 1915 Armenian massacre a “genocide” and boycotting the 2010 Anatolian Eagle military exercises with the longtime NATO ally.
Turkey gained a brief reprieve when the Arab Awakening swept through the Middle East and Ankara became an important Muslim ally in ushering through support for NATO air cover of Libya and challenging the Syrian government’s treatment of protestors. Turkey threw its NATO allies a further bone by agreeing to host a US-allocated early warning radar on its soil as part of a plan to deter ballistic missile threats.
But new hostilities between Turkey and an ever-intractable Israel threaten to once again light a fire under the Jewish state’s supporters in the United States. Ignoring Ankara’s vast strategic value to Washington, commentators like Tobin are grasping at straws to once more strike some blows against Israel’s latest nemesis.
A NATO member since 1952; the world’s 16th largest economy; second largest standing armed force in NATO with over one million soldiers; a founding member of the United Nations, OECD and the G-20 major economies…
Just imagine – Turkey being blamed for Iraq’s insurgency. Wow…just wow.
Sadly, this is the kind of extrapolation in political reasoning that has made this truly a mad, mad, mad world. Welcome to punditry in Washington, DC.
Rehashing Old Stories To Reinforce a New Narrative
Then from out of the blue comes this Christian Science Monitor headline: “A Stunning Shift of Iran’s Image in the Arab World.” The article, which summarizes the results of a 2011 poll by Zogby International, points out that the Arab perception of Iran has taken a massive tumble in the last year.
Except that this is a story that made the rounds two months ago – most major papers carried this news in some form in July. Why dredge up the poll results as a headliner in September?
Both Washington and Tehran are maneouvering hard to position the shifting Mideast landscape as favorable to their respective regional agendas. Iranians maintain that the ousting of mostly pro-US dictators will bolster popular resistance to American machinations in the region – scoring points for the Islamic Republic, which is widely viewed as leading that charge. The US claims that the opposite is true, particularly if the Syrian regime falls and removes a vital Arab ally from the Iranian sphere of influence.
From a wholly American perspective, this “Iran vs Arabs” narrative is essential to distract newly-liberated Arab populations from the fact that their dictatorships were partly made-in-America – and actual poll numbers supporting this rhetoric are pure manna from the heavens.
The Iran vs Arabs narrative (and its offshoot, Shia vs Sunni) is so valuable to Washington that the US Military “Red Teamed” this very subject shortly after Arabs began ousting their dictators.
But let’s take a look at what has NOT been reported about this golden survey. At the bottom of its summary of findings, the poll clearly offers up a disclaimer:
Note: In previous polls, when Arabs were asked questions about Iran or its nuclear program, and the U.S. and its threats of sanctions or military action were a part of the question, Arabs would indicate strong support for Iran and its defiance on nuclear issues. The more negative attitudes toward Iran reflected here may be accounted for by the fact that in this survey Arabs are being asked to state their attitudes toward Iran without reference to the U.S. and/or that Iran’s regional behavior has succeeded in alienating Arab opinion.
That’s a huge “and/or” right there. The very same pollsters in 2010 conducted a survey concluding that Arabs overwhelmingly supported Iran’s nuclear program, even if it was not for peaceful purposes. The difference lies in the framing of the question:
In 2010, the poll asked: “There is international pressure for Iran to curtail its nuclear program. What is your opinion?” Respondents had a choice between “Iran has a right to its nuclear program” or “Iran should be pressured to stop its nuclear program.” Seventy-seven percent voted in favor of the former, with only 20% opting to nix nukes.
The critical language here is that the question is framed in the context of “international pressure.” Arabs are overwhelmingly rejecting this foreign intervention, rather than necessarily advocating on Iran’s behalf. In the 2011 poll, however, there was no reference to external meddling, and the questions were set up to produce a rather obvious response:
Which of the following statements comes closest to your views?
Statement A. “The Middle East would be safer if it were a nuclear free zone.”
Statement B. “The Middle East would be safer if Iran were a nuclear power.”
Media reports of this “stunning” 2011 poll fail to observe that respondents — all of whom come from countries whose governments are strongly allied with the U.S. (Lebanon excluded) – overwhelmingly favour Iran over the United States in the single survey question that allows a comparison.
Now that detail may have been relevant.
Who is at Fault? The Media or us?
These two examples represent a infinitesimal slice of the US media’s daily infractions in covering the Middle East. Both news reports and commentary pieces prove unreliable sources of information because of the lack of nuanced reporting from the region and a tendency to cleave to Washington’s highly-politicized narratives.
US policies, therefore, rarely get challenged in any meaningful way. Even after glaring failures like the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, nuclear negotiations with Iran, false WMD intelligence about Iraq, an unsuccessful “War on Terror,” etc., US MediaBots faithfully report from the perspective of the same misguided American politicians and special interest groups.
I’m often warned about “getting too deep into the weeds” in my commentary and analysis of Middle East geopolitics. Translation: too much detail about events so far away will turn off American readers. Sadly, this kind of thinking only encourages our preference to explain the region through “soundbites” – albeit only those that fit our limited frames of reference.
I think Washington prefers it this way. And most of us are too lazy to question the premise, let alone demand some answers.
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