How Not to Make Friends in the Greater Middle East

abisFranchising a No-Friends Policy

Biometrics aside, there were some other startling numbers out of the Greater Middle East recently. As it happened, some non-military types were also looking into eyes, not for retinal patterns, but patterns of thought.  Pollsters from IBOPE Zogby International checked out 4,000 sets of eyes in six Middle Eastern countries— Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco—at least five of which qualify as U.S. allies, and in none of which has the U.S. bombed, invaded, or carried out a night raid in recent memory.

And still, favorable opinion about the United States had plunged dismally since the early, heady days of the Obama presidency.  In many cases, the numbers are now below those registered in the last year of the Bush era (and you can imagine what they were).  Only 5% of post-Arab-Spring Egyptians, for instance, claimed to have a “favorable view” of the United States, and across the six countries, only 10% of respondents “described themselves as having a favorable view of Obama.”

This spring, Pew pollsters found similarly plunging favorability ratings in the Greater Middle East.  More recently, they asked Pakistanis about the CIA drone strikes in that country’s tribal borderlands and came up with a polling near-impossibility: 97% of Pakistanis looked upon them negatively!

Consider that another remarkable American accomplishment of the Obama era—creating such unity of opinion in an otherwise fractious land!

Once upon a time, of course, American accomplishments involved the building of vast highway systems or massive steel mills or even the winning of a world war, but in tougher times you take your accomplishments where you find them.  And these polls emphasize one thing: that what Washington continues to do in the Greater Middle East with relentless brilliance and on an almost unimaginable scale is to make no friends.

Nor is it just in popularity terms that Washington has been racking up mind-boggling numbers in the no-friends business.  In a study it just released, the “Costs of War” project at Brown University found that Washington’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will, in the end, eat $3.2 trillion to $4 trillion in taxpayer money—and that’s without adding in the air war in Libya (perhaps a chump-change billion dollars), the Global War on Terror (in places like Yemen and Somalia where, as Jeremy Scahill reports in the Nation magazine, the CIA is running quite a covert operation from a walled compound in the confines of Mogadishu’s international airport), our continuing frenzy of base building and ally supporting in the Persian Gulf area, military aid to the region, and so on.

In other words, not making friends in the Greater Middle East turns out to be a spectacularly budget-busting undertaking—and so an accomplishment in its own right.  And rest assured, Washington isn’t likely to settle for 10% or 5% on those favorability figures either, not when absolute perfection in unpopularity is within reach.  Just in the last weeks, in a clear effort to lower those numbers, Washington has launched air attacks in Somalia (at least two wounded), Yemen (50 dead), Pakistan (at least 48 dead), Libya (no count), and Afghanistan (at least 40, including children).  Despite what Washington officials imagine, drones are, in practice, neither precise nor effective weapons.  But they are radicalizing instruments in an American war that, again in practice, is not just on but for terror.

In the same period, ex-CIA director and now Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta landed in Iraq and promptly launched a volley of threats at the Iranians, Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Iraqi government.  Meanwhile, just to make sure Washington doesn’t lose its unique unpopularity franchise in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the State Department issued a “stern warning” to and threatened prosecution of those Americans who boarded boats in the blockade-busting Gaza flotilla, almost none of which ever made it out of Greek harbors.

If those favorability numbers haven’t gone lower in the brief period since the Zogby pollsters finished their latest round of polling, one thing can be said: it wasn’t for lack of trying.

A Modern Gordian Knot

Nor should we leave the subject of no-friends franchises without making special mention of the remarkable American one in Pakistan.  Not so long ago, an elite SEAL team set off “SEAL-mania” in the U.S. by launching a strike on Osama bin Laden’s hideout-in-plain-sight in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing the al-Qaeda leader without a warning to the Pakistani government or military.  The response there seems to have been a new round of America-phobia—thus undoubtedly fulfilling bin Laden’s fondest dream: that even in death he would sink Washington deeper into the quagmire of the Greater Middle East.

A farcical ballet followed between the Pakistani military, its intelligence services, its civilian government and the Obama administration.  The Pakistanis promptly ordered 120 U.S. special operations forces training the paramilitary Frontier Corps in those tribal areas out of the country.  It refused to issue visas for U.S. “equipment technicians” and arrested five men who had aided the CIA in tracking down bin Laden.  Washington responded with the usual “stern warnings,” accused the Pakistanis of tipping off al-Qaeda bomb-makers in those borderlands before they could be caught, and held back equipment meant for the Frontier Corps. Congress began to balk on the Pakistani aid package.

The Pakistanis, in turn, threatened to halt CIA drone flights from the biggest of the three airbases the Agency borrows in that country.  The Obama administration responded that, with or without those bases, its air campaign would go on, and then sent in the drones repeatedly to hammer the point home.  It also held back $800 million in military aid—not enough to truly matter, but just enough to further tick off the Pakistanis.  Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar jabbed back by threatening to withdraw his country’s troops from the Afghan border areas.  “We cannot afford to keep our military out in the mountains for such a long period of time,” he said in a TV interview.

Meanwhile, envoys ferried back and forth with the usual grab bag of threats, bribes, pleas, and meaningless statements of unity between allies.  And so it went.

Think of the Washington-Islamabad relationship, wrapped in the disaster of the Afghan War, as a classic can’t-live-with-‘em-or-without-‘em marriage made in hell.  Or, if you prefer, think of it, now so many decades and two Afghan wars old, as a kind of Gordian knot.

In 333 BC, with a single swift stroke of his sword, Alexander the Great famously solved the problem of a knot on an ox cart in Gordium (in modern Turkey) that no one could untie.  He sliced it open, so the story goes, in what has always been considered an ingenious response to an otherwise insoluble problem.

tom engelhardtAmerica’s Gordian knot in Pakistan, as in Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East, is beyond untying. Hold back that $800 million, send in the drones, cajole, plead, threaten, issue stern warnings, train, equip, bribe, kill.  None of it does the trick.  None of it will.  Alexander would have known what to do.  Washington is clueless.

Thought about a certain way, this might be the ultimate American accomplishment of the present moment.

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s(Haymarket Books). This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

Republished with permission from History News Network.


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