Guess Who’s Sticking It
to the Man?

One of the best television commercials I have seen in a while comes from Sprint promoting its “Fair & Flexible Plan” for cell phones. We see a pompous business executive discussing the Sprint plan and then telling his assistant that joining the plan is his way of “sticking it to the Man.”

The assistant is shocked: “But, sir, you ARE the Man.”

“I know,” responds the executive.

“So you’re sticking it to yourself?” his aide asks.

The executive says: “Maybe.”

It seems to me that this television commercial can help illustrate what is wrong with the Bush administration’s policy in the Middle East. To put it in simple terms, the entire American foreign policy establishment is promoting a strategy based on the need for the United States to be the hegemonic power, the Boss, the Man, in the Middle East. At the same time, the same administration, led by its neoconservative ideologues, is advancing a policy of democracy-promotion and holding free elections in the Middle East, which runs contrary to its goal of establishing hegemony in the region. In a way, when it comes to Washington’s two contradictory goals in the Middle East – preserving hegemony and advancing democracy – President George W. Bush, the Man, not unlike the business executive in the Sprint commercial, is “sticking it to the Man” – to himself, that is.

Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the consensus in the “foreign policy establishment” in Washington has been that despite the disappearance of the Soviet threat in the Middle East, the U.S. needed to maintain a strategic hegemony in the region because of “oil” and “Israel,” that is, to preserve “access” to Persian Gulf oil and to protect the Jewish state.

The debate in Washington has been over the means to achieve that goal. There was the Hegemony-Lite version adopted by former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton that assumed the U.S. could remain the Man in the Middle East through indirect military influence or “offshore balancing.” And now we have President Bush and the neocons, who, after 9/11, implemented a policy of direct U.S. military intervention and control in the Middle East. In that context, both camps agree on the need to try to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as a way of reducing the costs of U.S. involvement, which involves juggling Israeli interests and Arab (Saudi) interests.

One could, of course, challenge this entire hegemonic U.S. strategy by proposing that the U.S. should work with other great powers as part of a strategic oligopoly (as opposed to a U.S. monopoly) to maintain stability in the Middle East and to encourage the formation of regional balance-of-power systems, a policy that would probably require engagement with Iran. But neither the Bushies nor the leading Democrats are willing to consider such a change in the U.S.-Middle East paradigm. Instead, they want America to remain the Boss, the Man, in the region.

If that is the case, it seems to me that free elections in the Middle East can only weaken U.S. hegemony. My reading of modern history is that nationalism – not democracy – is the most powerful political force and the main reason for civil and international wars, and that democracy has been the most reliable ally of nationalism. By definition, they both help release the forces that challenge the existing hegemony at home and abroad, as the experience of other great powers – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example – has demonstrated. There are not half-pregnant solutions here in the form of “tamed democracy.” Free elections, especially in unstable societies that are facing foreign threats and where nationalism is a powerful force, tend to give rise to forces that want to “stick it to the Man.” In fact, they get elected by stating that as their goal.

By promoting democracy in the Middle East and igniting the forces of nationalism, ethnicity, religion, and tribes, the Americans have made the Middle East safe for nationalism and radical ethnic and religious identity.

The U.S. is discovering that mixing hegemony and democracy is producing explosions that are blowing up its interests in two strategic parts of the Middle East – the Persian Gulf (Iraq) and Israel/Palestine – where it has led to the victory of political parties whose values and goals run contrary to those of the U.S.

In Iraq, the elected coalition of Shi’ite clerics wants to reverse women’s rights and give second-class citizenship to non-Muslims. And their goal of enhancing ties with the Shi’ite clerics in Tehran is hindering efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. One could make the argument that the election of a friendly Shi’ite government in Baghdad has strengthened the ability of the Iranians to resist Western pressure to discontinue its nuclear military program. At the same time, the election of the radical Hamas in Palestine would make it close to impossible for the Americans to revive whatever is still left from the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. It’s a major blow to U.S. interests and also raises the possibility of an “Islamization” trend among the Palestinians, one of the most secular Arab societies.

As Rami Khouri, editor of an English-language newspaper in Beirut, has suggested in an interview with the New York Times, the victories of the Shi’ites in Iraq and of Hamas in Palestine and the “sense that the Islamists were on a roll” have helped ignite the violent anti-West protests over Danish cartoons. President Bush and his aides are, indeed, sticking it to themselves.

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