Wednesday, March 23, 2011

No flies, on us

So let me get this straight. A produce vendor in Tunisia, fed up with constant demands for bribes from government officials, set fire to himself. Within weeks, the governments of Tunisia and Egypt had fallen, the king of Jordan dismissed his cabinet, demonstrators filled the streets of Bahrain and Yemen, and a civil war broke out in Libya. The United States can't resist getting involved, uninvited, in other people's civil wars, so we're having to scrounge up a hundred million dollars a day to keep Gadaffy from bombing his own restive subjects.

Understand: we saw none of this coming. As with the fall of the Shah in 1979, the CIA found out by reading the New York Times (these days, probably online). Nobody seems to have the vaguest idea who these "rebels" are, where they get their financing, and what future they may imagine for themselves. Having traded a shah for an ayatollah, we might profitably examine some of these questions before trading the grotesque Gadaffy for someone even more unhinged. But there doesn't seem to be any kind of long-term thinking in American foreign policy -- we just react to events, like somebody playing whack-a-mole with cooked asparagus. This is the democracy predicted by Donald Rumsfeld, the first fruits of the "freedom" we sowed in Iraq. So who's surprised?

From a general sense of the twentieth century, I can tell you one thing: the Arab world does not want any more help from the West. We screwed over their hopes for independence at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, we drove some of them into unholy alliances with Hitler in the 1940s, and we outraged millions of people with our unthinking support for all Israeli actions whatsoever -- and this was before invading Iraq the first time. We have operated from a position of spectacular ignorance -- when thousands of Americans troops arrived in Iraq in 2003, their commander in chief still didn't know there was a distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Or care. Most Americans think Iranians are Arabs, that all Muslims are fundamentalists, and that when all is said and done, it's our oil lurking under their soil. I won't even mention Afghanistan, which is a country only in the academic sense (it has a flag, it takes up space on maps).

The people in charge of Operation Odyssey Dawn -- who the hell comes up with these names? -- tell us that the Libyan air force is no more. I tell them that no war was ever concluded with bombing alone. What are we prepared to do now? Do we even know?