How Little We Understand the Cultures We Bomb

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The Boulder City Club hosted as part of our International Affairs luncheon series a talk with Q&A on the Arab Spring with Dr. Nader Hashemi, the Director for the Center of Middle East Studies within the Korbel School at the University of Denver.  Another great topic – “The Arab Spring Two Years Later and The Catastrophe in Syria”.  I have some Israeli friends who might retitle it “The Catastrophe of the Arab Spring and Syria Two Years Later.”

I recently wrote about Ambassador Hill’s presentation to the City Club rethinking the power of diplomacy. Ambassador Hill heads the Korbel School, but the institution appears to have a deep bench. Dr. Hashemi delivered a nuanced talk across the vastly complex cultures of North Africa and the Middle East. Once again I was struck how little we understand the cultures we bomb.

Dr. Hashemi had a tough topic. There really is not much good to say about the Arab Spring at the moment. Perhaps, objectively it is an omelete in the whisking stage. Whether it results in a fluffy and airy creation or a hardened oily mass is in the future. And the results will surely not be uniform across the region.

Dr. Hashemi described the promise of democratic revolution under threat from authoritarian counter-revolution in country after country. But the Arab Spring resists region wide description. In Tunisia the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderating force. In Egypt it is largely incompetent, but the alternative is as likely Salafist (a more extreme version of political Islam) as Jeffersonian. Libya is perhaps closer to Somalia in the early 1990s.

That Syria is a catastrophe is the easy judgment. What policy for the United States and the West in Syria, is the tougher decision. We have a reasonable track record of liberating occupied countries of foreign forces. We have a terrible record intervening in civil wars or even in identifying a side connected to our national interests.

Syria brings all of the worst temptations of US policy since Vietnam.  The willingness to see secular democrats where there are none.  An exaggeration of the American military’s ability to improve the situation on the ground.   Finally, the tendency to fool ourselves that policymakers truly understand the complexity of factions, religions, and grievances tracing back through the mists of 5,000 years.

If I have a criticism of Dr. Hashemi, it would be my typical one in this area of US policy.  What is the vital US national interest in Syria?  He vaguely assumed it without naming it. Afterwards I asked several fellow City Club members what was the US vital interest in Syria.

“General stability”

“Economic interests”

I am an admirer of Churchill, Ghandi, Washington, Eisenhower, the actors of conviction.  They did not commit the lives of their young men and women to a battle for general stability.  When has this part of the world had stability?

And let us remember that as in Iraq and Vietnam we would act in Syria without United Nations authorization.

And rather than hurl an insult about combat airmen dying for GDP, let me say I see no vital US economic interest in Syria or the surrounding area that is made better through US intervention.  Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan have been a mess of violence and misguided socialist lingo masking authoritarianism or tribalism since 1945.  Before sanctions Syrian/US trade was 200 to 400 hundred million dollars per year – a minuscule drop in our river of international trade.

At least nobody at the City Club is as dumb as tv pundits – nobody brought up weapons of mass destruction as the basis for intervention.

The real story is not hope or despair, but muddling through ancient and tangential quarrels.  We are lucky to have the Korbel School nearby to push our cultural thinking.  Even if I must say Dr. Hashemi’s talk reinforced my view that there is no US interest in Syria worth one American life.

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