The New Iron Fist A View of the United States from the Middle East

It must be at least weekly, as I’m sitting around with friends in Yemen, that we launch into rants about what situations our governments have put us in; that gigantic American imperial force of wanton destruction and those corrupt, cowardly Arab dictators. Our sessions of socializing turn into rounds of lambasting the situation in the region that seems to only be getting worse.

These conversations are often overshadowed by flurries of “whys.” “Why is it that I, as an Arab, can’t travel outside my country because people are afraid of me?” “Why do the Israelis kill Palestinian children?” “Why does America support Israeli Zionism?” “Why does America kill Iraqis and occupy their land in the name of their liberation?” “Why do the American people let this happen?” “Why don’t our ‘leaders’ stand up to US imperialism and the occupation of Palestine?” “Why is everyone else always telling us how to run our nations?” “What makes Arab leaders think they have the right to stay in power for twenty or thirty years?” “Why are regular people like you and I stuck in the middle of this? We didn’t ask for it!”

As the conversations heat up, we ask each other questions and answer them at the same time, but we are all arguing from the same side, as if against some invisible or unpresent forces far beyond our reach. Hours fly by without our noticing, the fiery passion-fueled-by-injustice tapers off, and in the end silence slowly overwhelms the room. Everyone contemplatively tucks into their arm cushion with the quiet realization that, once more, we haven’t come to a solution.

And it’s not just with close friends that these discussions come up; it happens nearly every time I meet someone in the Middle East — when I buy something from a shop, when I have a fleeting chat with a street vendor. Still, amazingly, people rarely direct their hostility toward me, an American. They are comforted, however slightly, when I explain to them that many united statians realize ( and care ) about what the American government is doing to destroy their region, sovereignty, and humanity. They are encouraged when I tell them that in San Francisco we virtually shut down the city, if only for a day, when the war started. They are saddened, but grateful, when I tell them stories of people that left the Oakland docks with welts on their backs and faces from being shot by wooden dowels as they attempted to stop weapons from being sent to Iraq. They are amazed to hear about the instances when people in our country wake up, however briefly, and take charge. It helps to know that while tens die in Iraq daily resisting the US occupation and the American government is trying to spread its reign over the region, there are some Americans making some effort, somehow.

Most people that I tell these things to had no previous knowledge of any of it. Some have a faint memory of hearing about demonstrations when the war started, but almost everything else they hear about the United States is the daily, seemingly endless reports of killings and destruction in occupied Iraq (which far exceed the random car bombings reported in Western media). On top of that are the constant reports about what new conditions George Bush has placed on Syria or Iran, assertions that he is bringing democracy to the Lebanese people, and how he will liberate Palestine through the “Road Map to Peace.” Every day, every hour.

And it enrages people. The simplistic rhetoric about freedom and democracy stands next to report after bloody report of devastation in Iraq and Palestine. The same crap that the government and media shove down Americans’ throats reaches people in the Middle East too, but the main difference is that in the Middle East people see the blatant idiocy of what is being said. While many Americans sit back and contemplate whether, however much they may not like it, American intervention actually is better for the region, Arabs living in the Middle East see things falling apart before their eyes at the hands of that same world power that keeps talking about freedom and democracy.

For centuries, the situation in the Middle East has been a boiling pot — ready to spill over — of religious tension, totalitarian dictators, tribal conflicts, and struggles for power. This existed before the US ever entered the region, but when they came in, they not only caused the pot to overflow, they kicked the whole thing over with a big, black leather military boot. While Bush talks about the successes achieved in Iraq and the democracy and freedom of opinion that Iraqis now enjoy, people in the Middle East see the complete chaos that has overwhelmed the country and the absolute deterioration of peoples lives.

A recent report by the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) entitled “Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004,” has shown how the situation has deteriorated at an alarming rate since the US-led invasion in 2003, with huge numbers of people lacking adequate access to basic services and resources such as clean water, health care, water food, electricity, jobs, and sanitation. Rates of child malnutrition have nearly doubled since the 2003 invasion, with 23 percent of children between six months and five years suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to the report.

The death toll of Iraqi citizens now sits somewhere between foreign estimates of around 15,000 and local estimates up to 194,000. The report’s list of “current major problems” includes “lack of health personnel, lack of medicines, non-functioning medical equipment and destroyed hospitals and health centers.” Pediatrician Tala Al-Awqati told the Christian Science Monitor that, despite the ever-increasing number of wounded in attacks by rebels, foreign occupation troops, or Iraqi security forces, “The Health Ministry does not have [enough] money to spend until July. A lot of things have stopped. People are not getting what they need from the health services. Money for disinfectants is not there anymore; sometimes we must buy it ourselves.” Meanwhile, the report states that nation-wide, only 54% have access to safe drinking water and in rural areas 80% of the people are drinking unsafe water. With the unemployment rate now at 70%, and the infrastructure that the US promised to rebuild still sitting in shambles, the talk of Bush and his cronies about their success of bringing democracy to the country is like a slap in the face, not only to Iraqis, but to every person living in the Middle East.

At the same time, people hear Bush talk about how he has also recently brought long-awaited democracy to Lebanon and rid it of the Syrian “occupiers.” (In an interview with the Lebanese TV station LBC before Syria’s withdrawal, Bush justified American orders for Syria to evacuate Lebanon by saying, “I think everybody wants to be free. I think people long to be free and I think people are tired of living under a government which, in essence, is a foreign occupation. (Sounds about right. So how about start with Iraq!) Syria has evacuated and Lebanon is no longer under its thumb, which is what many, and it’s probably safe to say the majority, in Lebanon wanted. Instead of the Lebanese themselves ousting Syria though, Syria was forced out by the United States (with the support of France) which pragmatically means that instead of being under Syrian rule, Lebanon now answers to “international monitors,” i.e. the United States and France. This means that Lebanon is still at the whim of foreign powers, this time a much more powerful one with less at stake regarding the state of the country.

The vacuum left with the sudden Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon has created grounds ripe for Lebanon’s old civil war leaders to take the stage again and has left Lebanon’s religious sects racing for power. Michel Aoun, a right wing Christian Maronite that once cooperated with Saddam against Syria, returned from fourteen years of exile as soon as Syrian troops left Lebanon and is doing his best to try to take over. Meanwhile, many right-wing Christians in Lebanon are calling for the release of the old warlord Samir Gaegae, who was once a commander of the Phalangist militia, a far-right Christian group whose founder, Pierre Gamayel, created the militia with the “discipline and order” that he saw in his 1936 visit to Nazi Germany. At the rate that things have developed in Lebanon since the US forced Syrian withdrawal, it’s not unlikely that fragile Lebanon, which has hung together despite still simmering tensions, could slip back into civil war.

In Syria, the US seems to have tried everything to justify “cracking down” on the country. Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton’s claims of weapons of mass destruction having been smuggled from Iraq into Syria and random allegations that Al-Qaeda is in the country were never justified and quietly disappeared from Washington’s rhetoric. The focus then switched to Syria’s “occupation” of Lebanon following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which the US all but directly blamed on Syria. Practically the entire Arab world however, accused the US and Israel of plotting the assassination, using it as an excuse to put the heat on Syria. To the surprise of the US government, Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon on April 26th, negating yet another attempt by the US to clamp down on the sovereign country. Still, they have not given up and are now justifying the continued pressure against Syria under the guise of overturning authoritarian regimes, triggering democracy, and good old anti-terrorism.

Much like the situation was in Iraq before the invasion; it seems that the US is forever moving the goal post that it had no right to set in the first place. True to the style of American foreign policy, they find a wound, a local crisis, and play the doctor that will come and offer a remedy, but end up exploiting the situation to further their own motives. In the end, they rip the wound wide open. Much like the situation was in Iraq, many Syrians secretly despise the dictatorship that they live under.

Several times, while in a private home or a place out of range of Big Brother President Al-Assad’s ears, people have told me under their breath how much they despise their country’s regime, which has been smothering them for decades and how they dream of its demise. I’ve heard countless stories about people that have spent years in political prison for ripping the president’s picture off the wall, appearing too religious, not voting, or just not showing their love for the Assad family enough. They’ve had enough injustice, and aren’t willing to change out one heavy handed regime for a heavy handed foreign power that is going to use them as a pawn for taking control of the region — setting up bases on their land, bringing in foreign companies to take their work, and installing a government that not only doesn’t answer to its people, but it answers to the United States empire. The situation is already bad enough and nobody wants to make it worse.

While sitting in overcrowded caf├ęs in Damascus amidst the sweet apple flavored scent of nargille smoke or in guest rooms looming over cups of thick Arabic coffee, those same, mostly soft spoken friends, have tiraded about the injustice of the American occupation and destruction of Iraq, US funding and support of the Israeli occupation, the rottenness of the capitalism it is smearing across the world, and the way that it is targeting Muslims around the globe. They say that, as much as they may hate it, their government is their own problem, and that if the US military ever set foot in their country, they would immediately pick up arms and defend their land.

One thing that is for certain is if individual people ever did have qualms about going to war against the strongest military in the world, the United States has succeeded in making such an enemy out of itself through unnecessary war, occupation, and military support of corrupt regimes that for most people that hesitation is now gone. For most, it’s no longer even a question of whether or not it’s worth risking their lives; it’s a matter of necessity. The Middle East, like most of the world, has already been subject to colonial powers, and subsequently overthrew them. Like those powers, American presence in the Middle East is not just an unfortunate inconvenience that people need to deal with and is by no stretch of the imagination seen as a welcomed humanitarian mission; it is viewed as a destructive cancer that needs to be purged and resistance will only grow, spread, and utilize any means necessary until that is accomplished.