Every weekend at university campuses around the nation, students play the notorious game of “Beirut.” Little do most people know, the action of tossing a ball into a beer cup derives its name from the sustained bombardment that Beirut, Lebanon suffered during a bloody civil war in the 1970s and 80s. This carnage, however, has transformed into a distant memory for most Lebanese. Beirut is hailed as a rejuvenated city of fortune. Recently, however, Lebanon suffered a stark reminder of how unstable and ill-fated the Middle East can be. The assassination of one of Lebanon’s most prominent individuals, former prime minister, Rafiq Al-Hariri, has largely been blamed on Syria—Lebanon’s neighboring state which maintains a military and political presence in the country. I, however, will neither place nor refute the blame on Syria, or any other party. Rather, the assassination of Hariri is telling of the mismanaged policies of the international community, namely the United States, in the region.
At the beginning of the Iraq War, the Bush administration outlined its vision for a “democratic” Middle East. In pursuit of this reform, it declared the formation of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). While this scheme may seem beneficial for the region, it reflects the American (namely Bush’s) deep-rooted goal of exploiting occupied Iraq as a laboratory for democratization in the region. The U.S. has thus put forth a “social engineering project” which reflects its unique vision for a more democratic Middle East. This “project” is indicative of American muscular unilateralism in promoting reform in the Arab World. As a result of American “gunpoint democracy,” Arab governments have been brought to their knees.
Arab countries have always walked a fine line between politically and socially liberalizing, and being seen as American collaborators or puppets. Many Arab leaders have precariously preserved this balance in the past by partially cooperating with the U.S., but still appearing strong, Arab, and Islamic before their citizens. Due to the Iraq War, and unabated support for Israel’s oppressive occupation in Palestine, anti-American sentiment has skyrocketed in the Arab World. As a result, Arab leaders are very wary of appearing “too friendly” with the Americans. At the same time, the U.S. has placed strong pressure on Arab states to reform politically. Arab governments are thus put in a very vulnerable position where neither interest can be satisfied; either the leadership sacrifices civil stability in order to cooperate with the U.S. and reform, or the leadership takes a hardline against American pressure—the consequences of which Saddam Hussein could articulate.
The weakening of Arab leadership has captured the attention of militant groups, opposition organizations, and religious fundamentalists who want to garner power in the Arab states. From the proliferating militants in Iraq, to the Kurdish demonstrations in Syria, to the Islamic jihadists in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman, anti-government violence is rampant in the Arab World. Worst of all, Arab governments seem unable to respond with anything but more violence, or empty rhetoric. The American cowboy, if you will, has compelled the militant sheikh.
When considering last week’ assassination of Rafiq Hariri, this notion of civil volatility is all too apparent. Consider the two scenarios for Hariri’s assassination: either Syria is responsible, or they are not. If Syria is in fact accountable, the brutal assassination would be motivated by the Syrian leadership’s desire to reassert its power in Lebanon. In recent months, the U.S. has chosen to lambaste Syria’s presence in Lebanon, subsequently imposing sanctions on the country—an ironic demand considering the American occupation of Iraq. Thus, Damascus may have wanted to assassinate Hariri, a prominent Syrian opposition advocate, in a bid to reassert its government’s shaky grip on power in the face of U.S. pressure. The other scenario is that another organization or country was responsible for the assassination. Undoubtedly, this entity would have sought to exploit the Syrian leadership’s vulnerable position by committing an act that would guarantee invigorated international pressure on the country. It is not a coincidence that the relative peace that Lebanon has enjoyed for the last fifteen years has been shattered at the same time that Damascus is facing unprecedented American-led opposition. This opportune time seems ideal for such a strategic attack.
The most important lesson we should learn from Hariri’s assassination, however, is that American efforts in the region are not only failing, but degenerating civil stability in the Middle East. Instead of American gunpoint democracy, or unilateral arrogance, we need to engage the Arab World. While I am the first to support political reform in the Arab World, emboldening militants, fundamentalists, and separation groups is undoubtedly counterproductive to meaningful liberalization. Rather, building our trust within Arab societies will allow us to more effectively carry our message of liberty, justice, and democracy. Instead of rebuking Syria, we should negotiate and try to reconcile political and economic contentions. Instead of criticizing the unfair election processes in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, we should strive to help them build a competent electoral infrastructure. Instead of killing more insurgents in Iraq, we should begin economically rebuilding the country. Ultimately, faith-building measures are necessary to win the hearts of the Arab people. When these societies possess optimism instead of disillusionment with American policy in the region, Arab governments will have the necessary clout to engage meaningful reform in their countries
In his renowned work, Orientalism, the scholar Edward Saïd proclaims, “the Orient was almost a Western invention.” Saïd illustrates that the misconceptions the West created about the Middle East degraded Arab society into an “other;” a diametrically opposed stranger. Presently, we seem to have many strangers in the Middle East and far fewer friends. While U.S. goals to steer Arab states towards democracy may be noble, perhaps respectfully reengaging the Arabs would heed better results than last week’s tragedy.
Rami R. Sarafa ’07 is a government and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations concentrator in Adams House.
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