The Fourth of July, America’s holiday of independence and freedom, has me once again wondering about US policy in the Middle East. I know — I’m supposed to be attending a barbecue and eating a hot dog (kosher, of course) but as a vegetarian I find this holiday difficult to deal with. Instead of the meat, parades, and fireworks, I make it a point on each July 4th to reread the words of the author of America’s Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.
“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s G-d entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind require that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
Jefferson was a natural law deist who believed that human rights — for men and not women, for whites and not blacks or native tribes, and for property owners only — were a divine gift wrapped in neat packages of completely discernible and totally rational and understandable imperatives. Men were free because nature’s Author intended them to be so, and nature itself (including human nature) was comprehensible. Jeffersonian thinking and the American experiment in democracy was a product of the 18th century’s Age of Reason. The British royal monarchy had trampled on the G-d given rights of their colonial countrymen, and Jefferson and his colleagues were determined to spell out in detail the reasons they had chosen to separate.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they were endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed — That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
These immortal words are enshrined in the founding document of the United States of America. Yet for the last seventy years, the US government has supported not only absolute kings, but also military dictators and ruthless autocrats across the globe. For the most part they did this in the name of anti-communism. But for the last twenty-five years, they even supported one-party communist states like China and Vietnam. Whether it was Suharto in Indonesia, Mobuto in the Congo, or Allende in Chile, America backed some of the most criminal people on earth. Whether it was the apartheid government in South Africa or even Saddam Hussein in Iraq, across three continents, Thomas Jefferson’s homeland — the world’s oldest democratic republic — found it in their “national interest” to support some of the worst despots in history. It’s not as if the US or its people didn’t understand tyranny. They most certainly always did, and they still do, probably better than anyone else on the planet.
To quote Jefferson once again, “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this let the facts be submitted to a candid world.”
So what gives? Why has America’s support for tyranny been so widespread? Perhaps because of the nature of European and Japanese power plays, the US has felt it realistic and necessary to field a foreign policy so out of kilter with its values and principles. Perhaps it is the nature of global capitalism to expand, and the US has so wedded itself to this uniform economic system that it needed to open all nations to the dictates of continuous capital expansion. In other words, it just couldn’t wait for democracy (China being case in point). Perhaps it’s as simple as the energy of an advanced industrial revolution. In the Middle East, it has always been about a secure supply of oil for the world market. Why else would a democracy-loving people overthrow a democratic prime minister to support the likes of the Shah of Iran? Certainly oil played the crucial role in America’s “special relationship” with the absolute monarchy of the misogynous House of Saud (Saudi Arabia).
But now America’s policy in the Middle East has faltered, and faltered badly. The Arab peoples wanted freedom and the US responded hesitantly. In Egypt, during the height of the Arab Spring, US policy was torn between Saudi disapproval and a clear annunciation of liberal pluralism. In Syria, the US completely dropped the ball. The Obama administration simply couldn’t find a policy to save the non-violent movement that had taken to the streets. This lack of a policy has led to a series of failed states throughout the Levant and a dangerous regional war that has the potential for further expansion and escalation.
There is no question that the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq to force a democratic outcome was ill-considered. No nation wants to be bombed into democracy. But once the project had achieved a modicum of success (2008), Obama abandoned it and left the field open to the Iranians. This was a worse mistake than the very conception of the war in the first place. US Middle East policy under the current administration has left a vacuum which has become so dangerous that even America’s staunchest allies are left to wonder about the future of the region. What began as a noble aspiration, the Arab Spring, has morphed into a sectarian nightmare, or worse.
Since the League of Nations established the modern Middle East nation-state system at the end of WWI, both Britain and the US have given their unending support to a royal family whose territory occupies the east bank of the Jordan River in the eastern section of historic Israel-Palestine. They are called the Hashemites. Originally, this royal family from western Arabia were hoping to carve out an empire which they titled “Greater Syria”. It was to encompass all of the Levant, connecting with the Hijaz and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. But the French balked at relinquishing Damascus, and the Hashemite’s hold on the Arabian peninsula was tenuous. So two artificial countries were created for this royal family, one centered in Baghdad called Iraq, and another carved out of historic Israel-Palestine called Jordan.
Jordan became a British colony for the most part, depending on London for just about everything. It was independent only in name. Its king developed a constitution, but it was hardly a constitutional monarchy. Unlike Britain, the government of Jordan was not democratic. On the contrary, it has always been an absolute monarchy with hardly any limitations on royal power. Since the early 1960’s, Jordan has been a staunch ally of the US. Even at the height of American support for Middle East democracy, during the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq, Jordan was never pressed by any US politicians to conform to any democratic structures. When it came to Jordan over the years, mum was the word out of Washington. And mum is still the word.
But now Jordan holds the key to both a stable and moderate Middle East, as well as the only viable solution to the long festering Arab-Israeli conflict. Jordan is not only located in historic eastern Israel-Palestine, its population is majority Palestinian. If Israel were to leave the Palestinian territories of Areas A and B tomorrow, (not my plan, but Amos Yadlin’s) a Jordanian-Palestinian linkage would be essential. In fact, in any final status plan, the connection between Jordan and Palestine is undeniable. Palestine without Jordan is simply not viable in any scenario. However, this fact has yet to be digested by either official Washington or among the foreign policy professionals in the think tanks. Why?
It’s the old paradigm, dictators and absolute monarchs (who are pro-American) are worth supporting, while democracy can have a “mind of its own”. Oil is too important to be left to the “whims of the people”. Talk about self-evident truths. And make no mistake, the Hashemite royal dynasty in Amman has been a loyal friend to both America and Israel. There can be no denial of this crucial fact. But Jordan cannot stand in a dysfunctional Middle East. Sooner or later the vacuum which lies between Aleppo and Mosul to the north, and Damascus and Baghdad to the south, will devour the minority royal family. There will be little Israel or the US can do to prevent the uprising. This is true of either pro-Iranian Shiite domination or anti-Iranian Sunni. The Arab Middle East needs an alternative to absolutism. It matters little whether the absolutism is a monarchy, a military dictatorship, or an Islamic state.
Minority rule in the Arab world has run its course, and the question now becomes: Will minority rights (in conjunction with majority rule) have their day in the sun? Let’s face it, the Middle East needs democracy in order to survive as a region. Legitimate government is the only solution to the complete disintegration of the Levant and Egypt. The Arabs need a democratic champion to point the way. Pluralism, citizenship and individual human rights are the progeny of Thomas Jefferson and the American Revolution. The Arab Spring has yet to find its sea legs. But in order to survive, it must have a workable example other than little Tunisia. There is only one country left, and that country is both moderate and pro-Western. It also has the largest Palestinian population of any nation. There is no escaping this fact.
Jordan is geographically linked to Israel-Palestine, as well as socially and economically. The old American game of propping up friendly kings and dividing populations and territory no longer works. The Arab world needs a Thomas Jefferson. I’d say that King Abdullah II of Jordan has a real opportunity to make a lasting name for himself. His democratic actions would be a great example for the whole world, Syria and Iraq included. But most importantly, it would be a living example to all Arabs that individual rights and freedoms are NOT anathema to either Islam or the myriad of peoples throughout the region. As the author of the democratic future of his country, the king can set many of the democratic ground rules. Jordan’s current links to the West do not have to be set aside. Neither does the peace treaty with Israel.
I wish the king well. As an American, however, I do not support absolute monarchy. I make no apology for this. The king knows both America and England well. He’s been educated in both democratic countries. But only he can decide his own future. I hope he chooses wisely. True constitutional monarchy could become his legacy — Thomas Jefferson and King Abdullah II, partners in history. It has a nice ring. Maybe by the next July 4th, the king might make his own Declaration of Independence — a declaration of freedom, and a separation from the other absolute monarchs of the region.