Thursday, March 5, 2015

The U.S. and the Middle East (Coda)

Note: This post by Peter T. follows on his earlier posts: here and here
The Middle East is often said to be a volatile, complex region, and therefore difficult for U.S. policy to deal with.  I'm sceptical of this claim.  Take SE Asia: it has at least as many states, ethnic minorities, rebellions, disputed borders, historical animosities, religious cleavages and revolutionary movements as the Middle East.  It also has oil and a great many other natural resources, a key strategic position, and is a continuing arena for great-power rivalry.  The U.S. has a long history of covert and overt intervention in the region.  Yet today the U.S. can be said to have reasonable relations with pretty much all the states in SE Asia.  Pew Surveys find that over 60 or 70% of people in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have a positive view of the U.S.  This compares with 22% in the Middle East.

The main lines of U.S. policy in SE Asia are straightforward.  It has remained allied with Thailand and the Philippines despite, in both cases, erratic domestic politics.  The U.S. was not so committed to military regimes in Thailand as to be unable to get on with democratic ones, or vice versa.  Likewise, it could deal with both Marcos and Aquino in the Philippines.  There have been ups and downs with Myanmar and Indonesia (and in both, some CIA meddling), but no outright conflict.  Vietnam was, of course, caught up in the U.S. obsession with anti-communism, and it took the U.S. some time to get over defeat in 1975: a grudge the U.S. carried until 1991. Since then, U.S. relations with Vietnam and Cambodia have been pretty normal, in the sense that differences have been resolved or carried on without recourse to covert ops, sanctions or menacing talk.

If SE Asia were the Middle East, the U.S. would be bombing upper Thailand in support of a government in Bangkok allied to a regime in Vietnam under severe U.S. sanctions, while maintaining close ties to a militant Buddhist government in Myanmar funding terrorist groups in Bali, Laos and Bangladesh...or some such.

To be clear, I'm not claiming that the U.S. has not made some bad policy mistakes in SE Asia.  It misread the decolonisation movement in the late '40s and '50s, committed major forces to a strategically hopeless position in South Vietnam, and behaved atrociously in Cambodia both before and after 1975.  Yet it has been able to recover from these and, for the last two decades, managed to avoid major problems.  This is in strong contrast to the Middle East.  What explains the difference?

-- Peter T.

Note added by LFC: With respect to CIA meddling, I think the 1965 mass slaughter of Indonesian Communists by the government is one episode that stands out. (See e.g. here.)


Anonymous said...

"What explains the difference?"

Israel and the U.S. neocon foreign policy establishment.

LFC said...

Responding to anonymous (and with the caveat that I didn't write this post), I think the neocons are only one portion of the US fp establishment and not the most powerful one at the moment. Still, the overall pt may be well taken, and certainly w/r/t Bush admin and 2nd Gulf War.

Though I think there are other differences too. Haven't worked it out in any esp coherent way so I'll leave it at that.

JS said...

Just happened to read this over at Arabist. Thought I'd drop a link here because I think it dovetails pretty nicely with a lot of points you've made.

At the same time, while I don't agree with all of it, at points reading the article, you get the sense that regional elites in the Middle East are barely any better at being able to follow a relatively consistent medium- to long-term strategy than the US (or the West more generally). And looking at the overlapping alliances, oppositions, etc., one does sort of start to wonder whether the region, at least as it exists now and has existed in the recent past, is really more complex than SE Asia or Latin America, say. Not in some mysterious, Orientalizing way, but just as a result of its particular history (in which of course the West played a nice little hand).

Peter T said...


That's a good link. I don't think the ME is more complex, but it is tied in a very complex way to the west: too close to go its own way, too different to integrate, too conscious of a separate and equal destiny to capitulate. And this makes it immensely difficult for ME states to build a strong base. Bit like Russia vis-a-vis Western Europe, or Mexico and Central America vs the US. Though maybe a bit closer to god than Mexico.

LFC said...

Just noticed this lead graph on a WaPo story:
"More than 80 percent of Russians have a negative view of the U.S., and observers say anti-U.S. sentiment has surpassed any time since the Stalin era."

So that exceeds, I think, the negative-view-toward-U.S. percentage in M.East.

Planning to read js's link tomorrow. (Have a cold etc. and have been feeling fairly miserable today.)

Peter T said...

In the Middle East overall, yes. But still ahead of Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Jordan as of 2014.

Interestingly, ahead of Palestine: hope springs eternal....

LFC said...

That Pew chart for 2014 is quite interesting. Thanks for linking.