Thursday, February 24, 2011

How to completely misinterpret the news

As all of you know, a recent development in the Middle East has been an upsurge of popular revolt. In addition to the rampant use of psychotropics among Libyan teenagers, popular revolts have ended the long-standing regimes of Tunisia and Egypt, seem to be on the verge of extracting major concessions from the king of Bahrain and toppling the presidency in Yemen, and have emerged in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and now even Saudi Arabia.

What always tends to follow in the wake of such geopolitical trends are people claiming that "things would have been different IF" their advice had been followed by the people who ruled such nations and apparently were neither as enlightened or commercial as the little world within the DC Beltway. This rambling discourse is one of those claims. It's titled "A crisis of legitimacy". Unfortunately for the author, the only question of legitimacy is the one aimed at his own grasp of history over the past 100 years.

1. Demographics: He cites a population explosion based on "reduced opportunities for women." Of course, opportunities for women have never been widespread in some of these regimes, going back centuries. There's also an easy counterpoint to this cultural claim in that one of the largest population explosions in US history accompanied a steady expansion of opportunities for women in the 1950s and 60s (the so-called Baby Boom; perhaps you've heard of it, often spoken of in dreadful tones concerning the impending implosion of the US economy given our farce of a public pension system.) But I'm just quibbling here.

2. The so-called "resource curse": Here's where we really get rolling with the Western-centric viewpoint. According to the "resource curse" theory, nations with abundant natural resources are more prone to corruption and a lack of economic, social, and cultural development. Smith is quick to tag the "Ruling Elites" (why is it that so many social entities or theories that are intended to be targets of repugnance are capitalized by conservative writers? Must be an insidious form of Socialism...) with the lion's share of the blame for this phenomenon. Said elites are the type of heinous criminals most Westerners assume must inhabit all of the Middle East, as they keep their downtrodden people impoverished and powerless to prevent their rulers from extracting whatever resources are available and enriching themselves and only themselves with the sale of those materials. But, of course, sale implies having a customer. One doesn't just pump oil from the ground and ship it off to a Swiss bank account. And once you have customers, they're going to be interested in getting the sweetest deal they can find for those resources in order to further the growth of their own economies and enrich whichever corporation is "in theater" (to borrow his phrase) and fomenting this joyous transaction.

Now, which entity has been the largest customer for the primary resource of the Middle East for most of the last century? Which customer has been only too happy to support various despots and dictators to ensure a free flow of that substance to its shores; that support usually being comprised of cash, guns, and the training to use those guns? Which customer has acted swiftly to deter any forces of change within these various crudely drawn states, presuming (rightly) that said forces might not be so pleased to be giving the milk away so easily and might actually have an interest in developing their own nations? Let me think... Oh, yeah...

That last link is to a page written by my friend, William Blum, a former employee of the State Department who has spent much of the last 40 years detailing exactly how the US has gone a bit farther than the "fledgling wannabe-Empire" that Smith claims. From Chiang-Kai-Shek to the Duvaliers and Noriega, the US gladly supported strongmen and vicious criminals around the world. From Mossadegh to the Sandinistas, the US moved quickly to destabilize, isolate, or outright overthrow popular and legitimately elected regimes that conflicted with US economic and private corporate interests. The Middle East is, of course, one of the foci of this global effort, since most of the people living there have the misfortune to have settled on top of our oil.

Those Ruling Elites have existed at the behest of the US to keep their populations in check and to keep the oil flowing. El-Zein? Turned a blind eye. Mubarak? $1 billion per annum in military support and training. The Gulf states and the Saud kingdom? We're the biggest guard dog you've ever seen. Saddam Hussein? Our fair-haired boy until he exhibited a little too much pride. The lone real exception is Qaddafi, but since Libya doesn't really produce that much oil and wasn't invading Egypt, those people could just do without any of that liberty stuff. And now they're using drugs. Degenerates.

The idea that cultural trappings or a weak-willed populace or any of the other speculative answers implied by Smith's essay are what kept the Ruling Elites in power and have ensured the "backwardness" of their respective nations is one put forth by someone who may never have set foot outside the United States. The tepid response by the current administration to the transformations taking place is indicative of changes in that policy brought about by the public's waning interest in conducting extra-national adventures in the name of "national security" (read: Chevron's profits) and the fact that, uh, we have some issues here in Der Vaterland that are more prominent than usual.

But this is my favorite part:

Regardless of their purported ideological flavor, the ruling Elites all relied on the same system of governance: offer a simulacrum of public purpose to the world and the populace, and ceaselessly pursue private confiscation of national income and resources.
Huh. Where have I heard that before? Oh. The iron fist of Empire has, indeed, been covered with the attractive glove of freedom, but not where Smith thinks.

Oh, and his presentation of Pakistan as an example of colonial interference creating unstable new nations is patently ridiculous, given that the British argued to keep the dominion of British India whole, but unimportant people like Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah knew that would be impossible. You can blame the British for a lot of things (including Mossadegh, in part) but not that. It's all here. He clearly knows of the existence of Wikipedia, but obviously not for even cursory research.

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