Our bastards and theirs

Zach Wiita

“He may be a bastard, but he’s OUR bastard.”

It’s a cliché, but it’s guided much of U.S. foreign policy for decades. Given a choice between pro-American autocrats and belligerents like Hamas, Washington has often supported autocrats in the Muslim world for fear that too much Arab democracy would produce anti-American results.

Yet, for much of the past decade, we forgot that when the populace of a given state sees we support dictators out of fear of their people, or when they believe we have no regard for their right to self-determination, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

Former President George W. Bush often liked to speak of the need to spread freedom and democracy. However, his foreign policy was a spectacular failure. It was characterized by a lack of respect for the Other. Bush never strongly communicated a belief in the right of foreign societies to self-determination. He treated the United Nations with contempt. He had an allergic reaction to multilateralism.

Bush spoke of spreading freedom and democracy – but his actions undercut his message. He invaded an Islamic country that had not fired the first shot. He cut off humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority because a party he didn’t like won their elections. To the ears of most Muslims, the message received was not pro-liberty. It was, “Do what we want or we will hurt you.”

“He may be a bastard, but he’s OUR bastard” can be very appealing to foreign cultures that feel threatened by us. The harsh neo-conservatism of Bush only strengthened popular support for political actors hostile to the U.S.

That is why the new foreign policy of President Obama is a breath of fresh air. He understands the need to communicate respect for other cultures and their sovereignty. He understands that national security is best served through engagement and partnership.

Neo-conservatism undermined our power throughout the world. Engagement, on the other hand, has already produced promising results. In Lebanon, Hezbollah was widely expected to win the parliamentary elections earlier this month, but the moderate March 14 coalition instead claimed the vote. The ability of Hamas to gain support was badly hurt when Obama made it clear that Israel’s settlement policy would no longer be accepted and instead supported the establishment of a State of Palestine.

Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress argues that the religious leaders of Iran felt so threatened by Obama’s message of engagement and moderation that they rigged their election to ensure the victory of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over moderate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. They had never had to do this before, but it has already produced riots throughout Iran that threaten supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s hold on power.

Clearly, the people of the Middle East are starting to feel less threatened by the United States – robbing anti-American extremists of the American bogeyman they had once used to keep their peoples in line.

This will be a long process and we should not expect engagement to work miracles. But with luck, the people of the Islamic world will learn to see the United States as a potential ally. And all the world will see the monsters of Al-Qaeda and their ilk for what they truly are; no one’s bastards but their own.

Zach Wiita is a senior political science and theater studies major and a columnist for the Summer Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].