By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
At the recent J Street conference Bernie Sanders said that the Iraq war “created a cascade of instability around the region that we are still dealing with today in Syria and elsewhere, and will be for many years to come.” He has said this before in July 2016 he tweeted: “The real cause of instability in the Middle East was the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq.”
The “instability” narrative being pushed by Sanders is part of a larger narrative that paints “instability” as a problem in the Middle East. The logic is that therefore the previous “stability” was positive. What was the “stable” Middle East? It was the Middle East of dictatorships such as Saddam Hussein, Hafiz al-Assad, Muammar Qadafi, Hosni Mubarak and others, such as the Kingdoms that still exist.
Why is there this fetish for dictatorships? Sanders claims that “As progressives, here are the values we share: We believe in democracy. We believe in equality. We believe in pluralism. We are strongly opposed to xenophobia. We respect and we will protect the rights of minorities.” He also claims “The values of inclusiveness, security, democracy, and justice should inform not only America’s engagement with Israel and Palestine, but with the region and the world.”
But if these are the values of progressives then why do they deny these rights and values to people in the Middle East through their support for the old regime of “stability”? The old kingdoms of Europe before the French Revolution also promised “stability.” Fascism also promised “stability” in Europe. Franco promised “stability” in Spain. Mussolini promised to deliver Italy from the chaos of post-World War One.
Generally we view the instability of revolution in Europe and the progress towards individual rights and freedoms as a good thing. Sometimes “stable” empires such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the former Yugoslavia, have to be dismantled so that people can have self-determination and rights. Often the transition to democracy and more rights is traumatic.
The concept that people in the Middle East must live under “stable” regimes is part of an Orientalist and neo-colonial mentality. The mentality posits first of all that the “nature” of people in the Middle East is that they need “strong” leaders and that only under an “iron hand” can they prosper. The narrative also claims that minorities can only survive with a strong regime, rather than the instability that lets loose terrorism. The same logic was also used to explain why Jewish minorities in Europe required strong kingdoms to live under that protected them, rather than the “chaos” of populism and democracy that led to the extreme anti-semitism of the late 19th and early 20th century when borders changed and then the fascism of the mid-20th century. It’s true, minorities may require protection of a king, rather than “protection” form the populist masses. But a better model is to have a tolerant public, rather than “protect” minorities only because the masses are afraid of being beaten down by the regime. Minorities who are seen as “collaborators” with regimes tend to be targeted by masses when they rebel. So a stable democratic regime that teaches tolerance is actually better in the long term for minorities.
The “they need a strong leader” theory is part of the Orientalist and neo-colonial view because it posits that non-western peoples are incapable of governing themselves and that only through “strong leaders” can they be dealt with. Why don’t Americans need a strong leader to keep them in line? Why don’t the French? No, they are seen as mature enough to vote and choose their own leaders. But the racist narrative portrays Africa and the Middle East and other parts of the world as incapable of doing the same.
The neo-colonial mentality on “stable” regimes in the Middle East is also connected to a devotion to the colonial borders of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. The theory is that people in the Middle East are also incapable of drawing their own borders and deciding for themselves and that only the British and French colonial powers knew what “was best” for the region. Any attempt to change that “unleashes instability.”
Yet there is a contradiction here. Sanders has also said that his values “means supporting self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for both peoples.” What about self-determination for Kurds? Here is where the old “stability” shows through. Many of those who hate “instability” believe that Kurdish people in the Middle East do not deserve freedom from dictatorships and gassed and genocided them. Saddam destroyed 4,000 villages and killed 150,000, including thousands during the Halabja poison gas attack. Why was that “stability.” Why is genocide a form of “stability.” Why was the Assad regime “stable” when it denied basic civil rights to its citizens. Kurds were denied even citizenship for half a century. The name of their towns were changed to Arabic names, similar to what happened across the border in Turkey, where the BBC notes “Kurdish names and costumes were banned, the use of the Kurdish language was restricted and even the existence of a Kurdish ethnic identity was denied, with people designated ‘mountain Turks.'” Why is it that Kurds were denied things that Americans take for granted and this is considered “stability.” It’s like saying the Old South and slavery was “stable” as opposed to the “instability” of the 1960s Civil Rights era.
The narrative of “stability” is primarily one that caters to a concept that views any sort of democratic choice for non-western people as dangerous, it views them as “unstable” and threatening. These narratives were also used in the West to deny basic human rights to people. But for some reason we tend to see the “instability” of the civil rights era in the United States as an important transition. We view civil disobedience as a positive form of direct action that can lead to rights and raising awareness. We don’t believe in being quiet in the face of oppression and racism, even if there is some “instability” along the way.
The American Revolution against British rule was “instability.” It unleashed years of instability and changing borders. The rebellion against French rule in Haiti was “instability.” The fight for women’s rights was a form of “instability.” Every step along the way to equal rights has been “unstable.” Every step along the way to social justice or rights of workers, such as the the Labor rights movement in the 19th century in the United States, was “unstable.” In fact the robber barons who suppressed workers rights often claimed that Labor “agitators” were involved in “instability.” They derided them as dangerous socialists and communists. But the rights we take for granted today as a worker were forged through the anvil of instability. The Haymarket riot, the Pullman Car Strike. Yet when we teach those incidents we don’t say “it would be best to have less workers rights, because we must not unleash instability.”
When ISIS began its march of genocide in August of 2014 it was the same anti-“instability” lobby that argued against fighting ISIS and supporting the Kurds. Peter Beinart wrote in The Atlantic “The Peshmerga are a disciplined fighting force with a political agenda that is more pro-American and more liberal than anyone else’s in the neighborhood. But by supporting them, the U.S. may hasten Kurdish independence and the dissolution of Iraq.” Why is it that Kurdish independence, the right to self-determination is so anathema to these “progressive” American voices? Why is it that the basic rights that they believe Palestinians deserve, or they believe that they deserve, such as America’s rights to be independent from England, don’t apply to Kurds? Why is it that fighting ISIS is somehow not an American values, standing up for minorities such as the Yazidis? Sanders says “Our vision, a vision we must never lose sight of, is creating a Middle East were people come together in peace and democracy to create a region in which all people have a decent life.”
But why do we need Sanders to “create” a Middle East and “create a region”? Why can’t the region create itself? Why can’t the people have the same rights to decide their future as people in Vermont receive? People in Vermont don’t live under a Bashar al-Assad, do they? They don’t get gassed by a Saddam Hussein, do they? So why is it that it is “stability” and acceptable for people in the Middle East to suffer? Why is it that these Americans worship a “unified” Iraq so much, rather than the rights of Iraqis to decide the future of Iraq they want. Perhaps they want federalism, autonomy or different concepts. They should have the same rights that people in Texas or California have to decide. When people say they need “stability” under Saddam Hussein, or they say that we must “create a region,” we take away their rights and agency.
The worshipping of “stability” in Syria posits that only under Assad can Syrians live the way they “should” live, rather than the way some of them want to live. Yes, it is “unstable” to drive 12 million Syrians from their home the way the war has done. But who is responsible for that? Assad. Who is responsible largely for ISIS? Assad’s years of dictatorship and brutal crackdown that helped foster extremism. It’s true instability helped lead to ISIS, but the answer is not more Saddam Hussein and Assad. The Napoleonic wars unleashed unprecedented instability in Europe. But that doesn’t mean people deserve less rights. It means they deserve to be delivered from instability.
It’s time to stop this nonsense “instability” narrative. Yes, the Middle East is going through unprecedented instability. That is partly, or largely, the result of 100 years of living under Sykes-Picot and the dictatorships that emerged in the post-colonial period after 1950. These include kingdoms that the Europeans forced upon the native peoples, such as King Faisel in Iraq and King Farouk in Egypt. These were brittle colonial “stable” kingdoms. They gave way to Arab nationalist regimes and experiments in Ba’athist Arab socialism, that was also brutal. But these were not “stable” times. Gamal Abdel Nasser sought to shake up the Arab world. He caused “instability” in Lebanon and Jordan, Iraq and Yemen and in Syria. US and British interventions in Lebanon and Jordan in 1958. That was after the US intervened in Iran in 1953 and the UK and France had invaded the Canal in 1956. Wait, you mean, no one wants to talk about the “instability”? How about the Yemen civil war of the 1960s?
So what was the “stability” of the Middle East? Remember King Idris of Libya and his “stability” that ended in 1969? Remember the 1959 Mosul uprising in Iraq that followed the 1958 coup? That was all part of the birth pangs of the Middle East in the post-colonial era, rebelling against the structures left behind. The stagnation and ossification of the regimes such as the Shah and others, was “stable” only at the end of the barrel of a gun. People are indeed “stable” when living under dictatorships like Franco, but that is not an ideal state. With the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the elections in the Palestinian Authority 2005-2006, the removal of the Syrians from Lebanon following the murder of Hariri in 2005 and then the Arab Spring of 2011, there is a trend. It has unleashed instability, civil war and crackdowns (such as in Bahrain). But what has emerged in Rojava in eastern Syria and among Kurds in Iraq is a positive decision by local people to seek rights. The denial of rights to others in Syria by the regime is not positive “stability”.
Islamists have exploited instability much as fascists and communists exploited instability in the 20th century. It is important to confront those groups who exploit instability, but don’t whitewash the Saddam regime and don’t whitewash the Assad regime or the Ayatollahs because of it. The opposite of instability and the cure for it is not more Assad and Saddam, the opposite should be the same rights that other people, like Bernie Sanders, have. And if those in the West who complain of “instability” think that Assad is better then they should go live in Damascus. Often what they secretly mean is “Middle Eastern people deserve less rights than I do.” Often they have contradictory views, claiming that Palestinians deserve rights, but not Kurds. These views must be challenged. Removing the yoke of Saddam and Assad was a good thing, unleashing instability allows people to finally speak up for their rights.