In the New York Times, Pankaj Mishra considers the “inevitable retreat” of the US from the Middle East. Certainly the argument is important to debate, but the article itself contains too many assumptions and problematic comparisons.
Mishra is correct that there are similarities in current conditions to the beginning of the Iranian Revolution: there, too, the uprisings against the regime were composed of different groups—some Islamist, some not—alongside intra-group struggles for domination and a share in power.
It’s also true that the US has a long history of clumsy and ill-advised interventions in the Middle East. But that history has been there for a while, as has the dissatisfaction with it. The frustration, anger, and resentment that has been expressed lately has been expressed many, many times before; the only difference is that this time in some places the authoritarian governments that contained them are no longer around to do so.
Mishra also begins by assuming the Middle East and the Muslim world are interchangeable; they are not. Afghanistan, which Mishra compares to Egypt, is not part of the political, security, economic, and cultural structures of the Middle East, which have a totally different dynamic.
Afghanistan also has a long and separate history of dealing with foreign interventions, the experience of which is very different from the Middle East. At the time of the 2001 American attack on Afghanistan, observers were already noting the British and Russian/Soviet history in the region, predicting similar responses to a US presence. The specific attack referenced in Mishra’s piece is not something new or in any way unexpected, and occurred under very different conditions, expectations, and historical experiences than the embassy and consulate attacks in Egypt and Libya.
The article then claims that a “more meaningful analogy” to the US struggle against radical Islam in the Middle East is Vietnam in 1975, and the American withdrawal from Indochina more broadly. But this example, too, falls short of historical experience and contemporary conditions.
Mishra rightly points out that the US perceived the area to be on the frontline of the defense against Communism, and therefore worth involvement in. But the difference with the Middle East is that in the latter there is hard and tangible physical and other evidence that its presence is based on more than perception.
The US has close and longstanding security, economic, and strategic ties with several states in the Middle East that it didn’t have in Indochina. It also has publicly committed itself many times to the defense of some of these states (particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia)—and has demonstrated this commitment with force of arms.
One might argue that the US has faced similar moments of “withdrawal” from the region before. But close examination reveals that these were really only in response to short-term and contained violence (Lebanon in 1983) or about tactical redeployment to elsewhere in the region (Saudi Arabia some years after the 1991 Gulf War). When it did have hundreds of thousands of troops in the region (1990-1991), it was deeply committed to maintaining them there for a very short period of time with a limited war aim; after that, most of the thousands of troops that remained were moved elsewhere in the region not as a retreat but a tactical and strategic redeployment in some cases, and due to a lack of need in others.
The one example of a large-scale American military commitment to the Middle East that might rival Vietnam was the occupation of Iraq. At the time, many did argue that Washington’s ill-advised invasion was opening the door to Iranian influence, at the expense of American influence. The American withdrawal of forces from there is comparable, but it was also on Washington’s policy agenda before the outbreak of the Arab Awakening, and it was not conditioned upon a larger removal of American presence from the region—as the Vietnam example was.
More broadly, Mishra’s argument that retreat is inevitable is not supported by the contemporary relationships the US has with regional actors. It remains very close to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel.
In fact, according to Mishra’s implication, the US has only really “lost” Egypt at the moment, and even that deserves qualification since we are still at the beginning of a transition. There is no way to know whether America’s military aid to the Egyptian military and Cairo’s need for aid and money from international organizations and creditors won’t act as a vehicle for a continued American role, however different, in the future of the country.
As has been pointed out several times already, the “mob assaults” against the US have been just that: small groups of people who haven’t been able to sustain any real momentum, rallied by individuals engaged in their own intra-communal struggles or the work of violent groups committed to attacking the US regardless of how the population as a whole feels. These are disconnected from the larger structural conclusions Mishra is pointing to.
Certainly, the moment has arrived at which the US has lost its ability to control events there. And there is no reason to think the demonstrations and what they represent will end any time soon. This is a period of adjustment for the Middle East and for outside powers involved in it.
Mishra’s argument rests, in the end, on a historical comparative case for a “compelling” American “strategic retreat” from the Middle East. But because these comparisons are incomplete or too different, this recommendation, too, falls short of careful consideration. One could argue that the exact opposite of Mishra’s recommendation is necessary—that the US can help transitions in the region to some form of democracy, peaceful coexistence and shared tolerance, healthier economies, and so on.
This doesn’t require the kind of intervention and sinister influence the author implies is the only option for the US, but it does require some careful consideration of available options and ideas, not to rushed judgment about the inevitable future. The conclusion might be the same as Mishra’s, but there should be some time devoted to such a discussion first.