Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > A New "New Cold War" in the Mideast?

Nov 28, 2012

A New "New Cold War" in the Mideast?


Credit: HNN staff.

Just when we thought it was safe for Americans to go out in a democratizing Middle East ... Well, I guess we stopped thinking that a while ago. But now a lead story on the front page of the New York Times makes it official. Far from boosting our security, the Arab Spring has given us more to be afraid of.

Gone are the days when all we had to worry about was fanatical Shi’ite Islam. Now a new Sunni “axis” is emerging, the Times informs us -- using a word that should send chills up the spine of anyone who knows anything about World War II -- with Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar playing the role once filled by Germany, Japan, and Italy.

All three Mideast nations are governed by Sunni Muslim parties. So are Libya and Tunisia. More ominously, according to the Times, Hamas is allying with the “axis.” And if the Syrian rebels win their civil war, they’ll take Syria out of the Iranian orbit and into the new “axis” too.

The result “could be a weaker Iran.” After years of warning us about a “new cold war” with a possibly nuclear-armed Iran, you’d think the mass media would be celebrating.

But no. The Times merely warns us that we have to shift our anxiety to a new target. Why? The answer is a mother lode of precious material for students of American political mythology.

These Sunnis, reporter Neil MacFarquahar explains, “promote a radical religious-based ideology that has fueled anti-Western sentiment around the region.” That’s a good example of how exaggerated facts create the emotional punch so essential to myth.

Yes, there’s a religiously-based ideology fueling anti-Western sentiment. “Radical” makes it sound inherently dangerous. But it’s hardly radical or dangerous to those who hold it. It’s perfectly sensible to them.

And it’s a huge stretch to say that government leaders in Egypt and Turkey “promote” this ideology. They are trying to harness and lead it. But at the same time they are trying to restrain it as they navigate tricky political waters, where they depend heavily on secular forces for their economic and political well-being.

More soberly, MacFarquahar writes that “the new reality could be ... a far more religiously conservative Middle East.” Yes, it could be. But it might not be. There’s no way to know.

The American journalist shows a sharper understanding of the response in his homeland, focusing precisely on this uncertainty of the future.  “The shifts seem to leave the United States somewhat dazed.” “The United States” here means that tiny fraction of one percent of the American population who make or directly influence foreign policy. On the international stage, where they act out the drama of geopolitics, they represent the entire nation.

They are dazed because “what will emerge from all the ferment remains obscure. ... Confusion reigns in terms of knowing how to deal with this new paradigm, one that could well create societies infused with religious ideology that Americans find difficult to accept.” In this case, “Americans” probably does mean a majority of the whole population.

Why should Americans find it difficult to accept the religious choices of people on the other side of the world? Why does it even matter if Americans accept them? MacFarquahar’s answer is simple and surprisingly candid: “The old leaders Washington relied on to enforce its will, like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, are gone or at least eclipsed. ... The new reality could be ... [a] Middle East that is less beholden to the United States.”

In case you’re one of those liberals who doesn’t think the U.S. should be enforcing its will on independent foreign nations, the next sentence should bring you around: “Already, Islamists have been empowered in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, while Syria’s opposition is being led by Sunni insurgents, including a growing number identified as jihadists, some identified as sympathizing with Al Qaeda.” 

It’s impressive to watch guilt by association in action: Islamists are linked to Syrian Sunnis, who are linked to insurgents (an inherently danger-packed word), who are linked to jihadists (and even scarier word), who are linked to sympathizers with Al Qaeda (the scariest word of all, of course).

By the logic of association -- a basic principle of mythic thinking -- the conclusion is obvious: If the U.S. can no longer enforce its will and keep Mideast nations beholden to us, we’re on the way to rule by Al Qaeda. Are you worried now??

Despite the allusion to World War II in the loaded word “axis,” this all reminds me more of the era right after the war. Many American policymakers were somewhat dazed and confused by the political ferment, especially in Europe, that was making the future obscure.

But some told a simple story that made sense of it all: The U.S. had such preponderant power that total global control seemed within our reach. Nothing less should satisfy. However, the Soviet Union and other political actors wouldn’t just roll over and submit. The principle of guilt by association proved that they must all be communists controlled by Stalin. He was causing all the ferment, promoting a radical ideology that fueled anti-American sentiment.

It was a paradigm foreign to the American way, the story went; wherever it took hold, nations would no longer be beholden to the U.S., and we would no longer be able to enforce our will. Nor could we control, or even predict, the future. Anyone even remotely associated with anyone remotely associated with a communist shared blame for this frightening chaos. All of them became enemies who had to be destroyed.

Those enemies might arise anywhere, which meant danger lurked everywhere. So America became an embattled fortress and a watchtower of constant vigilance. By the late ‘40s this narrative reigned supreme.

The result was not merely four decades of cold war, but a firmly entrenched mythology of homeland insecurity that still persists and spawns new fears. Global control remains the impossible dream. Since there is always someone frustrating it, there is always a new enemy springing up. And so we are told yet again that we must be always on guard, always afraid, always ready for the next “new cold war.”

We aren’t anywhere near that in our relationships with Sunni-led nations -- at least not yet. But in a myth-soaked foreign policy discourse, “the good guys” can become “the bad guys” awfully fast, as we learned in a very few years right after World War II. I guess it is a good idea to be on our guard.

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