In 1953, the US, in conjunction with the British, organised a coup d’état to overthrow the democratically elected government in Iran. Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was arrested, convicted of treason, and placed under house arrest until his death in 1967. Mossadegh’s great crime was that he nationalised British Petroleum’s interest in Iran’s oil industry (which was the entire oil industry) under which the British company paid piffling royalties to the Iranian government and generally acted as it damn well pleased. Following his ouster, the pro-Western Shah was given increased powers under which British and American interests were restored as the players in the Iranian oil industry and given the lion’s share. Some twenty years later, a revolution occurred which took everyone by surprise, and an Islamic theocracy led by radical cleric Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. It is also instructive that the clerics didn’t like Mossadegh all that much because he was viewed as pro-Western (go figure). So, by destroying a democracy because the elected leader of the country was pursuing policies to benefit his people and not the greedy Western oil companies, the US set the stage for an extremist (who hated the West and everything it stands for) to come to power and gave itself a security headache which persists to this day.
Last week, large protests against a film said to mock the Prophet Mohammed erupted across the Middle East. Protests have occurred in Tunisia, Libya, Iran, and Yemen. Armed men stormed the American consulate in Benghazi and murdered the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other consulate staff. Ambassador Stevens was widely regarded as a friend to Libyans, and gave immense support to the rebellion which overthrew Colonel Ghaddafi. In the aftermath of his killing, there has been shock and confusion as to who could have done this, and with some reports indicating that there was a 4 hour gun battle at the consulate, how the new Libyan government could have responded so slackly to a threat against one of its key allies. Hard questions must be asked as to why there wasn’t an appropriate response when it became clear that these were not peaceful protesters. It is understandable that the Libyan security forces would be wary of going ‘weapons free’ on a crowd of protesters, seeing as that was one of the things Ghaddafi was especially reviled for. However, when the ‘peaceful’ crowd produced RPGs, mortars, and assault rifles, surely there should have been an immediate and corresponding response?
What has been brought into focus yet again is American foreign policy in the Middle East, with particular focus on how the US is supposed to relate with the popular democracies which replaced friendly dictators, especially seeing as these popular democracies have been put in power by the people. Who deeply dislike America. An interesting contrast can be drawn between the response of the Libyan government (which is still transitional) and that of President Morsi of Egypt (who was elected and belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood). While the Libyans apologised profusely and pledged to help bring the culprits to book, the Egyptian response was rather more muted. Indeed, while apologising for the invasion of the American embassy in Cairo, President Morsi was noticeably cooler, laying the blame for the event squarely at the feet of the Americans who made the movie insulting the Prophet Mohammed. You see, unlike in Libya, America didn’t send planes to bomb Mubarak out of office because he was a “friendly” and the concern that Mubarak’s fall would imperil the delicate diplomatic balance in the Middle East was at the forefront of American policy during the revolution. There was even a failed attempt to transition Egypt to military rule rather the democracy demanded by protesters.
That Iranian security forces successfully repelled a mob in front of the Swiss embassy (which America unofficially operates out of) while an American ambassador got killed in Libya, must be another kick in the balls for the Americans. Here was a supposed mortal enemy doing everything it could to protect your buildings, while your supposed friends stood by and let mobs attack and murder your people. Attempting to rationalise those events must be doing someone at Langley’s head in. Hell, the fact that any protest in Iran requires governmental approval ramps that kick up in force a couple of notches.
It does appear as though the sweeping protests, which appear to be broadening into a general anti-Western backlash, caught the Americans and others completely off guard. Now, it is well known that most people in the Middle East don’t like America, mostly because of the fact that Israel acts as it sees fit and has this big American bulldog on a chain that it brandishes whenever its policies outrage its neighbours. Anyone who thinks America controls Israel only needs look at the reception Benjamin Netanyahu got when he went to address Congress. Members of both parties treated him like a rock star, and this despite the fact that he had pointedly rejected President Obama’s calls for Israel to stop building settlements on disputed land as a gateway to peace between Israel and Palestine.
Now, extreme anti-American sentiment in the region has generally been kept in check thanks to various dictators and monarchies in the region. With the fall of some of these dictators, the new freedom to express what you really think about issues has unleashed this sentiment. And, with the way the common man feels about American policy in the region, it was only natural that the governments elected would reflect the feelings of the people. While the average government cannot officially condone acts of violence against foreign missions, the patent unwillingness of police in the new Arab democracies to use all necessary force against violent protesters tells its own story.
It is for this reason that America generally develops chronic deafness when there are calls for democracy in Saudi Arabia. It is why when Hamas produced candidates and won elections in Palestine, they were quick to denounce the results as being the products of rigged votes. The events of the last few days merely demonstrate that real democracy in the Middle East would be utterly terrifying for Washington and I would not be surprised to see a gradual withdrawal of encouragement for those pushing for it. Hell, the results of Iraq’s next elections could make extremely uncomfortable reading for American policy makers, and the fact that the central government in Iraq is cracking down on oil companies signing production sharing contracts (which it rejected) with the Kurdistani regional government, is just a pointer for the potential future of Western business interests in the country. It might not be too long before the central government tires of the shenanigans up north and decides to do something about it.
From the way the wind is blowing, America does not want democracy in the Middle East because a democratic Middle East would almost certainly be a very hostile Middle East. And what good is democracy if it imperils the ambitions of the Empire?