A quick glance at a map of US military bases in the Middle East will immediately tell you that Washington’s friends in the region are crowned heads. The Emirs of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and UAE. The Saudi king in Riyad and the Hashemite king of Jordan.
Meanwhile its historic chosen enemies in the Arab world have been secularist Arab nationalist regimes. Nasser in Egypt, Hussein in Iraq, Gaddafi in Libya, Assads in Syria.
That is seemingly counter-intuitive given the extreme contrast between American domestic system and those of Arab monarchies. Sectarian, clanish and highly ordered and hierarchical they couldn’t be farther from the professed American ideal of opportunity, equality and liberty.
Indeed, the ideals of one-party Arab nationalist regimes would appear to be much closer to that of America – albeit just as authoritarian as the monarchies they at least espoused secularism, equality, modernity, mass politics and Westernization – something the monarchs empathically did not.
Truly, can there be any doubt that the ideals of secularist Baathist Syria with its suit-and-tie clad Arab nationalist leaders are far more “Western” than those of absolutist and puritan Wahhabi Saudi Arabia?
So how come that Washington came to offer patronage to the likes of Sharia-enforcing and Al-Qaeda-sponsoring Saudis but hounded secular Arab nationalists in Cairo, Tripoli, Baghdad and Damascus?
Three major reasons come to mind immediately. Inheriting British policies, opposition to a pan-Arabism, and the desire to shield Israel.
The first part of the explanation lies in the fact that albeit often critical of British colonial policies in the Middle East when UK was still the dominant power in the region, once it supplanted Britain as the great power custodian of the Middle East the US adopted its former policies and inherited its clients.
Britain of course, was not only the patron of the Middle East monarchies, it was their actual godmother which had helped midwife most of them into existence as the Ottoman Empire was coming to an end. Strong links between the Arab monarchies and the West therefore already existed even before US stepped on the scene and it was convenient and useful to continue them.
Arab Nationalist revolutionaries who managed to seize power and were new to the scene in the 1950s and 1960s naturally did not posses such ties. Even worse, the cause they professed was explicitly anti-colonial and they resented overt and direct influence of Western powers in Arab lands – naturally infuriating first London and then Washington.
Additionally, they dreamed of a vast united pan-Arab nation which if realized could have conceivably wrestled regional dominance away from the West in the same way under-developed but titanic India and China had done in their own parts of the world. Therein lies the second part of the answer as to why Washington could not stomach Arab nationalists.
The third piece of the puzzle lies in the fact US saw itself as the indispensable patron of beleaguered Israel. Albeit all Arab states nominally professed devotion to the Arab cause in Palestine, in reality the conservative monarchies were always far more lukewarm about it and easier to buy off than the likes of Nasserite Egypt and Baathist Syria. Naturally, Washington did not fail to spot the difference and to act accordingly.
However, if this explains why Washington tended to ally Arab monarchies but hound Arab secularists during the Cold War it does not explain why this policy has persisted into the present day.
Since at least 1990 it has been completely impossible to continue to pretend there is any danger of Arab states driving Israelis into the sea or coming together to form a united Arab super-state.
Firstly, Arab Nationalism had lost much of its dynamism, credibility and appeal seeing regimes which professed it failed to deliver its stated goals of pan-Arab unity and freedom from Great Power influence, but instead gave in to bickering among themselves and co-opting traditional power centers (sheiks, imams) at home.
Secondly, the still somewhat Arab nationalist states of Syria, Iraq and Libya were severely weakened in the 1980s and had time and again since demonstrated a willingness to forget their lofty anti-colonial ideals and fall into Washington’s order – if only they were to be treated with at least a modicum of fairness.
In other words, Washington could have easily ceased to oppose and target these states without any negative repercussions for its hegemony over the region. So why did it continue to hound these secular regimes instead? Especially as it continued to protect and indulge the likes of sectarian, women-oppressing and terror-sponsoring Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Bahrain?
I suggest the answer is cultural – it is intimately tied with Orientalism – the peculiar way in which the West chooses to see Arabs. It is the case Arabs are seen as people who are not quite like Westerners but who instead belong to a different civilization distinct from the West.
Furthermore, nowadays politically correct Westerners will say that it is illegitimate to compare the worth of civilizations and to think of one as superior as to any other – but this is in fact done in a very patronizing manner, with the assumption that if comparison was permitted then surely the West would come on top of the Arab-Islamic civilization.
Arabs then, in the Western imagination, are a body of people who are assumed to possess only honorary but not actual equality to Westerners. This can play either to their advantage or their disadvantage. In practice it plays to the advantage of Arab sheiks, kings and imams (whom it would be impolite to hold to the same standard as Westerners) and disadvantage of Arab secular intellectuals, modernizers and westernizers (whom the West scoffs at as unworthy of their Western counterparts).
It is the case that when Saudis (or even ISIS) who are seen as quintessentially Arab and Islamic stage public beheadings or force women out of public life, this merely confirms the Western expectations of Arabs.
Such scandals therefore are shrugged off and forgiven as what is only normal for the traditional Arabs who after all are not quite equal to Westerners – they belong to a different civilization which is privately thought of as inferior and backward, but which is nonetheless impolite and in bad taste to critique, since publicly it is only enlightened to proclaim all civilizations are equal — the supposedly inherently head-chopping Arab-Islamic civilization as much as the Chinese or Western.
So far so good, but the big problem arises when West is confronted with Arab leaders and movements which do not ground their legitimacy in tribe, tradition or religion and do not present a quintessentially Arab image, but instead proclaim adherence to universalist values in the vein of modernity, secularism, nationalism and socialism.
The problem is that while West insists these are universal values in the sense that they’re universally valid and benevolent, the West does not truly believe that non-Westerners can properly do them justice – except under Western tutelage.
An Arab leader who attempts to ground his legitimacy in such values is therefore to the West a scandalous and horrifying sight and – most importantly – a completely illegitimate leader. Coming from an Oriental, half-barbarian ‘civilization’ surely he can not be an actually legitimate progressive. He is a “tin pot dictator” at best, and a “Hitler” or a “Stalin” at worst.
Of course it is true that Baathists and Nasserites were hardly Quakers but neither are the crowned Arab heads that West supports and – and here lies the other hypocrisy – neither were comparable modernizers in West’s own history.
Arab nationalists set up regimes determined to drag their countries into modernity kicking and screaming and with utter disregard for the price in human lives – exactly as had done Abraham Lincoln, Oliver Cromwell, Maximilien Robespierre, Vladimir Lenin and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
This is not to say that extreme state violence in pursuit of modernity is justifiable (or necessary) or that “progressive” values are loftier than traditional ones, but it is to say that it would never occur to the West to demonize (or ridicule) its own very comparable historical figures who were no less ruthless (or laughable) than Hussein, Assad, Nasser or Gaddafi.
Because Arabs are not quite like Westerners so Arab blood-soaked Lincolns are not quite the same as Western blood-soaked Lincolns. Arabs are barbarian camel jockeys and therefore their Lincolns are really Hitlers – only more pathetic – we could say “camel jockey Hitlers“.
On the other hand not just Saudi medievalism but even the insane excesses of ultra-sectarian Al Qaeda and ISIS can be half-forgiven since the Islamist fanatics are thought of as somehow quintessentially Arab-Islamic and therefore beyond reproach (lest one sound suspiciously like a “racist”).
This is how very comparable sort of violence and repression – by Arab monarchies and Islamists on the one hand and by Arab dictatorships on the other – can so easily be passed off as inhabiting completely different moral spheres. One is supposedly just a manifestation of traditional Arab culture and the naturally graphic and repressive social order in the Arab world and therefore semi-legitimate – while that done by Arab dictators is more horrifying than the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who perished under US/UN sanctions in Iraq or the minimally 150,000 Iraqis killed directly by Coalition troops between 2003 and 2011.