American self-criticism borders on narcissism

The US role in the Middle East

A man holds a picture of late Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, as people celebrate in the street after Iran launched missiles at U.S.-led forces in Iraq, in Tehran, Iran January 8, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY
Editor's note:

Elevating America as a somehow unique source of evil in the Middle East takes necessary self-criticism and turns it into narcissism, writes Shadi Hamid. This article originally appeared in the Atlantic.

Those who said there will be war may not have realized there already was war. This doesn’t mean killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was good. It almost certainly wasn’t. Iran quickly retaliated by targeting two American military bases in Iraq and may find new ways to escalate, but Iran had already been escalating. The regime of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, with its Iranian patrons, led by Soleimani, has been waging a brutal assault on Syrians for more than eight years. War, in short, has been happening — costing hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians their lives — since long before Donald Trump ordered the drone strike against Soleimani.

In the aftermath of the strike, critics of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, particularly on the left, have described the move as one more rash American intervention that’s sure to further destabilize the region. Yet this formulation gives U.S. policy, for all its flaws, too much credit. Not everything is America’s fault; others are sometimes to blame; and no one, not even the weaker parties, are devoid of agency or freed of responsibility. The burden of de-escalation does not fall entirely on the United States; Iran, too, can choose to de-escalate.

There is also the problem of Trump himself. Because killing Soleimani was very much his decision — reflecting the impulsiveness and disarray a decision by him implies — it seems fair to assume that one’s view of the president will affect how one interprets the fallout from Soleimani’s killing. Correcting for subconscious bias isn’t easy, but at the very least, observers should be aware of the Trump effect.

Middle East experts, and particularly those from the region, have tended to be less alarmist than most other commentators. These experts are likely to be less fixated on Trump himself and less likely to put the United States at the center of their analysis. And they are more likely to be aware of the sheer scale of brutality, mass murder, and sectarian cleansing that Soleimani helped orchestrate. Soleimani wasn’t just another bad guy. He was one of the region’s worst. (Yet another humanitarian catastrophe has been unfolding in Syria, but it has garnered little attention. The Assad regime, with crucial military support from Iran and Russia, has been bombing Idlib province. More than 200,000 Syrians have already fled, and hundreds of thousands more could be forced from their homes.)

It is not an overstatement to say that Qassem Soleimani “haunted” the Arab world. As Kim Ghattas wrote here in The Atlantic, “Soleimani was so central to almost every regional event in the past two decades that even people who hate him can’t believe he could die.” It is a rich irony that as Democrats portrayed the strike as one of the worst foreign-policy blunders of the Trump presidency, a significant number of Syrians and Iraqis rejoiced — one of the very few times they have reacted positively to something, anything, that the United States has done. Their interests, of course, are not the same as Americans’, but there should at the very least be an effort to understand why they might have celebrated.

In trying to process and respond to Soleimani’s killing, the left finds itself in a bind, torn between two competing impulses. The first impulse combines an opposition to Western imperialism with a justified skepticism toward the use of U.S. military force. Human beings desire, or perhaps even need, moral clarity. Considering America’s destructive record in the Middle East, it is easy to assume that we are the problem, particularly when the resort to military action is buttressed by murky legal rationales. The second impulse is the left’s long-standing tradition of solidarity with the victims of repression and with populations rather than the regimes that subjugate them. In the unique context of Soleimani and the Iranian regime, this second concern comes into direct conflict with the first.

It’s impossible to resolve this tension, and the best one can hope for is that it be marshaled in the service of creative policy ideas. Still, too much of the analysis on the left seems to have erred on the side of anti-imperialist critique with insufficient attention to what Iran has actually been doing for years — at tremendous human cost to Syrians and to other civilian populations in the region. It is understandably difficult to view the Iranian regime as an aggressor when it has found itself in the sights of the world’s most powerful country, which has unparalleled military projection and the largest military budget of any state in human history.

America’s story in the Middle East is a tragic one, animated by a series of “original” sins. One can start history at the 2003 Iraq War, or one can begin earlier, with the first Bush administration encouraging Shias and Kurds to rise up en masse against Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War in 1991, only to turn its back on them as they marched toward Baghdad. Saddam remained in power, and as many as 100,000 Iraqis fell victim to reprisal killings, many of which “were committed in proximity to American troops, who were under orders not to intervene.”

Or one can look still further into the past. In Iran from the 1950s through ’70s, the United States supported the brutal repression of dissenters by the shah, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. He was “our S.O.B.,” to borrow Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous description of a different American-backed authoritarian. But before that, in 1953, Americans helped organize the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister, Mohamed Mossadegh, which facilitated the conditions for the shah’s bid for absolute control; the shah’s excesses, in turn, are what made the Iranian revolution possible.

Even good things, like the notion that the United States should back dictatorships less and promote democracy more, have been tainted in the eyes of the left (and, for that matter, the right) by the second Bush administration’s rhetorical embrace of democracy promotion and the “freedom agenda.” But this is where U.S.-centrism becomes a blind spot. Not everything is about us. And not everything is primarily a question of whether the United States is using military force. Not every new crisis is about repeating the blunders of the Iraq War. Syria most certainly isn’t, and wasn’t, Iraq, and thinking that it is had a distorting effect on the Obama’s administration’s policy, with tragic consequences.

The United States has done terrible things in the Middle East. To even casual observers of the region, this should be clear enough. That, however, doesn’t mean there is a moral equivalence between Iran and the United States. Elevating America as a somehow unique source of evil takes necessary self-criticism and turns it into narcissism. It insists on making us the exceptional ones, glorifying ourselves by glorifying our sins. To suggest that American officials are at the rarefied level of the deliberate, systematic mass murder and sectarian cleansing that Soleimani helped orchestrate isn’t just wrong; it’s silly.

Despite the blood on his hands, 1 million or more Iranians publicly mourned Soleimani’s death. Some commentators took this as evidence that Iranians, despite their differences, were uniting in solidarity with their slain hero. Already, it appeared, the United States was losing. The large crowd sizes were an odd thing for critics of the Trump administration to highlight, though; in the absence of additional context, the mass mourning of a ruthless killer could only have the effect of making the Iranian people look bad. But demonstrations, particularly in a dictatorship, aren’t exactly an accurate bellwether of public sentiment (that’s what elections are for). Iran has a population of more than 80 million. That about 1 million were protesting tells us that some people revered Soleimani or at least felt some instinctual nationalist attachment to him, but it doesn’t tell us much more than that.

To focus on the perceived victims of American might and aggression — and many ordinary Iranians no doubt have suffered from punishing sanctions — runs the risk of imputing moral superiority to the mere act of resistance to the United States. But suffering, or to resisting, is not quite the same as being right. The Iranian regime, and Soleimani first and foremost, have long demonstrated that the weaker party does, in fact, have agency and that the powerless can use their power to destructive effect.