Is there any rational human being on the planet who doesn’t perceive Israel’s measures against Lebanon to be an irrational overreaction? Seriously, if every pair of “kidnapped” soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan warranted the “reaction” being meted out by Israel at this moment, I suspect the United States as a whole would be little more than a pile of rubble by now. Still, as an economist, I have a firm belief (perhaps a result of academic brainwashing) in the rationality of economic agents and the governments that are composed of them. Someone once told me that, if the actions of someone seem irrational, it simply means that you don’t have enough information to properly frame them. Could that be the case with our perception of Israel, as it pounds away at Lebanon and threatens Syria and Iran? Is there something going on in the background that explains Israel’s actions? Does it make me an unreasonable conspiracy theorist to believe that, in the face of collapsing approval ratings, George W. Bush is using Israel to do America’s dirty work in the region and seeking a return on Western financial and political investments? What is of great concern to me, as at least a temporary citizen of the region, is the impact that the attack on Lebanon is inevitably going to have upon the attitudes of people in Cairo and the rest of the Middle East. Am I crazy to wonder if such a regional response isn’t desired by the Bush administration?
This morning I walked to school. Today appeared to be like any other day. I taught my classes, argued with students over their midterm grades, and drank copious amounts of coffee. By all appearances, the environment was almost dull (inasmuch as this is possible in a city of 20 million people). Around noon, however, an Egyptian colleague of mine who teaches mathematics, and often exhibits the level of political savvy perhaps unjustly associated with those who specialize in such esoteric knowledge, came into my office and shut the door. He seemed depressed and refused to discuss what was bothering him for several minutes. Finally, he offered a single sentence. “I feel bad for them,” he said flatly and almost in tears, “the people being bombarded.” I was honestly surprised: my colleague had appeared to be so well insulated from politics by a world of abstraction, and yet Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon devastated him, so much so that he couldn’t help but pour forth his emotion to a foreigner (a mere acquaintance to boot). “I know,” I said, “I become enraged when I think that my tax dollars are paying for this bullshit.” Our conversation didn’t go much further as he had a class to teach, but there was something foundationally different about this man’s mood today. We both have a rational knowledge that people are currently dying nearby, but his concern was based on something more than simple humanitarianism. This was and is really the limit of my feelings on the subject, but his were based more on issues of race, identity, culture, and history.
Maybe it’s just because I am an American and many here enjoy talking about such things with Americans, but, without me broaching the topic, the same sentiment of Arab unity was relayed to me by a taxi driver, a colleague from the Economics Department, and the doorman for my building. A total of four people I really barely know, of various economic classes and educational backgrounds, discussing the same subject in the same way and within an hour of one another! It wasn’t just news to these people . . . their reactions embodied, in a very real sense, their self-image. I doubt very much that the unifying force of the current actions undertaken by Israel has gone unnoticed or, worse yet, was not anticipated by the American government.
Personally, I think the feelings in Cairo are embodied by an Italian saying: “Una faccia, una razza” or “one face, one race.” As a Greek, I appreciate those words from Italians and definitely understand their relevance here in Egypt or elsewhere in the region. The extent of what can only be described as empathy felt by those who live here — from Egypt to Lebanon, Jordan to Iran, Syria to Iraq — is staggering. Any thinking person knows that it exists. What then will be the result of the current conflagration which I believe very likely (perhaps by design) will spill over into Iran?
First, let me assert my belief that the impending escalation of the conflict is no accident. (I think many have rightly come to understand that Bush’s public idiocy is merely a façade, very capable — though perverse — strategists buttressing his policy, despite his often bumbling appearance.) Given the reality that America is currently running a multi-front military operation with little domestic or foreign support, enlisting the help of Israel (whose loyalty has been purchased for decades now) makes perfect sense strategically. This unholy alliance has seized upon a very flimsy opportunity to ensure the death of hundreds on both sides by engaging in what has been ridiculously called Israel’s “self defense” by the Bush administration. Iran and Syria will quickly become targets in the course of Israel’s “self defense” — to the delight of Bush, since he lacks the resources (physical and political) to wage the much desired war on either at the moment. Naturally, there is further elegance to this plan! In the event of a horrific backlash against Israel or the US directly from Iran or Syria, Bush’s hands will be further strengthened by international law.
“Moderate” governments in the Middle East and North Africa will be quickly compelled to decide where their loyalties rest. Nations like Egypt will be forced to further contort their culture in obedience to the American will in the region or suffer the economic and possibly military consequences. There was a day when disloyalty to American foreign policy resulted in a label of “communist.” No more! Today, the risk of any disobedience is a label of “terrorist state.”
The choice will be sadly obvious for the likes of Jordanian or Egyptian bureaucrats. Unfortunately, the inevitably contrary opinions of the people will place moderate Arab republics between the proverbial “rock and hard place.” The citizens, feeling betrayed by their leaders, will then either foment revolution domestically or wage a heightened guerilla war on US interests (foreign and domestic). This too, fortunately for the US government, serves a political objective! Such instability in the region only heightens the need to keep waging the general war on terror, thus supporting the US military-industrial complex, propping up domestic capitalism, and encouraging the election of “the son-of-a bitch you know” in the coming midterm congressional races.
Is it unreasonable to believe that this is all by design? Is it wrong or insane to wonder what plans the Bush administration has in store should the Republican Party retain control of the U.S. Congress? Is it un-American or unpatriotic as so many seem to believe? Maybe I was naive, but six or more years ago I would have thought myself a little crazy if I’d come to accept that my President was conspiring against the Constitution, against American democracy, or against the American people in general by the murder, torture, and imprisonment of foreigners. Recently, though, I looked at the news and saw that the president was seeking to have a secret court determine the constitutionality of the warrant-less surveillance of American citizens as well. And all this time I thought the Supreme Court was supposed to be the final authority on such questions that mean the life or death of liberty! Given the rapid and perverse transformation of America, I think international conspiracy theories suddenly become rational explanations for apparently irrational governmental action. To be blunt, when a formerly free nation is witness to the kind of domestic constitutional erosion perpetrated by the Bush administration in the last six years, the wise should not rule out ANYTHING as being too far-fetched. All I can do, as I sit in my Cairo flat, is pray I am wrong.
John William Salevurakis is Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, American University in Cairo.