American Exceptionalism and Plain Stupidity
New Eastern Outlook
by Seth Ferris
On October 2nd US Vice-President Joe Biden finally said what most of those working in the region already know. “America’s key allies in the Middle East are very much responsible for the rise of the Islamic State (IS), funding and equipping extremists – “let’s call them terrorists” – with money and weapons in their eagerness to oust the Assad regime in Syria, at any cost.”
America’s “biggest problem” in Syria is its regional allies, Biden told students at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
On Turkey’s alleged role, he said “President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan told me, he’s an old friend, said, ‘You were right. We let too many people (including foreign fighters) through.’ Now they are trying to seal their border.” The same transcript reveals that Biden told the students that the US was “failing to convince” its allies to stop supplying the IS.
It is very interesting that Biden chose to make this statement while the US is still insisting on building “coalitions of the unwilling” to do its dirty work for it. US allies are not going to take too kindly to being held responsible for IS when they are patently only acting under orders – the actual arms and funds derive from the US, and are transported through allied countries, principally Georgia and Turkey, and US programmes or through US-run supply ratlines, as demonstrated in previous articles.
No enemy can match a friend
Turkey has seen several swings between military and civilian government, in all of which the US has had a big hand, which is never admitted at the time but openly acknowledged afterwards. The era of Ecevit and Demirel, in which opposing politicians refused to shake hands in public for fear of being seen as weak, was succeeded by years of military rule because the US was threatened by confrontational politics. The Turkish people did not vote for an end to civilian rule.
When elections were authorised again the parties were vetted by the military, which initially refused to hand over power when the people voted for the option the military liked least. All this was driven by the defence agreements the US has with Turkey, a vital strategic location. Although the present civilian government seems to be broadly acceptable to the US, this situation is not likely to last. It is already being denounced as authoritarian by its US paymasters, and Biden’s comments can be interpreted as a further threat of interference, which would result in the government being “cleansed” but US activities continuing as before. You don’t get away with reminding the US it is unprincipled.
Slip of the forked tongue
Vice President Biden is now being forced to eat crow. He has had to apologise to Turkey for his October 2nd comments. Although Biden has a history of controversial, unthinking statements, he is not likely to have said what he did without thinking about it, as his main point was that everyone was desperate to get rid of the Assad regime in Syria, and funding the IS was a manifestation of this.
This implies that the failing US intervention in Syria was simply a response to public opinion, and the rise of the IS a bit of over-exuberance. Such a position creates excuses for everyone: the allies had good intentions, but over-zealous application of them has created a problem. This is a dignified way of explaining why the US is apparently changing sides in Syria and Iraq, attacking the very people it inserted to serve its purposes up till now. If Biden’s comments were a slip of the tongue, it was the President’s tongue, not his.
But it is precisely for this reason that the apology is not being taken seriously. The United Arab Emirates has asked Biden for “clarification” of his remarks, as reported by CNN and the mainstream media. The UAE has its own reasons for wanting this clarification – its commercial arms, such as the RAK Group; collectively they have longstanding money laundering projects in Georgia and Turkey, such as luxury hotels with no customers and sheep imports to countries which already have plenty of better sheep.
Suspicion of dodgy funding by allies rather than the US itself points the finger at these. But the request for clarification is justified when a country which has the resources to tell the US to go away chooses to be its ally and is treated as irresponsible and untrustworthy in return.
Exception that proves no rule
If the IS was a creation of America’s allies, not the US itself, the US is not really changing its position, in its own eyes. Assad and Saddam were branded as terrorists and therefore they were attacked, for the sake of a better world. These legitimate attempts to keep the planet safe have now been hijacked by terrorists from other places due to the irresponsibility of America’s allies, who lack the culture and education of Uncle Sam, so now these forces must also be attacked in the same way, American weapons used against American weapons.
Despite the obvious cowardice and absurdity of such a position, it is very logical if you accept the idea which lies behind it. Throughout its existence the US has justified its actions through variations of the doctrine of American Exceptionalism, i.e. the idea that the United States is qualitatively different from other nation states. ‘Different’ must, of course, be taken to mean ‘superior’. Then it can operate according to its own rules, and dictate its rules to everyone else, on the grounds that anything the US wants is qualitatively superior to anything anyone else might want.
What the US wants does not have to be consistent, or logical or bestow any benefit, as the destruction Iraq and other US allies have witnessed demonstrates. It simply has to be what the US wants, and that automatically makes it superior. Without the US, things would always be worse, in official US thinking.
Every ally of the US is an independent state which is not going to think that its own way of doing things, and what it wants, are qualitatively inferior to those of the US. If any government actually thought that, they would resign tomorrow. However much they admire what the US claims to stand for, they will never accept that if there is any difference between their country and the US, and accept that their country is automatically inferior, albeit that is the thinking behind Biden’s comments, and current US policy, and also where it leads.
So what sort of coalitions does the US want now? Most countries do not have the military or financial means of surviving without some level of US support, even if they wanted to. They will have to sit and be treated as irresponsible naughty children, or outright enemies, in return for sending their young people to die in US-led wars and allowing the US to do what it likes on their territory. But they are unlikely to do it on the same terms.
The allies of the US will now split in two directions. Some will try to become even dirtier in exchange for some financial or political reward. Others will go out of their way to express their wholehearted support for the US but start publicly criticising the actions of US agencies on their territory, appealing over their heads to the US government. All this will contribute to the ongoing debate about what America’s values actually are and what they should be, which is framing everyone else’s foreign policy priorities just as much as the US is ignoring it.
Vice-President Biden is signalling that the US wants a way out of the mess it has created in the Middle East. Its attempts to impose its policy objectives by violence have not worked. The civil war in Syria is being lost and the IS, which it inserted into Syria and Iraq to help create Kurdistan (including a chunk of Turkey) is pursuing its own agenda and creating too much bad publicity.
The US can’t be wrong and can’t be inconsistent. So its failures are everyone else’s fault, and it has painted itself into a position where the only “everyone” it can blame is its own allies. This will not help diplomatic relations, but in the real world this will make little difference. No one is going to leave the US sphere of influence, merely redefine their relations with it.
In the future we can expect two distinct sets of US allies – those who try and outdo it by aping its dirtiest deeds and those who provide it with “healthy criticism.” Future coalitions will, perforce, have to contain both kinds of ally. Whether this will allow the US to run away from itself by bombing everyone else to bits remains to be seen, at least for now … and we can expect more of the same recriminations from all concerned.
Biden’s action suggests that the US is running scared – it knows what it has done in the Middle East, it knows that other people know it, so now it is trying to run away. It is trying to make out that its allies are acting on their own initiative in a way the US does not want. Given the litany of regime changes and other interference the US has inflicted upon allies which that refuse to toe- -the-line, can anyone not believe what is actually happening in the Middle East?
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.