Trump should listen to his instincts and stay out of the Middle East: Neil Macdonald

Americans tend to filter and rationalize all this through the lens of American exceptionalism, but the dismal fact is that America has a deadly, incompetent, destructive track record in the Middle East.

Yes, people would die if the U.S. departed. But people will die if the U.S. remains, arguably even more people

The dismal fact is that America has a deadly, incompetent, destructive track record in the Middle East. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

President Donald Trump's decision to bomb a Syrian air base (after warning the Russians to get out of the way) was inevitable, and perfectly, utterly American.

Trump invoked images of suffering babies, something that always stirs a goodhearted American desire to step in and do something. He also invoked God, the Christian God Americans believe has invested them alone with a duty to protect the world from evil.

The use of chemical weapons this week in Idlib province, declared Trump, was a slaughter of innocents: "Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror."

Well. Apart from the fact that striking one airbase is unlikely to make Bashar al-Assad any less vicious, the fact is that children of God suffer such horrors every day in Syria. They have for years.

Syrian civil war

The Syrian rebellion, in fact, began when al-Assad's agents kidnapped and tortured some schoolboys for daubing anti-regime graffiti in Daraa six years ago. And there is ample evidence the regime's torturers have enthusiastically practised their craft on many other innocents, children included, in the years since.

Exactly how is killing children with chlorine or phosgene or sarin materially different from torturing them to death, or shattering their bodies with crude barrel bombs, or laying siege to and starving them, or bombing a hospital to ensure they can find no treatment for their wounds, while Donald Trump's press secretary shrugs and declares that the U.S. "understands the political reality" of Assad's leadership?

Children suffer horribly all over the Middle East, every day. (Rami Zayat/Reuters)

But let's not restrict this to Syria. Children of God suffer horribly all over the Middle East, every day, often with American connivance.

Egypt's leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, used murder, imprisonment and torture to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood and thwart the democratic wishes of the Egyptian electorate in muscling his own way to power. He killed innocents and children of God. For years, he was unwelcome at the Obama White House.

But there he was a few days ago in the Oval Office, grinning widely as Donald Trump congratulated him for doing "a fantastic job." 

When the Shia population of Bahrain, during the faux-joie of the Arab Spring, rose up in 2011 and demanded equal rights, the emirate crushed, imprisoned and tortured those children of God, with Saudi help.

Barack Obama responded weakly, making future arms sales to Bahrain conditional on respect for human rights.

But the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based in Manama, and the United States wants to sell the Bahrainis some expensive fighter jets, so the Trump White House just this past week eliminated the human rights rider. Sometimes you have to overlook children of God for the greater good.

American supplies

In Yemen, where the Saudis have intervened in a civil war, American-supplied weaponry and ordnance (and, almost certainly, Canadian-supplied warfighting vehicles) are being used to inflict horrors on Houthi civilians, also children of God. 

And then there's Iraq, a country the United States invaded and shattered, killing tens of thousands and triggering the deaths of hundreds of thousands, including children of God, all based on Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction – an assumption based either on a lie or massive incompetence, or both. A side effect was the creation of ISIS, which in turn provided the justification for more American militarism.

Americans tend to filter and rationalize all this through the lens of American exceptionalism, but the dismal fact is that America has a deadly, incompetent, destructive track record in the Middle East.

At best, America has been a bumbling supporter of despots, intervening incompetently in tribal cultures it has never comprehended. At worst, it has been a malicious, powerful, self-interested imperial power, indifferent to the suffering of God's children.

The Ayatollahs and the Shah might never have afflicted Iranians had the Americans, greedy for exclusive access to Iranian oil, not forcibly deposed that peaceful country's democratically elected leader in 1953.

It can be reasonably argued that the absolute support and tens of billions of dollars America has provided Israel over the decades has encouraged that country to seek permanent dominance over the people it occupies, rather than a negotiated peace.

And, it seems, wherever a missile creates a smoking crater filled with corpses — in places like Gaza or Iraq or South Lebanon — bomb fragments with American markings are scattered about, fuelling hatred, germinating what the U.S. will eventually denounce as terrorism.

Which is why President Trump should listen to his instincts, and let other countries deal with their own problems. He actually ran on that promise.

As Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs argued recently:

"It's time to end US military engagements in the Middle East. Drones, special operations, CIA arms supplies, military advisers, aerial bombings — the whole nine yards. Over and done with."

"The Turks, Arabs, and Persians have lived together as organized states for around 2,500 years. The United States has meddled unsuccessfully in the region for 65 years. It's time to let the locals sort out their problems."

Cellphone video captures U.S. missile strikes in Syria

5 years ago
Duration 0:44
Barrage of cruise missiles hit airbase near Homs

Yes, people would die if the U.S. departed. But people will die if the U.S. remains, arguably even more people. The fact is, the locals will sort themselves out anyway. 

It would, of course, be hard for America to let go of its belief in manifest destiny and Wilsonian principles. And harder still to abandon the idea that God wants America to act.

Just a week or so ago, U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley declared in a speech that "The United States is the moral conscience of the world."

To anyone who's studied Middle Eastern history, that statement is almost funny. But to the Sunnis of Iraq, the Shia of Bahrain, the Houthis of Yemen, the Palestinians, the Shia of South Lebanon, ordinary Iranians, or all those Egyptians who wanted democracy, it must be beyond frightening.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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