The Danger of Looking for “Bad Guys” in the Middle East

Photo by Mehrshad Rajabi on Unsplash

When Trump said earlier this week that Iran is “stepping down” everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Luckily no American soldiers were killed in the bombings of U.S. military bases in Iraq. Luckily Trump realized that going to war wouldn’t score him any more political points.

Everyone can now return to normal — everyone except the 176 passengers of the Ukrainian airplane that was likely shot down “accidentally” by an Iranian missile; and for the Iranians who were trampled at Qassim Suleimani’s funeral procession. But then what happens to people on the ground in Middle Eastern countries rarely matters to U.S. policymakers.

Certainly Trump’s rule-by-Twitter and this rogue assassination represent an extreme in American foreign policy. But an extreme is not an exception to the rule. Other leaders carried out assassinations, started wars of fueled them. In most cases there was a better justification for intervention, and the leaders attempted to apply some sort of strategy.

Yet more often than not the thought behind the policy is the same as Trump’s: “Let’s get rid of the bad guys.” As for Trump, other American leaders take it for granted that they can easily pick out these villains, and that with America’s economic and military might, it won’t be too difficult to bring them down. We’ve been there with Bush I and II, and (to a lesser extent) with Obama.

Republican presidents tend to be more eager to jump into a warzone (or to create them), but I don’t think that this is a partisan issue. The problem is that for the right, as for the left, the Middle East is an abstraction. It isn’t a real slice of the planet where good people might be living under a bad leader, or where you can’t label anyone or anything as simply “good” or “bad.”

As a young immigrant from Israel to the U.S., I quickly noticed that Americans’ view of the region was very different from my perspective — limited as it was.

In newspaper and magazine articles, Israel and the Palestine were represented with a kind of anthropological fascination. On either side, I couldn’t recognize any real individuals, only characters or types.

In a Freshman English class, the professor treated us to the Baudrillardian take on the First Gulf War — a virtual war, fought, like a game, through computer screens.

I wanted to say that, living in central Israel, the Gulf War didn’t feel like a game. Even though there were few casualties and no chemical warheads, rushing to our “insulated room” at the sound of the first few sirens hardly diverting.

When the Afghanistan and Iraq wars began, the attacks seemed rash and poorly-justified. Nothing I read seemed to explain why an attack by a terrorist group — horrifying as it was — called for war with two large countries.

Later, in graduate school, I met many people on the Left who asked the same questions about those wars, but as I listened to them, I realized that their perspective on the Middle East was just as abstract as the Right’s. For them, there were still “good guys” and “bad guys,” the only difference was in the groups of people who got those labels.

In fact, since I’d lived in Israel, I was one of the bad guys — an evil imperialist, oppressor of the Palestinian people. I sometimes tried to explain that even as a teenager I was on the Left, and that many others in Israel were fighting for peace, but I quickly realized that for them the villain could only be a villain.

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I would like to say that the U.S. should simply stay out of the Middle East. That comic book perspective seems so deeply ingrained in American consciousness that no productive policy seems possible. Trump had his voters in mind when he decided to take out one more “bad guy” at the start of an election year.

But U.S. has always been involved and will remain involved. The 21st century Middle East is formed by American intervention, just as in the early 20th century it was shaped by European empires.

I’m also not arguing that military intervention is always wrong. Clearly there are cases when it’s absolutely necessary to use military force to prevent civilian deaths or stand up to a regime that isn’t just “bad” but evil.

My only hope is that future administrations will approach Middle East policy with greater awareness and humility — perhaps even assuming from time to time that the people of the region can solve their own problems.

I also think that education, in all forms, can transform the way the U.S. perceives the region. In the digital age there’s no excuse for seeing any part of the world as foreign and incomprehensible. If news outlets spent less time on policy debates and war reportage (important though it is) and more on interviews and profiles of people outside the political leadership, that would be an important start.

And then books and films by Middle Eastern authors and filmmakers almost always break up that black and white image. Rather than leaving readers and viewers with with a smart-sounding political positions, they’re more likely to lead them to say “I don’t know,” when asked about Middle East’s “good” and “bad” guys.

Which is precisely what we need. Maybe then (or eventually) policymakers might also stop and say “I don’t know” before they make a decision with a human cost.

I write about tech, women, culture and the self. Book: Cultural Production and the Politics of Women’s Work. https://polinakroik.com/

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