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Raise the Green Lantern


( . . . for anyone who thought this post title was clever, it was — when Scott first used it back in November . . . My bad!)

The laughing-stock of the historical profession is at it again. Bernard Lewis, appearing at the WSJ Wingnut Open Mic Night, delivered his latest free verse poem decrying the will of Americans to effectively smoosh the Islamic menace. This time, however, instead of offering the embarrassing doomsday predictions of August last, Lewis decides to mangle the history of the cold war Middle East in order to prop up his thesis that Americans have not brought the pain in sufficient quantities to the proper recipients.

A sample of the insanity:

During the Cold War, two things came to be known and generally recognized in the Middle East concerning the two rival superpowers. If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward, as the usual anxious procession of diplomats and politicians, journalists and scholars and miscellaneous others came with their usual pleading inquiries: “What have we done to offend you? What can we do to put it right?”

Much of the piece reviews the standard right-wing history of American “appeasement” that runs from Tehran through Beirut and onward to Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen — an allegedly continuous narrative that concluded with the Bush Doctrine, whose ferocious application in Iraq momentarily stupefied an Islamic world used to viewing Americans as cowards. We also get the usual “clash of civilizations” fable that refuses to acknowledge meaningful historical discontinuities between the 7th and 21st centuries. In its own right this is all bad enough, but I want to focus on Lewis’ other suggestion — that the Soviets were more feared in the Middle East than the US — because it’s also an astonishing statement from someone reputed to be an historian.

Lewis is understandably reluctant to provide examples to support his insistence that Muslims submitted to “Soviet authority” from Afghanistan to Libya, because such examples are non-existent. The simple fact is that while the Soviet Union sought — especially during the 1950s — to assert some counter-pressure against the United States in the Middle East, those efforts had by and large foundered by the time Kennedy came to power in the US. Although the logic of the cold war continued to govern US policy in the region, and anxieties about Soviet influence in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen continued to shape the work of ever president from Carter through Reagan, there’s no credible path to suggest that the Soviet Union acted as a region hegemon in any way comparable to the position enjoyed by the US until 1979. It was not the Soviet Union, after all, that engaged in “swift and dire” actions such as toppling the government of Iran to thwart nationalist economic policies; or attempting to guide or orchestrate coups in Syria and Iraq on multiple occasions in the 1950s and early 1960s; or by providing lists of suspected internal communists to the leaders of Iraq, Egypt and Iran (who disposed of their adversaries in all the predictable ways); or by offering Israel a green light (and then material support) for its humiliating invasion of Lebanon in 1982. I realize this shouldn’t bear repeating, but if the US became a target for Islamic resistance in the Middle East, it did so by virtue of its authority there — not because the Soviets had somehow cowed the region into submission.

But here again we see how conservatives like Lewis depend on the fable of the US as morally weak, its responses to crisis ineffectual and belated, its presence in the world driven by naivete — and always more sinned against than sinning. Why these people hate America, we’ll likely never know.

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