The Skeptics

Dangerous Manichean Foreign Policy Narratives

A former Turkish diplomat told me that during a visit to the Pentagon after 9/11, a top official explained that the Bush Administration hoped Ankara would take steps towards strengthening political and military ties with New Delhi, as part of a process that could lead eventually to the establishment of an alliance between the three pro-Western democracies of India, Turkey and Israel.

The Turkish official was dumbfounded. Where was his counterpart getting his political intelligence from? After all, it wasn’t a secret that when it came to the conflict between India and Pakistan, Turkey tended to identify and cooperate with the South Asian Muslim country.

No to mention the fact that notwithstanding the partnership between Ankara and Jerusalem, the Turks never considered Israel to be an “ally,” as they attempted balancing their relationship with the Jewish State and the Arab countries. In fact, Israel and Turkey didn’t establish full diplomatic until 1992 following the Oslo Process that led to the rapprochement between the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

And in any case, the idea of Turkey siding with India and challenging the balance of power in South Asia didn’t make a lot of sense, particularly at a moment when the United States as part of its campaign against terrorism was strengthening its ties with Islamabad and elevating them to the status of a strategic alliance.

But then it seemed that Pentagon official was engaged in one of the intellectual exercises favored by both neoconservatives on the political right and liberal internationalists on the political left: Drawing up foreign policy narratives that reflect the dualistic cosmology of Manichaeism in which international relations is seen as a never-ending struggle between light and darkness, between the forces of good led by the United States that are confronting the bad guys, ranging from “rogue states” to “authoritarian regimes” that threaten to destroy the liberal international order.

But in the real world, as opposed to the imaginary universe that neoconservatives and Wilsonians dream about, there are very few really good protagonists or really bad antagonists.

So you need to make sure that while constructing a narrative one takes into account the “anomalies” and resolve the cognitive dissonance between the plot of the fairy tale and the many shades of gray that typify the relations between nations.

Hence, when the Bush Administration responded to the attacks on New York and Washington by Al Qaeda, the radical Muslim fundamentalist group, by launching the war against terrorism it identified Iraq and Iran as two of the leading members of the Axis of Evil it was planning to confront.

But that proposed narrative was full with inconsistencies. The secular Ba’ath regime in Baghdad and the Shiite clerics in Tehran regarded Osama Bin Ladin’s terrorist group as well as its ally, the Taliban, the Sunni Muslim fundamentalist movement ruling Afghanistan as ideological adversaries (in the case of the secular and semi-fascist Saddam Hussein) or as sectarian foes (in the case of Iran’s Ayatollahs).

On the other hand, two of Washington’s allies in the war on terrorism, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were the two main allies of the Taliban while Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden were proponents of the extremist Wahhabi Muslim dogma promoted by the Saudis and embraced by the Pakistanis.

The neocons that championed the Bush Administration’s move to oust Saddam Hussein and invade Iraq were never able to resolve this dissonance. They tried to protect it by turning “Islamo-Fascism” into the an all encompassing bogeyman that seemed to cover all the bad guys – Saddam and the Ayatollahs; Al Qaeda and Hizbolah; the Taliban and Hamas– while not dwelling on the role of that the Saudis and the Pakistan had played in the story.

They even provided the narrative with a Happy End – the ushering of the age of liberal democracy in the Middle East though the use of American military power. That the story ended with a stronger Iran, the rise of Islamic State (IS), and the return of the Taliban: well that would have to wait for another narrative.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the same cast of narrative writers in Washington who were responsible for that foreign policy flop, are now trying to employ their creative talents to come-up with new story lines that would help convince us that once again the international system was dominated by a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And guess which side we are on?

For a while it seemed as though the reality of international relations was anything but Manichean, with the Middle East degenerating into a struggle over power between a few allies (Turkey; the Kurds; Israel); not very-nice players who happen to be our friends (Saudi Arabia; Egypt); the bad ones (Iran; Syria; Hizbolah; Hamas), and the devil incarnate (IS) that happened to be a killing machine that owes its radical Islamist ideology to the Wahhabi teachers in Saudi Arabia. Not to mention Al Qaeda and its many political satellites that were located now somewhere between the bad ones and the devil incarnate.

That was kind of a bummer, if you plan to write a script for a western in which the noble protagonists fight the evil antagonists, as opposed to a post-modern David Lynch movie with its tormenting moral ambiguity, which unfortunately is how the international system looks quite frequently.

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