It has been rightly observed that the Republican Party’s long tolerance of racist attitudes set the stage for Donald Trump’s rise. But Democrats, too, are using expedient prejudice to drive their political agenda this cycle. Consider how the Obama White House has embraced talk about the “backward” Middle East to account for their own staggering foreign-policy failures there.
The first full embrace of this rhetoric by President Obama himself appeared in Jeffrey Goldberg’s remarkable Atlantic profile, wherein he explicitly cited the notion that conflict and the Middle East are inherently linked. Describing the political fallout of his intervention in Libya, Obama bemoaned “the degree of tribal division” amongst the Libyan people, suggesting that a sort of Libyan sophistication deficiency was responsible for the “chaos” that followed the NATO intervention. Through the article, the President contrasts the people of the Middle East with those in Asian and African societies “filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure.” The contrast is, Obama declares, “pretty stark”—leaving the implicit question: What can you do with these people?
This attitude was also reflected in the President’s final State of the Union, when he declared that “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” This age-old canard about the “eternal” Sunni-Shia conflict was not only historically inaccurate, but a total departure from the Obama of 2009, the man who made the historic and ill-fated Cairo speech. An intellectual of his sort, and a student of history, surely knows this ugly old lie for what it is, but managed to pronounce it nonetheless in the service of anti-war spin.
The remark was almost certainly written by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, a man now seen as the President’s most influential partner in exploring and settling matters of foreign policy. In a long profile in The New York Times Magazine, Rhodes seems to argue that however disingenuous the White House’s spin may have been, it was aimed at winding down our counterproductive engagement in the Middle East over the objections of the incompetent foreign policy establishment Rhodes calls “the Blob.” “The complete lack of governance in huge swaths of the Middle East, that is the project of the American establishment,” he claims. Little bother that at least five Middle Eastern countries have seen major declines in governance and stability under Obama’s watch—Rhodes would have us simply trust him and the President when they claim that war with Iran (inevitable without the deal in their view) would’ve been worse.
Nor is this blend of American retrenchment and racism confined only to the current Administration. Plenty of other Democrats have adopted the same views, among them Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders; the notion that the Middle East is inherently flawed has never been more popular with the American left.
Indeed, Gabbard, a rising Democratic star, has become a sort of spokesperson for progressive Islamophobia, weaponizing her veteran status into a shield against accusations of ignorance or racism. Speaking to Fox News, where she’s welcome now that she’s openly hostile to Islam, Gabbard went even further than the President, criticizing Obama for linking terrorism to a lack of political and economic rights, saying it is “not fueled by materialistic motivation, it’s actually theological, this radical Islamic ideology.” In the same interview, Gabbard called a meeting between the President and Muslim leaders on how to fight extremism “a diversion.”
Where Gabbard and Obama vigorously agree is in the view that the Middle East isn’t worth America’s time.
Though no one would easily believe Senator Sanders to be an Islamophobe, he has too has learned to toe the line where caution meets bigoted paranoia. Sanders likes to cite the “unintended consequences”—as in Islamic terror—of American efforts overseas. In December, he spoke more explicitly, telling Meet the Press that “the region would be much more stable with Gaddafi, Hussein and Assad in place.” This statement glaringly ignores the reality that, while the Iraq war was initiated by the United States, the other two conflicts were the result of popular uprisings met with a brutally violent response from dictators. The structure of Sander’s statement implies that the United States alone decides who stays and who goes. To think otherwise is to believe in Arab agency, a faith many liberals have lost.
Hillary Clinton remains admirably steadfast in her commitment to Middle East engagement, but she does so against a tide of new liberals who are fixated on problems at home, and who join many of their conservative counterparts in a bipartisan consensus of fear and bigotry. The liberal values I was born and raised with—values that led me to the Democratic Party—did not include deep skepticism about America’s ability to do good in any region of the world. Nor did these values include a belief in the inborn failings or inclination to violence of certain ethnic or religious groups. As the President leaves office, a president I once believed in, I see him cast his accusatory hand not only at the military industrial complex, or the foreign policy establishment “Blob,” but at Middle Eastern peoples themselves. After all they’ve been through, they deserve better than this callous deflection.
They deserve our support and engagement.