Yesterday’s FP Magazine covered Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman’s visit to the Turkish-Syrian border to meet with leaders of the Free Syria Army and Syrian refugees. They were quoted as saying: “If America still stands for the cause of oppressed people who are fighting for their freedom, and justice, and deliverance from tyranny, we cannot abandon the people of Syria,” they said. “We cannot shirk our responsibility to lead. Our deepest values and interests compel us to act in Syria, and we must do so before it is too late.”
The provocative reference to the “cause of the oppressed” aside, what’s striking about this statement is how its language is unabashedly liberal imperialist . Not only do the Senators refer to their White Man’s Burden, “the responsibility to lead”, but they also acknowledge that “our interests compel” intervention in Syria. Coupled with the characteristic anchoring of all foreign policy [read interventionist] discourse in the language of values, the senators’ statement smacks of Enlightened Imperialism. Like its predecessor, Enlightened Absolutism (monarchies inspired by Enlightenment values of religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, and the right to hold private property, and which aimed at “improving” their subjects’ lives in order to further entrench their own authority), Enlightened Imperialism pursues similar liberal values such as human rights, economic development, democratization etc., which ultimately reinforce its economic and political domination of the oppressed South. Both are based on the liberal concept of “Enlightened self-interest” (as used by Alexis de Tocqueville in his study of democracy in America), a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interests of others, ultimately serve their own self-interest.
Such Realist morality, or what some have called the “imperialism of virtue” is not confined to American conservatives but pervades contemporary liberal discourse in the US. A case in point, is Obama’s National Security Strategy document of 2008 where he clearly spells out this doctrine: “A key source of American leadership throughout our history has been enlightened self-interest…The United States rejects the false choice between the narrow pursuit of our interests and an endless campaign to impose our values. Instead, we see it as fundamental to our own interests to support a just peace around the world—one in which individuals, and not just nations, are granted the fundamental rights that they deserve… The belief that our own interests are bound to the interests of those beyond our borders…” In other words, the US’ interests and values are made synonymous and moral and political values are reduced to naked self-interest, while these interests are equated with, or forcibly projected onto, the interests of those it seeks to neo-colonize.
Given that De Tocqueville viewed the concept of Enlightened Self-Interest as the cornerstone of American democracy, and considering the space it occupies in mainstream and official political discourse, one can only conclude that it defines the US’ political identity, which effectively makes that identity an imperialist one.
We really have to start challenging the concept of US “security interests” in the Middle East. I know it seems so self-evidently nonsensical as to obviate the need for a critique but it has become so deeply naturalized in mainstream political discourse, that even well-meaning Arabs feel compelled to appeal to the US’ regional interests when dissuading Washington from committing further foreign policy blunders.
First of all, how does the US even have a security to protect in the region when it isn’t part of the region? Sure, it’s a regional actor and player insofar as it has occupation troops stationed in the Arab and Islamic world, and it has military bases strewn across GCC countries, but the US doesn’t belong to the Middle East; it isn’t located here so it has no physical security concerns to speak of. What happens in Syria or Libya for example, does not constitute a threat to the US’ homeland security.
Second, how is security an interest? And why use the plural “interests” if survival is the main concern? One need only read Obama’s National Security Strategy document (May 2010) to find an explanation. Here, Obama equates national security with “economic competitiveness” among other interests which are completely divorced from the concept of physical security. So basically, in American liberal parlance, security is not synonymous with the survival of a state but with survival and maintenance of empire-building.
The US is not entitled to any interests in our region. Period.