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The Double-Dealing Middle East Is Double-Dealt

In addition, Obama himself in the past has questioned the accepted notion of American exceptionalism. In some sense, he thinks that there is not necessarily anything special about American history or its values that would justify its moral right or practical ability to intervene in problems abroad. Indeed, between apologies and bows he has made the point far better than any anti-American tinhorn dictator.

Again, in response, a tired public shrugs the equivalent of "whatever." In theory, it understands that any time the U.S. stays home, others less lawful and stable take up the slack -- and the ensuing chaos comes back to haunt us. But voters are exhausted by Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya -- and the ingratitude that seems to follow from those who were beneficiaries of vast investments in American blood and treasure.  Americans are collectively sighing that, in relation to whatever we do in the Middle East, Middle Easterners have a grating propensity for scapegoating America for their own self-inflicted miseries.

We are blamed for putting in the shah of Iran. Or is it that we are faulted for allowing the Khomeinists to take over and wreck Iran? Should we support democratic reformers? We did just that all during the Bush administration with its freedom agenda to the point of ensuring that Iraq oil was transparent and off-limits to American companies, while sacrificing much to foster democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And the response? Bush, the best friend that reformers in the Middle East ever had, was mostly derided by Middle-East intellectuals, variously written off as a neocon Israeli puppet, a war criminal, a naïf pushing unworkable democratic government among traditional Arab societies, as a callous realist intriguer who propped up pro-American thugs like Hosni Mubarak, or as an unreliable ally who unfairly pressured authoritarians like Hosni Mubarak. In the Middle East, there is a conspiracy theory for every day of the week.

In sum, the American people think the Middle East is, well, the Middle East: support democracy and we are derided as cultural chauvinists, Western interventionists, and clueless about the nuances of Arab culture. Support the existing status quo, and we care only about oil, not the masses, and geopolitics rather than democratic reform. Stay out entirely and we have abdicated moral responsibility. Intervene and we are "nation-building" in the old colonial fashion.

It is hard for Americans to keep up with all this, much less take Middle East intellectuals seriously, given their lockstep and boring anti-Americanism. No wonder the American people seem to have become tired of this wink-and-nod con. Their exhaustion has proved a godsend to Obama, who can be naturally both weak and indecisive, and not necessarily in the short-term unpopular at home for such laxity. Again, for a variety of other reasons, he wanted to vacate the region and forget about violence against sympathetic Christians, Iraqi reformers, Afghan women, and anyone else who hoped for something better. Conniving Arab leaders and whiny intellectuals helped to give him his opening.

Oil is still an important consideration, but now ironically so. For the last half-century, Arabs have damned the West for developing the Middle East oil industry, for supposedly supporting authoritarian oil sheiks who sell petroleum at astronomical prices to the U.S. and Europe, buy Western weapons, live it up on Western junkets in quite anti-Koranic fashion, and then manage to buy off their own publics to table any ideas of social or political liberalization. They have gotten rich off their oil that someone else found and developed; and they have embargoed it, price-gouged it, and used it as blackmail.