“He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Although the story that Franklin Roosevelt said this about a dictator (it is variously told about Central American, Caribbean and Middle Eastern leaders) America was supporting is almost certainly apocryphal, our very eagerness to claim these words so often reveals something central about American foreign policy. Not only is the history of our American foreign policy one of supporting dictatorships of all sorts, but the phrase “our son of a bitch” suggests that even in our most honest moments, we believe we have a measure of control over those we choose to compromise with.
The unrest in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, and Egypt that threatens to spiral out through the rest of North Africa and the Middle East suggests that our sense of control was an illusion. At the same time, it is hard to imagine how we could have stopped lying to ourselves and still built the society we did, depending on strongman leaders to keep “our” oil flowing. For forty years now we have known that the oil we depend on is located inconveniently under the sands of those we claim to deplore and yet desperately need. The revelation that Egyptian police may be tear-gassing protesters with gas canisters made in America offers an excellent metaphor for our relationship to our “own sons of bitches.” They are ours, but we, of course, have also sold ourselves to them for liquid gold.
Small surprise, then, that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have arrived late to the Egyptian crisis and are sounding nervous about the relationship between the US and the Mubarak government, stopping short of calls for Mubarak’s resignation. Our desire not to stand on the wrong side of history is radically tempered by our desire to keep the flow of oil coming and the markets stable. The US cannot endure another major economic shock, and oil price spikes and the possible market repercussions of a destabilizing Middle East clearly terrify our present administration.
How far could this go? No one really knows. Lebanon and Jordan are already being mentioned as the next possible hot spots ripe for this kind of protest. Protests and language supportive of the Egyptian uprising are emerging from dozens of nations. Most of the world seems to be surprised by the unity of participants in these demonstrations: the crossing of class, age, and political lines in what is being called a new pan-Arabism. And it may not be Arab-only – or all that surprising. This morning I listened to a 30-year Israeli military veteran discuss his hopes that the demonstrations in Egypt will encourage Israelis to take to the streets, protesting government corruption and economic instability. His argument was that in many ways, “Muslim or Jew” was a secondary consideration when people felt themselves abandoned by their government, without access to jobs or ways of improving their circumstances, and impoverished by the corruption and short-sightedness of their leaders. If the Israelis and Arabs can find their common ground in anger at their respective governments, almost anything becomes imaginable.
Depending on how long this lasts, and on where the price of oil goes, one possible implication of any kind of oil shock in the next month or two, as most Northern Hemisphere nations are planting their spring crops, is that the connections between oil prices and food prices, always tightly intertwined, could become even more firmly joined. High food prices inspired at least a portion of the rioting in Tunisia, and have in the past been an influence for destabilization. It seems extraordinarily unlikely that it would be possible to restore civil order or defuse this new sense of unity in the face of rising food prices on world markets.
Indeed, it is worth asking whether the protests in the Middle East might not bring about protests even in the US, spreading outwards from Cairo to Khartoum to Chicago and Los Angeles and Boston. Many commentators have wondered at most Americans’ calm acceptance of high unemployment, foreclosure, and poverty rates, and been surprised that we have accepted this, rather than taking to the streets. A major oil and market shock, however, along with the daily sight of people abroad risking more than we are fighting to transform their nations might finally awaken American anger. After all, Americans are suffering in many ways from the same ills that the people of Tunisia and Egypt and the other nations are enduring: a failure to share in what few gains have been made; a sense of frustration with their own impoverishment; a betrayal by those who were supposed to have tried to make things better; no jobs; no sense of the future. It seems unlikely that the fragile economic stability that has convinced people that things are maybe, possibly, finally getting a little better could endure rapidly rising energy prices.
This, of course, is speculation, as is almost everything at this point. Overnight the world changed, and no one has fully grasped this. That is perhaps the most critical point of all: that overnight the underlying assumptions of our world can turn on a dime; that our expectations that the world will work a particular way can be overturned by ordinary people who say “no more, it must change”; and that the underlying illusion of control that we have used as a nation to justify every sort of moral compromise and on which we have built an entire oil-consuming society was, in the end, nothing more than a lie we told ourselves.
Sharon Astyk is a writer, farmer and member of the ASPO-USA board of directors.
(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the ASPO-USA position.)