A world where conspiracy theories become an asset

As the US retreats from the region, Arab misconceptions about America mitigate the harm to Israel.

Obama looking pensive 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
Obama looking pensive 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
It’s a sad commentary on the Middle East’s deteriorating condition that the region’s penchant for conspiracy theories actually counts as a plus these days.
There’s still no upside to delusional fantasies like Israel being behind the Egyptian coup, Muammar Gaddafi being a closet Jew, or the Mossad sending sharks to attack Egyptian tourist resorts. They promote anti-Israel (and anti-Jewish) hatred that at best stymies normal relations between Israel and its neighbors and at worst encourages murderous terror attacks. They also impede the Arab world’s own development, as I’ve argued before: blaming problems on an outside party means you consider them beyond your control, which absolves you of responsibility for solving them.
But with America in full-blown retreat from a region that’s falling apart, I’m actually grateful for one widely believed conspiracy theory: that America doesn’t care about anything in the Mideast except Israel and oil, so everything it does in the region seeks to serve one of those interests. Ironically, this belief gives Israel some protection from what would otherwise be an unmitigated disaster.
In reality, Washington has never been as unequivocally supportive of Israel as most Middle Easterners believe. For decades, it considered good relations with other regional governments to be a vital American interest, and consequently invested great efforts in courting them – not infrequently at the expense of Israel’s interests. Nevertheless, America is undeniably Israel’s best friend and patron.
Thus, while Israel has never wanted (or gotten) America to fight on its behalf, it has relied on American influence in the region for help on numerous other issues, from deflecting hostile diplomatic initiatives by Arab states to arranging cease-fires after hostilities. Such help is obviously essential in dealing with countries that don’t maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, but it’s often vital even in dealing with countries that do. When a mob besieged Israel’s embassy in Cairo in 2011, for instance, the Egyptian government refused even to take Israeli leaders’ phone calls; it finally rescued the trapped Israelis only after heavy pressure from Washington.
An American retreat from the Mideast is thus objectively bad for Israel. And such a retreat has undeniably occurred.
For two years, Washington has stood on the sidelines as Syria’s civil war dragged in all the surrounding countries – most of which are US allies – and threatened to destabilize the entire Mideast. Now, it’s even hesitating over whether to uphold President Barack Obama’s stated red line against the use of chemical weapons, since its failure to intervene earlier has left it with no good options. The Assad regime was always anti-American, and radical jihadists have come to dominate the opposition, since they provided the arms the West refused to supply. Hence Obama’s instinctive comment that responding requires UN permission – which Russia, Assad’s Security Council ally, assuredly won’t allow.
America also stood idly by in Egypt, once a linchpin of its Mideast strategy, as an elected Muslim Brotherhood government devastated the country’s economy while subverting democratic norms. Then, after the Brotherhood’s incompetence sparked a counterrevolution, it dithered ineffectually as the country slid into violence. It has thereby achieved the same impressive result as in Syria: both sides now loathe it. Today, Egypt’s de facto leader Adly Mansour reportedly won’t even take Obama’s calls.
America withdrew completely from Iraq after making only a token effort to keep some troops there, thus stripping Iraq of protection against its powerful Iranian neighbor. Of necessity, Baghdad has sided with Tehran over Washington ever since – for instance, by refusing repeated American requests to intercept Iranian arms shipments to Syria. Now, Washington is threatening to repeat this scenario in Afghanistan.
Finally, the US pursued an endless series of talks with Iran that merely enabled the latter to continue advancing its nuclear program, and is promising more of the same with new Iranian President Hassan Rohani, despite Rohani’s public pledge that he will only change Tehran’s tactics, not its goals (“Reconsidering foreign policy doesn't mean a change in principles because principles remain unchanged,” Rohani said. “But change in the methods, performance and tactics, which are the demands of the people, must be carried out.”)
Consequently, most of America’s regional allies now doubt that it will actually stop Iran from getting nukes, and this, combined with its bystander posture toward other regional problems, has increasingly led them to disregard American interests. Saudi Arabia, for instance, sent troops into Bahrain in 2011 without even warning Washington, thereby ending American hopes of a negotiated solution to Bahrain’s uprising.
Indeed, the only regional issue America has put real diplomatic muscle into is the inconsequential one of Israeli-Palestinian talks. As one commentator wryly observed, Washington effectively decided “to search for the missing coin under the Israeli lamp post, the only place that is actually lit in the Middle East.”
All of the above is bad news for Israel. But it would be even worse if it weren’t for that good old conspiracy theory. Because to most Middle Easterners, America’s passivity as the Arab world bleeds merely confirms what they thought all along: that America cares about nothing in the region except oil and Israel. In their eyes, even Washington’s obsession with the peace process confirms this theory; they see America deeply engaged in a conflict involving Israel while ignoring intra-Arab conflicts. That many Israelis consider this engagement detrimental to their interests is irrelevant.
Consequently, many Middle Easterners don’t interpret Washington’s disengagement from the rest of the region as indicating any lessening of its willingness to support Israel. And this offers Israel real protection: it means its enemies are unlikely to see this an ideal moment to finally eradicate it once and for all, which they would if they thought America had disengaged from Israel too. And that in turn gives Israel crucial freedom of action – for instance, to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if necessary – without fearing that its enemies might seize on any such action as an opportunity to attack it in force.
I don’t know if they’re right about Washington’s position, but I’m very glad they believe it. For in an age of American retreat, Mideast conspiracy theories may now be Israel’s best ally in keeping war at bay.