How the U.S. Oversimplifies Global Conflict

Last summer it was so much easier for Americans: “Today we are all Georgians,” John McCain declared at the height of the Russian offensive provoked by Georgia's attack on South Ossetia. This year they're having to work out if they're Iranians or Uighurs. And it could get truly confusing if the conflict between Iraq's Kurds and the government in Baghdad erupts.This habit of presenting every foreign conflict through the prism of mythologised tales of great (and usually American or American-inspired) triumphs over “evil” has a way of distorting reality, sometimes with tragic effect.

When the Mousavi faction of Iran's regime challenged the Ahmadinejad faction and protesters took to the streets, the US media immediately imagined another “colour revolution” of the sort that brought down so many post-Soviet regimes.Mr McCain demanded that Barack Obama declare his support for the protesters and do his duty “as leader of the free world” (yes, the Cold War ended two decades ago but they still use that term). The complexity of Iran, the real desires of the protesters and their disdain for foreign intervention, were simply ignored.

Even many well-educated Americans believe that the Berlin Wall came down and communism collapsed because Ronald Reagan talked tough (“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) and spent billions building up the US military, although any serious analysis of the Soviet Union would confirm that it collapsed internally under the weight of its own economic and social inertia, and the KGB saw it coming as early as 1982.

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Nevertheless, America's 24-hour news TV insisted that the protests on the streets of Tehran were another “Berlin Wall” moment, just as they did during the lamely staged tearing down of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad in April 2003.It fits a script in which every regime Washington doesn't like is compared to either Stalin or Hitler. Vladimir Putin, we're told, is stuck in a “Cold War mindset” because he aggressively pursues Russia's national interest against what he sees as US encroachment and encirclement. But how else is he expected to view the expansion on to Russia's doorstep of Nato, the quintessential Cold War alliance, even after the US had pledged to avoid expanding it after 1990?

Equally, every challenge to a regime Washington doesn't like is invariably a replay of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, usually given its own TV-friendly name: Lebanon's “Cedar Revolution” in 2005 was given its title by a US official.A recurring feature of this habit is that any time an ethnic minority wants to secede from a regime disliked by Washington, they can be relatively certain of finding some support in the US regardless of the merits of their claim, and complex political conflicts are reduced to hopelessly distorted simplicities.

In the Darfur region of Sudan, for example, a longstanding conflict between farmers and nomadic herders over increasingly sparse land, which has taken a particularly vicious form, is reduced to a war-on-terror thumbnail of genocide by Arabs against Africans, a definition that demands military intervention and disdains engaging with the real political challenge of resolving the conflict.Today, of course, the US is backing separatist struggles by Iranian minorities, just as it did with Iraq's Kurds when they were fighting Saddam. Now that Iraq is run by a US-backed government, however, the Kurds' secessionist instinct is a little more problematic – and those very same Balochis who are challenging Tehran are also trying to break away from Pakistan.

When initial reports from China's western Xinjiang region said 140 people had been killed after demonstrations in Urumqi, the regional capital, the familiar script kicked in: references to China's suppression of its ethnic minorities, and its brutal Tiananmen Square-style repression of peaceful protest.In fact, what happened in Urumqi appears to have been infinitely more complex. Against a backdrop of resentment by the long-suppressed Uighur population at the settlement of large numbers of Han Chinese in their midst, an attack on Uighur workers at a factory tho

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document.write(''); Keep your conflict simple – that's how the US likes it

Tony Karon

Last Updated: July 18. 2009 9:43PM UAE / July 18. 2009 5:43PM GMT

Last summer it was so much easier for Americans: “Today we are all Georgians,” John McCain declared at the height of the Russian offensive provoked by Georgia's attack on South Ossetia. This year they're having to work out if they're Iranians or Uighurs. And it could get truly confusing if the conflict between Iraq's Kurds and the government in Baghdad erupts.This habit of presenting every foreign conflict through the prism of mythologised tales of great (and usually American or American-inspired) triumphs over “evil” has a way of distorting reality, sometimes with tragic effect.

When the Mousavi faction of Iran's regime challenged the Ahmadinejad faction and protesters took to the streets, the US media immediately imagined another “colour revolution” of the sort that brought down so many post-Soviet regimes.Mr McCain demanded that Barack Obama declare his support for the protesters and do his duty “as leader of the free world” (yes, the Cold War ended two decades ago but they still use that term). The complexity of Iran, the real desires of the protesters and their disdain for foreign intervention, were simply ignored.

Even many well-educated Americans believe that the Berlin Wall came down and communism collapsed because Ronald Reagan talked tough (“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) and spent billions building up the US military, although any serious analysis of the Soviet Union would confirm that it collapsed internally under the weight of its own economic and social inertia, and the KGB saw it coming as early as 1982.

document.write('');

Nevertheless, America's 24-hour news TV insisted that the protests on the streets of Tehran were another “Berlin Wall” moment, just as they did during the lamely staged tearing down of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad in April 2003.It fits a script in which every regime Washington doesn't like is compared to either Stalin or Hitler. Vladimir Putin, we're told, is stuck in a “Cold War mindset” because he aggressively pursues Russia's national interest against what he sees as US encroachment and encirclement. But how else is he expected to view the expansion on to Russia's doorstep of Nato, the quintessential Cold War alliance, even after the US had pledged to avoid expanding it after 1990?

Equally, every challenge to a regime Washington doesn't like is invariably a replay of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, usually given its own TV-friendly name: Lebanon's “Cedar Revolution” in 2005 was given its title by a US official.A recurring feature of this habit is that any time an ethnic minority wants to secede from a regime disliked by Washington, they can be relatively certain of finding some support in the US regardless of the merits of their claim, and complex political conflicts are reduced to hopelessly distorted simplicities.

In the Darfur region of Sudan, for example, a longstanding conflict between farmers and nomadic herders over increasingly sparse land, which has taken a particularly vicious form, is reduced to a war-on-terror thumbnail of genocide by Arabs against Africans, a definition that demands military intervention and disdains engaging with the real political challenge of resolving the conflict.Today, of course, the US is backing separatist struggles by Iranian minorities, just as it did with Iraq's Kurds when they were fighting Saddam. Now that Iraq is run by a US-backed government, however, the Kurds' secessionist instinct is a little more problematic – and those very same Balochis who are challenging Tehran are also trying to break away from Pakistan.

When initial reports from China's western Xinjiang region said 140 people had been killed after demonstrations in Urumqi, the regional capital, the familiar script kicked in: references to China's suppression of its ethnic minorities, and its brutal Tiananmen Square-style repression of peaceful protest.In fact, what happened in Urumqi appears to have been infinitely more complex. Against a backdrop of resentment by the long-suppressed Uighur population at the settlement of large numbers of Han Chinese in their midst, an attack on Uighur workers at a factory thousands of miles away touched off a protest, which, when suppressed by the police, turned into a series of ethnic pogroms and counter pogroms by mobs of Han and Uighurs.

This was an ugly situation certainly rooted in the complexity of China's development policies in more remote areas populated by minorities, but for many in Washington it was simply another case of a jackbooted Beijing marching all over its minorities. So inflamed were some in Washington that Congress plans hearings into “why Chinese agents were allowed to meet with a known persecuted minority in the US's custody”.

This refers to the Uighur detainees at Guantanamo, members of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (Etim) captured during the US invasion of Afghanistan and subsequently interrogated by Chinese security officials during their incarceration at Camp Delta. Curiously, the question is framed in terms of why Chinese officials were allowed to interrogate members of this persecuted minority, rather than what they were doing in Guantanamo in the first place.

The answer, of course, is that the US had listed Etim as a terrorist organisation, and accused it of collaborating with al Qa'eda. Many Guantanamo detainees were interrogated by agents from their home countries, and it is unlikely that Congress is planning a wholesale investigation into why Uzbeks fighting an authoritarian regime or ethnic Tatars fighting Moscow were held there, much less question the basis on which people captured in Afghanistan were transferred to Guantanamo.

No, this was simply a “We're all Uighurs now” moment. Unfortunately, such moments are seldom enlightening.Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at rootlesscosmopolitan.comtonykaron@gmail.com

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