Syrian security forces fire on protests

The widespread discontent with governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa continues, as troops in Yemen, Bahrain, and now Syria use lethal force against its citizens in an effort to stop the organization of dissent that has toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Get used to seeing this map, too. The Middle East is undergoing a prolonged titantic shift as democratic protests topple governments after years of repression and stagnation.

The use of lethal force has become the fulcrum on which U.S. diplomacy and military intervention turns, and in an interesting development about  the brute fact that events are moving too quickly for our comfortable categories to keep up with, the U.S. is dropping the ball. Once again, U.S. intelligence, and therefore policies of diplomacy and military intervention, are lagging in ways that reveal deep inconsistencies about the way we define self-interest and sovereignty in relation to ourselves and in relation to other peoples and states. Our assumptions about the Muslim world and its people, and our willful ignorance of the diversity of economic, social, and political dynamics in different countries, have literally exploded in the last two months as the Middle East experiences a sudden seismic shift in a direction that, like it or not, we cannot ultimately control.

Two questions. Why are we continuing to support some dictatorships in countries that either collaborate with us in the war on terror, or provide us with oil, or both? The governments in both Bahrain and Yemen have been firing on protests and using violent suppression to stop protesters from regrouping, but the U.S. ignores the pleas of those people while barely condemning the actions of their governments with strong language. Yet in the case of Libya the situation apparently warrants military action? Perhaps the economies of scale warrant the change in policy, if the systematic use of indiscriminate military force against civilian populations changes the equation.

How many countries will the U.S. have to intervene in before there is stability? The scene is worrisome in the Middle East because as governments topple and fragile democracies are formed, there is an explicit conservative element of religious fundamentalism (not unlike the religious-right in this country) that will fill that void and use the state for its own puritanical and tyrannical ends, and this would be a dangerous turn for our war on terror. The more there is instability, the more imperatives arise for military intervention, and the more military intervention, the more resistance to U.S. military presence will grow throughout the Middle East. The U.S. position in the Middle East is growing weaker, and expanding the use of force is probably to make its position even worse off in the long run, unless our policies of engagement in this region are reformed from the ground up.