Over thirty years ago, my wife and I lived in West Africa. We travelled extensively in that part of the world. Cameroon is one of the countries we frequently visited.
We had American friends there, based in the capital, Yaounde. The husband worked for the US Embassy.
On one of our visits he was telling us how his current job was to recommend which side the US should take in the Chadian civil war, which was raging in neighboring Chad. The war lasted three decades before there was a semblance of peace.
My logical response was to ask why take any side? My friend replied that the US always has to take sides.
Why? What’s the compulsion that drives the United States to take sides in every conflict? In reality, it comes down to the John Wayne Syndrome.
I never did like John Wayne movies, so I can’t claim to be an expert on them. But it seemed to me that the tried and tested formula was there always had to be a clear good guy (white hat) and a clear bad guy (black hat). This wasn’t just true of John Wayne movies – most Hollywood movies are that way – always have been and likely always will be.
That’s the way Americans like their movies to be – and their foreign policy. The US must always support the good guys against the bad.
This goes right back to the beginning.
The American Revolution is often depicted as a conflict between the Americans and the British. But that oversimplifies the reality. The reality was that the Revolution, like all revolutions, seriously divided the country. Revolutions typically divide a country three ways – one faction is the revolutionaries, another is those who want to maintain the status quo, and a third faction are those who just want to stay alive through the chaos.
This was the case during the American Revolution. The vast majority of incidents involving fighting were between Americans, not Americans and the British. Loyalists and Patriots battled it out. Both wanted freedom – they just had different ideas of what freedom meant.
Syria also has three factions, those loyal to President Assad (the Alawites), the rebels (amongst whom is al-Qaeda), and those who are just trying to stay alive and feed their families.
What side should the US take?
Options are to support the thug/murderer Assad, or the thugs and murderers who comprise Al-Qaeda. There is no prospect of democracy coming out of this. Surely, we’ve learned that lesson during the past decade in the Middle East?
As regards chemical weapons, there is little doubt Assad has used them but so would the rebels if they took control.
It’s frequently said that Assad has used chemical weapons “against his own people,” but that’s not really correct. His own people are the Alawite clan, who are only 12% of the Syrian population. They were at the bottom of the social pile prior to World War One and owe their elevated status to the period of French colonial rule between the two world wars. Perhaps this is why France supports US action against Assad, which gives them an opportunity to at least partially rectify the mistakes of the past.
In Assad’s mind, killing non-Alawites is perfectly acceptable. This is the way tribal politics works all across the Middle East and, indeed, Africa. Assad will never give up using chemical weapons if that’s the only way for him and his clan to retain power.
It’s hard for the US to understand this because it’s so alien to the American experience, simplified by Hollywood. There are no good guys in this conflict. There are only bad guys.
Complicating the matter further is that the US is increasingly seen as one of the bad guys right across the Middle East, especially after the way the Administration has handled Egypt and Syria during the last few weeks.
Washington is in a no-win situation with this one.