Friday, April 2, 2010

How George Armstrong Custer's scouts can help us understand the Middle East

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By Barry Rubin

As I reflect on how U.S. history is being distorted into seeming like one long hate crime, I recall how interesting it is if one really presents it in three dimensions rather than as a cartoon. It can even teach us about contemporary issues.

In the summer of 1876, the U.S. army sent an expedition to fight the Sioux who had left the reservation where they had been forced to live. One of the units sent in this task force was the Seventh Cavalry, commanded by the Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer.

Instead of waiting for the other forces to join him outside the giant encampment whose warriors outnumbered his troops by at least six-to-one, Custer took about one-third of his men and charged. Custer quickly became even more famous for foolishly getting himself and five companies of his soldiers wiped out by the Sioux. This battle at the Little Big Horn river became known as Custer's Last Stand.

But that's not the point of this story.

Among his forces were a number of "Indian scouts," men like Hairy Moccasin, Yellow Robe, and Iron Hawk who knew the ways and languages of the enemy. They were smart enough to warn Custer not to attack. Not only did he ignore their good advice but--luckily for them--angered by their opposition, he sent them off with another part of his force.

On a discussion group about these events last year, someone wrote the kind of note typical of thinking today. Shame on those scouts, the anonymous correspondent virtually shouted, for betraying their Native American brothers and not fighting together against the white man in national solidarity.

Sort of sounds like the equivalent of Arab nationalist and Islamist arguments today in the Middle East.

But, as the regular members of the discussion group quickly pointed out, those scouts did not see themselves as "Native Americans" and certainly not as brothers to the Sioux. They were in fact members of the Crow or other tribes which were traditional enemies of the Sioux. Indeed, it was the Sioux who--though today they hold the treasured designation of victim, the highest rank in present-day radical or post-modernist thinking--had been relentlessly aggressive, attacking the Crow and taking away their lands. The Crow were merely looking after their own interests.

One of these men's descendants, himself a Crow tribal historian, puts it this way: "Crow survival was at stake. The Crows believed then--and still believe--that they honorably used the white man as allies in their continuing intertribal struggle with their worthy traditional enemies."

Custer's chief scout was a very impressive man named Bloody Knife. He was the son of a Sioux father and a mother from another tribe. Because of this mixed parentage, his family had been persecuted by the Sioux. In fact, one of the main Sioux commanders at the battle had personally murdered Bloody Knife's two brothers. A proud man, Bloody Knife was nobody's mercenary. He was in the fight for his own reasons.

This is a political phenomenon we see over and over again. In 1519, Francisco Cortez had invaded Mexico with a few hundred Spanish soldiers. Certainly, the fact that he was extremely ruthless and had guns plus the locals thinking himself and his men were gods, helped him conquer a huge empire.

But Cortez had another weapon that helped him win: the support of many of Mexico's tribes. They did not appreciate the fact that the Aztec rulers seized large numbers of their people, marched them up to the top of pyramid temples, tied them down, and cut out their hearts. Cortez may have been a real bastard and his skin was a different color from theirs, but they preferred him to the Aztecs for sure.

In the Middle East today, the ideologues think it is enough to appeal to Arab or Islamic solidarity against all outsiders, whether living in the neighborhood or coming from afar. Some years ago in Istanbul, I visited an elderly, veteran head of a Middle East research center. He told me proudly that he had dedicated his life to maintaining good Turkish-Arab relations. All his writings and publications proclaimed this brotherhood.

To my surprise, though, after a few cups of tea, he started loudly complaining that the Turks were blamed by their neighbors for everything wrong in the region and provided many vivid anecdotes to prove it. Solidarity among the insiders and blaming the outsiders has long been regarded as a winning political strategy.

But what happens when these supposed lines of loyalty fall apart? In Iraq, it turned out that Muslim Kurds and Muslim Arab Shias did not love big brother Saddam Hussein. Nor are they fond of Sunni Arabs outside Iraq who loudly proclaim "Arab" and "Islamic" solidarity but cheer on the forces murdering them with terrorism.

This should not be surprising. Fifteen years earlier, in 1991, Arab, Sunni Muslim Kuwaitis and Saudis did not feel themselves obligated to support Saddam Hussein, a fellow Arab and Sunni Muslim, in stealing their possessions and murdering them. Lebanese Christians, Druze, and Sunni Muslims got tired of being victimized by Syria in the name of Arab nationalism and bullied by Hizballah, a Shia Muslim group, in the name of Islamism. Many other examples could be cited.

Throughout the area, people are fed up with being mistreated by dictatorships and threatened by revolutionary groups which simultaneously exploit them and demand their support. They can no longer be depended on to identify with their oppressors. As the Saudis and Kuwaitis did in 1991 and the Shia and Kurds are doing today they may well decide to side with outsiders or at least fight for their own interests.

Bloody Knife, Hairy Moccasin, Yellow Robe, and Iron Hawk would understand that perfectly.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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