Rethinking the Middle East
December 2, 2008<br />
Since those days I have had plenty of time to reassess my views of U.S. policies and to educate myself regarding the Middle East. A lot of my thinking had been based on the inescapable fact that the U.S. and the West needs access to Middle Eastern oil.
U.S. policy since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been support for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, providing protection of the sea lanes that transport oil and, in the case of Iraq, protecting the Saudi kingdom against attack. This was the reason for the original U.S. effort to remove Saddam’s Iraq from Kuwait and the subsequent invasion that was based on less than accurate intelligence reports of an Iraqi buildup of weapons of mass destruction.
For a long time, there has been a general consensus that a “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam was inevitable, but it is more of a clash between civilization and nihilism. The global war on terror influenced U.S. actions as the rationale for the second invasion of Iraq was, in part, to introduce democracy to the Middle East.
There have been two factors that have complicated U.S. policy toward the Middle East. One was the establishment in 1948 of the state of Israel, a response to the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust that combined with the Zionist movement that began in the late 1800s as a response to the anti-Semitism of Europe and Russia. It received support from the newly-established United Nations, but nations in the Middle East reacted unanimously against the return of Jews to their former, ancient homeland. No surprise here; the Koran demonizes both Jews and Christians.
The other factor was the Islamic Revolution that erupted in Iran in 1979, a defeat of the American influence in that nation’s affairs linked in no small measure to its oil. The later defeat of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led many in the Middle East to believe that Islam could defeat Western efforts to control the region. Western hegemony in the region had begun in earnest following World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire.
The weapon of choice of the new Islamic Revolution was terror and, if invaded, a slow, grinding insurgency. This is why Iraq and future theatres of war will take a long time to play out.
What most policy makers in the U.S. and the West tend to ignore is the fact that the nations of the Middle East differed considerably in they way they are governed and, most importantly, in the near total lack of cohesion or cooperation among them.
In a recent commentary from the Middle East Forum, Michael Rubin noted that, “For more than a millennium, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo have competed for leadership of the Arab world.” The establishment of Israel “became a useful template around which they could posture and against whom they could act as each sought to outdo its rivals in a claim to Arab leadership.”
Following World War II, a number of Middle East nations adopted the worst of Western concepts of governance, namely fascism and socialism. Baathism rose in Syria and Iraq, but only served to increase their rivalry. As Rubin points out, “Unity is not an Arab virtue,” adding that Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus “will never coexist as partners.”
This is not unique to the region because anyone paying any attention knows that all nations act in what they perceive as their own best interests. Some that share common historical and cultural views are more prone toward cooperation while others such as Russia measure their success against U.S. and European strength or weakness. In the Middle East, however, its culture prevents any useful, long term cooperation.
In an excellent analysis published in the November edition of Energy Tribune, Leon Hadar, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, demolishes many of the “intellectual constructs that reflect the imaginations of their promoters, not necessarily reality,” adding that “reality tends to bite.” The neocons of the outgoing Bush administration and the Republican Party learned this to their regret.
“The time has come,” wrote Hadar, “to challenge the grand idea that the Muslim world (or the Middle East, or the Arab world—terms that seem interchangeable in the American media) has a unique and monolithic political and economic culture that makes it resistant to the West’s modernizing effects.”
If Middle Eastern Arabs decide to become “more like us”, it will be at a time of their own choosing. Iranians, being Persian, share Islam, but have their own agenda in the region, giving rise to Arab fears concerning their apparent intent to achieve hegemony there. If and when Iran gets nuclear weapons and starts throwing its weight around, a lot of Arabs are going to begin to think of America as their best friend in the whole world.
It should be obvious, too, that the deep schisms within Islam, Shiite and Sunni, will continue to divide the region between the majority Sunnis and what is widely perceived within Islam as a breakaway sect of Shiites who are a majority only in Iraq and Iran. Hadar correctly points out that the Middle East “is a mosaic of nation-states, ethnic groups, religious sects, and tribal groups, and a mishmash of political ideologies, economic systems, and cultural orientations.”
All of which suggests to me that the same policy of “containment” that worked for nearly forty-five years regarding the former Soviet communist regime would be a wiser approach to the Middle East than an endless number of military engagements that even our European allies are reluctant to pursue.
After World War II, the U.S. occupied the defeated nations of Germany and Japan for about seven years to ensure they would create their own democratic governments and economic systems. After that, the U.S. extended its military protection to them and everywhere else Soviet ambitions threatened.
The result was a stalemate in Korea that yielded a successful South Korean state, and a defeat in Vietnam that continues to influence American policy. We still do not recognize communist Cuba, but we have entered into an economic co-dependence with Red China. Go figure?
Just as the declining price of oil and gas brought down a Soviet government dependent on these exports, the Russian Federation will face the same contingency. Meanwhile, a decline in the price of a barrel of oil and the price of natural gas may, if long term, require Middle Eastern nations to review their policies as well.
The best thing America can do right now is to open up its own vast reserves of oil and natural gas that remain unexplored and untapped off of 85% of our continental shelf and to do the same in ANWR. We need to stop demonizing coal and we need to build more nuclear plants.
These actions would put the U.S. back in a position to improve our economy and protect us against pressures from the Middle East, Russia, and elsewhere. I have serious doubts the Obama administration will do this.
Things change. U.S. policies will change. Not every policy, but gradually events, some of which we have set in motion in Iraq as part of the global war on terror, will bring about change if we are smart enough, strong enough, and patient enough to watch and wait.