New Middle East

Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, who served in the administrations of George H.W. and George W. Bush, sees a New Middle East emerging. His vision, described in the current Foreign Affairs, is not pretty:

Just over two centuries since Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt heralded the advent of the modern Middle East — some 80 years after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, 50 years after the end of colonialism, and less than 20 years after the end of the Cold War — the American era in the Middle East, the fourth in the region’s modern history, has ended. Visions of a new, Europe-like region — peaceful, prosperous, democratic — will not be realized. Much more likely is the emergence of a new Middle East that will cause great harm to itself, the United States, and the world.

He sees this as having been brought on by a confluence of events in the post-Cold War period:

What has brought this era to an end after less than two decades is a number of factors, some structural, some self-created. The most significant has been the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq in 2003 and its conduct of the operation and resulting occupation. One casualty of the war has been a Sunni-dominated Iraq, which was strong enough and motivated enough to balance Shiite Iran. Sunni-Shiite tensions, dormant for a while, have come to the surface in Iraq and throughout the region. Terrorists have gained a base in Iraq and developed there a new set of techniques to export. Throughout much of the region, democracy has become associated with the loss of public order and the end of Sunni primacy. Anti-American sentiment, already considerable, has been reinforced. And by tying down a huge portion of the U.S. military, the war has reduced U.S. leverage worldwide. It is one of history’s ironies that the first war in Iraq, a war of necessity, marked the beginning of the American era in the Middle East and the second Iraq war, a war of choice, has precipitated its end.

While I’m an admirer of Haas’ work, having used his book Intervention in several seminars I taught, this is too cute by half. Most notably, the first Gulf War and the basing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia has been continually cited by Osama bin Laden as one of the chief motivators for the formation of al Qaeda as we knew it and for its declaration of war on the West.

Other factors have also been relevant. One is the demise of the Middle East peace process. The United States had traditionally enjoyed a unique capacity to work with both the Arabs and the Israelis. But the limits of that capacity were exposed at Camp David in 2000. Since then, the weakness of Yasir Arafat’s successors, the rise of Hamas, and the Israeli embrace of unilateralism have all helped sideline the United States, a shift reinforced by the disinclination of the current Bush administration to undertake active diplomacy.

All true. It’s not immaterial, however, that, with the exception of the Egypt-Israel detente negotiated in the 1978 Camp David accords, the “peace process” was largely a joke.

Another factor that has helped bring about the end of the American era has been the failure of traditional Arab regimes to counter the appeal of radical Islamism. Faced with a choice between what they perceived as distant and corrupt political leaders and vibrant religious ones, many in the region have opted for the latter. It took 9/11 for U.S. leaders to draw the connection between closed societies and the incubation of radicals. But their response — often a hasty push for elections regardless of the local political context — has provided terrorists and their supporters with more opportunities for advancement than they had before.

Finally, globalization has changed the region. It is now less difficult for radicals to acquire funding, arms, ideas, and recruits. The rise of new media, and above all of satellite television, has turned the Arab world into a “regional village” and politicized it. Much of the content shown — scenes of violence and destruction in Iraq; images of mistreated Iraqi and Muslim prisoners; suffering in Gaza, the West Bank, and now Lebanon — has further alienated many people in the Middle East from the United States. As a result, governments in the Middle East now have a more difficult time working openly with the United States, and U.S. influence in the region has waned.

Not much doubt about any of that. Haas goes on to detail a dozen major obstacles to a peaceful Middle East for the foreseeable future. Other than to caution against overreliance on military force and on the usefulness of diplomacy, however, he offers no way ahead.

[T]here are no quick or easy solutions to the problems the new era poses. The Middle East will remain a troubled and troubling part of the world for decades to come. It is all enough to make one nostalgic for the old Middle East.

Sure. Of course, the old Middle East was possible only because of first colonialism and then the Cold War. And many of the forces, such as Hamas and the rise of radical political influence, began during the fading days of the latter. Ultimatley, one deals with the world that one faces and makes the best of it.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Steven Plunk says:

    Oil wealth had more to do with the transformation of the region than cold war alliances. Those alliances never really amounted to much even though we spent tons of money.

    I find it hard to believe this is the end of The United States influence in the region. Especially since we are deep into Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The biggest obstacle to peace in the middle east is simply the religion of peace in whatever form.

  2. Anderson says:

    the first Gulf War and the basing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia has been continually cited by Osama bin Laden as one of the chief motivators for the formation of al Qaeda as we knew it and for its declaration of war on the West.

    So what? Tim McVeigh had grievances too, right? The fact that some kooks don’t like you, even if they’re successful kooks like OBL, doesn’t show that the Gulf War was a bad idea or an impediment to U.S. domination.

    So I’m not sure I get your point here.

  3. legion says:

    Of course, the old Middle East was possible only because of first colonialism and then the Cold War. And many of the forces, such as Hamas and the rise of radical political influence, began during the fading days of the latter.

    And the same could be said about Africa also. The difference is that the M.E. if the focal point of global oil production. Take oil out of the equation, and the US and Europe wouldn’t care any more about the violence of Muslim sects any more than we care about tribal genocides in Africa.

    In many ways, it’s rather a “self-licking ice cream cone”. The initial thought would be to re-draw the national lines so that tribes, or sects, aren’t scattered & easily abusable by a local majority. But that can’t be done without the cooperation of the _existing_ gov’ts, and they’re more interested in maintaining their own power than in fixing any problems. And even if the borders were “magically” fixed, there’s no reason to think the new states would go to war with each other to re-create the genocides and general violence that are currently going (realtively) quietly within their borders.

    In short, the problem with people is people…

  4. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: My point is that Haas is acting as if GW-1 was the start of something benevolent and that GW-2 crushed it. That’s simply not true.

    Legion: True. Aside from the Israel issue, we would have damned little interest in the Middle East were it not for oil. Paradoxically, the oil wealth of many of the ME states are a major reason for the internal culture clash as well as the scope of that conflict.

  5. Anderson says:

    My point is that Haas is acting as if GW-1 was the start of something benevolent and that GW-2 crushed it. That’s simply not true.

    I took him to mean rather that the Gulf War coincided with the opening of America’s sole-superpower status:

    The end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union brought about a fourth era in the region’s history, during which the United States enjoyed unprecedented influence and freedom to act. Dominant features of this American era were the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait, the long-term stationing of U.S. ground and air forces on the Arabian Peninsula, and an active diplomatic interest in trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all (which culminated in the Clinton administration’s intense but ultimately unsuccessful effort at Camp David).

    Doesn’t that seem a more fair reading to you? Bush 41 didn’t “bring about” this era; the Gulf War was a *feature* thereof.

  6. John Burgess says:

    The factor I consider most critical was the massive down-sizing and down grading of both diplomatic and military corps at the end of the Cold War. So many wanted a “peace dividend” that both were gutted, paring not just fat, but muscle and then bone.

    By 2000, State Dept. had been chipped away to such an extent that there were over 800 unfilled jobs overseas. This included the hot spots of the Middle East and South Asia. The military was reorganized to the point of confusion.

    This is not to argue that some things weren’t right to do; no system is perfect. But cuts were grotesquely excessive, leading to the surprizes of 2001. There were simply not enough people on the ground to keep their ears to the ground.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Anderson:

    I’m confident Haas has a more sophisticated understanding of events than the sentence “It is one of history’s ironies that the first war in Iraq, a war of necessity, marked the beginning of the American era in the Middle East and the second Iraq war, a war of choice, has precipitated its end” would imply. My reaction, though, was to that cutesy turn of phrase.

  8. Tano says:

    “The military was reorganized to the point of confusion.”

    What do you mean by that John?

    Seems to me that the evidence of Afghanistan, and Iraq (in terms of the military accomplishing what the political leaders planned for them to do) leads to the conclusion that the military emerged from the nineties in excellent shape.

  9. anjin-san says:

    Tano is correct, the military seems quite able to do it’s job. The problem is that there is really nothing more to do militarily in Iraq, and has not been for some time. The problem lies with the civilian leadership…