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.