The Middle East—What can we do?

I am convinced that our lives inhabit three dimensions of history at the same time: the dimension of our daily lives and decisions; the dimension of the lives of our community, nation and world during the time in which we live; and the dimension of history that started long before we were born and will continue long after we pass. Once in a while, all three dimensions reach a crossroad or tipping point at the same time, and with such force, that literally the entire course of history is susceptible of changing.

With everything we’ve been through over the last few years, it sure seems that we may be careening toward one of those rare moments when everything could change.

For instance, when I saw the news coming from the Middle East over the last few weeks—first, Tunisia, then Lebanon, then Yemen, then Egypt, and now, possibly, Jordan—I began to think that we may (and I stress the word “may”) be seeing a glimpse of a true moment in history when everything is changing: the way we live our daily lives; the structure of our communities, nation and world; and the forces of history that have slowly moved for decades, if not centuries.

If this is happening, how do we make sense of what has started in the Middle East? I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, and talking heads abound on cable and the internet who are, but I want to share some very general guide-posts with you about how us novices can process what we are seeing and be informed when our politicians and the experts talk about what American policy should be going forward.

Let’s start with the basics—what is the “Middle East”? In many ways we use the term “Middle East” to describe the area of the world containing those nations where the state religion or the culture of the society is dominated by the practice of Islam—with one key exception, Israel. If we use the term “Middle East” in this way, it covers a contiguous region of the Earth running from the Atlantic side of Africa, around the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and across the Indian Ocean to the end of the land masses of Asia and Australia. It is virtually self-contained between the Prime Meridian (0 degrees longitude) going east to the International Date line (with the sole exception of Morocco, which lies to the west of the Prime Meridian), and between 15 degrees latitude south of the Equator to 45 degrees latitude north of the Equator.

Ethnically, the region can be divided into a Western region, which is dominated by Arab peoples, but which also includes Kurds, Turks, and some non-Arab African peoples; and an Eastern region, which is made up of many different ethnicities, including Persians, and the many indigenous peoples of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the former Soviet Republics that border those countries, Northern India, Western China, and Indonesia.

Religiously, except for Israel, the nations that comprise this “Middle East” recognize Islam as either a state religion, or as the dominant religion practiced by its people. Many of these nations have adopted Islamic or “Sharia” law, generally or specifically, as the law of the state.

Although the dominance of Islam unites all of the nations of this region (again, except for Israel), no one state has ever governed the entire area at the same time. However, as late as World War I, much of this region was ruled by the Ottoman Empire under a Caliphate, which could be described roughly as the Islamic equivalent of both a feudal King and a Pope. Most of the modern political nation states of this region were created by four events in the 20th Century: the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the Caliphate as part of the negotiated settlement of World War I; the creation of the State of Israel, and the partition of India in the late 1940s; and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Politically, most of the territory (other than certain non-Arab African states) can be described as being split among the following groups: The secular governments of Turkey, Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo; and the remaining monarchies that were created by the settlement of World War I; those governments run by pan-Arab, nationalist, or Islamist movements, which overthrew some of the monarchies created after World War I; and the governments that arose in Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the former Soviet Republics.

It appears that what we are witnessing is an attempt to dismantle the remnants of the monarchies created after World War I, and the authoritarian regimes that formed the first-generation of nationalist movements after World War II. To put this into perspective, let me digress for a moment.

About 70 years ago, during the early months of our country’s involvement in World War II, FDR sent Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican Presidential nominee, on a fact-finding tour of the Britain, the Middle East, Russia and China. After that tour, Willkie wrote an account of his tour and his observations about the current situation and the post-war challenges America would face, entitled One World. In his chapter about his Middle East tour, Willkie discussed the growing discontent with the monarchies that had been imposed on the region and with the continued outside supervision by the European powers, which also led to a leeriness of embracing the U.S. because of its close ties to the occupying European powers. He also discussed the emerging nationalist sentiments that were driving many people opposed to the monarchies and continued British and French occupation to support Germany. Toward the end of the chapter, he made the following observation:

…these newly awakened people will be followers of some extremist leader in this generation if their new hunger for education and opportunity for a release from old restrictive religious and governmental practice is not met by their own rulers and their foreign overlords. The veil, the fez, the sickness, the filth, the lack of education and modern industrial development, the arbitrariness of government, all commingled in their minds to represent a past imposed upon them by a combination of forces within their own society and the self-interest of foreign domination.

The question that Willkie kept hearing was “which side will Americans take when the people finally seek change: the side of the foreign and domestic overlords; or the side of the people?” He foresaw that the consequence of inaction or the wrong choice would be a rise of extremist leaders that would continue to impede the progress of the people of the region.

Alas, what Willkie foresaw came to pass. Either the monarchies continued with our support, or they were overthrown by extremists. The first wave of extremists were pan-Arabists in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, whose leaders had been aligned with Germany during World War II. Mubarak is the third leader from Nasser’s pan-Arab movement, which has controlled Egypt since it overthrew the monarchy in 1952. In Jordan, where protests have just led to the dismissal of the Cabinet, the King is one of the last monarchs left from the monarchies imposed after World War I.

So, what appears to be happening now is an attempt to overthrow remnants of either the monarchies, or the first wave of pan-Arab extremists who succeeded them. Unfortunately for our interests, though, the only indigenous organizations capable of assuming political power appear to be the second wave of extremists who have been waiting in the wings. This second wave of extremists are the Sunni and Shiite Islamists that have terrorized the region since the late 1970s, and which now control all or some of Iran, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their strength also is reflected by the moves that the first-wave extremists in Syria (the Baathists) have made to survive by forging an alliance with Iran.

Now engraft on to this whole mess the geopolitical social issues of

  • Oil;
  • the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians;
  • the proliferation of nuclear technology and weapons in the region;
  • international terrorism spawned from failed nation states and non-state organizations in the region;
  • our continued military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • our debt being held, in part, by sovereign funds of some of the remaining monarchies in the region; and
  • the growing use of the cable TV, internet and social media;

and we can see that the U.S. has very few good choices that it can make that will directly lead to a future for the people of this region free of extremist leaders, who will continue to impede freedom, education and opportunity.

But, we have to start somewhere, sometime to heed the advice that Wendell Willkie gave to America 70 years ago—we need to find a way to be on the side of the dreams of people of this region for freedom, education, and opportunity, rather than being perceived as siding with their monarchs or their extremists. We can not impose freedom, education, and opportunity like we tried in Iraq, and like foreign powers tried, to one degree or another, for centuries. Instead, we need to find a way through a mixture of trade, engagement, and security to help the people of that region build their own future.

I don’t know what the mix of right choices should be for this country right now, but I do know that if we are looking at one of those rare moments in history when everything changes and we make the wrong choices, the happiness and security of generations could be in peril.

On that note, I’ll end this post with a quote from John Adams that has kept me awake at night at times over the last 10 years.

Not long after September 11th, 2001, I was reading my self to sleep one night with David McCullough’s John Adams, when I started a short passage about the Barbary Pirates. McCullough recounted an episode that occurred shortly after Adams became Ambassador to Great Britain in 1785. At that time American shipping was being harassed by the pirates loyal to the Barbary States, and Adams was instructed to negotiate with their representatives. Adams engaged in discussions with the envoy of the Sultan of Tripoli, including a visit to the envoy’s home one evening in London. During their fireside discussion, the Sultan’s envoy told Adams that a state of war existed between America and Tripoli. This assertion took Adams by surprise, asking “how this could be, given there had been no injury, insult, or provocation of either side.” The next day the envoy visited Adams and told him that if a treaty were delayed, “a war between Christian and Christian was mild, prisoners were treated with humanity; but, warned His Excellency, a war between Muslim and Christian could be horrible.” In 1787, the United States signed a treaty with Morocco and paid protection money to the Barbary States to avert war, for, as Adams told Jefferson at the time, “[w]e ought not fight them at all, unless we determine to fight them forever.”

Whatever choices we make, we can not bequeath to our children a perpetual war with the Middle East. .

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