The Changing Face of the Middle East

by Michael Sean Winters

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The politics of the Middle East is in flux, which may be the only thing all Americans can agree about. The most important long-term U.S. foreign policy objective in the region, stability, sought by presidents of both political parties for decades, does not sit well with flux. We are thrilled to see despots deposed, but we worry about what may follow. Americans, of all people, must stand for democracy, but we worry about the influence of radical Islamicists in these newborn democracies. What to do?

The first thing to note is that the current political upheavals have been a long time coming. Dictators like Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Mohammar Qaddafi in Libya used their monopoly of force to suppress political change but the cultures of their countries did not stop changing. It should be remembered that, until their expulsion in the 1950s, Jews were the largest ethnic group in Baghdad, to cite only one example of enormous demographic change. Populations have exploded and economic development has not kept pace. Those countries with oil wealth have been able to provide a decent living for their people while other countries like Egypt suffer from massive unemployment and endemic poverty. Dictators wreak great evil, but they also kept ethnic and religious tensions in check. Western culture and its values, often at odds with traditional Islamic values, have bit deeply into the cultures of the Middle East, so that these countries are experiencing the equivalent of the 60’s and the late eighteenth century founding at the same time. There is likely to be a great deal more instability in the next few years. That much is clear.

Each country in the Middle East faces its own set of challenges and U.S. policy is ill-served by lumping them together. The deposition of Gaddafi was achieved by his own people, with essential assistance from NATO to be sure, but the revolution in Libya was the work of Libyans. In Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was the work of U.S. troops, followed by an occupation. Tunisians and Egyptians achieved their revolutions with virtually no assistance from outside. These differences are significant, as they manner in which the despots were overthrown has left different legacies for the regimes that have replaced them.

Yesterday’s elections in Tunisia yielded enormously hopeful results. It appears that a moderate Islamic party won the elections which were, according to international observers, both free and fair. There is nothing more important in the world than for the emergence of moderate Islam, to point the way forward and stand as a rebuke to the radical Islamicists who think there can be no accommodation with Western values. “What’s unique here is we have a formal Islamist group or movement who are trying to offer a new model which puts democracy and Islam together,” Said Ferjani, one of the leaser’s of the moderate Islamic party in Tunisia, told the Washington Post. Many blessings on that project. There is no more important socio-cultural-political movement more important than the emergence of moderate Muslims eager to embrace democracy, concerned about the corruption of previous regimes, with a long history of providing charitable and fraternal assistance, and suspicious but not hostile to Western values, especially regarding the role of women in society. It was heartwarming to see women and men celebrating the election results together.

The situation in Iraq is yet more complicated. U.S. involvement in Iraq has come to look like a very bad marriage and most Americans just think it is time to get out but there is no such thing as an annulment. The Iraqis can not forget what the U.S. did in the past ten years to their country, the tens of thousands of dead, the loss of infrastructure, the continued inability to provide electricity, the chaotic political situation. Nor can they forget the even more shameful U.S. involvement under President George H.W. Bush when, having expelled the Iraqi military from Kuwait, we encouraged the Shiites and the Kurds to revolt against Saddam Hussein and then stood by and did nothing to protect them from Hussein’s helicopter gunships. Their grievances against the U.S. are great and it is difficult to see how a continued U.S. military deployment would help. The President is undoubtedly right to bring our military engagement there to a close.

Over the weekend and last night, several conservative commentators warned that a U.S. pullout would increase the influence of Iran in Iraq and, therefore, the region. Where were they in 2002 and 2003? It was clear as day that the deposition of Saddam Hussein would strengthen Iran’s influence in Iraq. Gen. Wesley Clark warned of this consequence before President George W. Bush started the war. This was a thoroughly foreseeable consequence and it could only be avoided by the kind of long-term military engagement that Americans do not want and which Bush and Cheney et al., promised, wrongly, would not occur. I am ambivalent about President Obama’s decision to pull out all troubles, but that ambivalence is rooted in the fact that the Iraq War was destined to never have a happy ending for the U.S. Are we glad that Hussein is gone? Of course. But, chaos and increased Iranian influence is a high price to pay.

Conservatives have also attacked President Obama for his handling of the revolution in Libya. Some, like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, say it was wrong to get involved at all. Others, like Sen. John McCain think, we should have been more heavily involved so that the ouster of Qaddafi could have been quicker. One gets the feeling, as one wag suggested yesterday, that Republicans like any and all military interventions except those that President Obama undertakes. And, across the board, Republicans have poked fun at the idea, never uttered by the president, that the U.S. was “leading from behind” in Libya. The choice of words was unfortunate but the idea behind it was not. Americans cannot be the policemen of the world. In a country like Libya where certain European countries have vital interests that we do not have, they should take the lead, not us. Besides, the thought of U.S. ground forces invading a third Muslim country makes sense only to those who really, really need to let their subscriptions to the Weekly Standard lapse.

Only a fool would venture a prediction about what Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia will look like in a year or ten years. No one can foretell how these developments will alter U.S. influence in the region nor what impact they will have on the forlorn prospects for peace between Israel and her neighbors. No one should envy the president and his foreign policy advisors. But, they were dealt a horrible hand by the Bush administrations, both pere and fils, and I think President Obama deserves a praise for his handling of U.S. policy in the region. Is it great? No. But, you can’t get a straight flush when you are dealt the cards he was dealt.

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