History Bits: Modern Middle East
Bits and Pieces of History
Syria—that most notorious spoiler amongst a badly spoiled bunch–would seem to pose an irresistible challenge to American efforts to democratize the Middle East. But with the occupation of Iraq foundering, can we continue to afford to fill in every such pothole on the road to global democracy? Or should we just allow other nations to find their own way, on their own time and terms, in ways that make sense for them? There are few nations in the Middle East so devoid of resources and so burdened with a burgeoning birthrate as Syria, and it will prove increasingly difficult for Syria to resist integration with the global economy—and the transparency demanded by globalization. At the end of the Second World War, only six nations were democracies; today, some 120 are, and most of those have come around in their own way, once the benefits of participating in the community of nations on the enlightened and transparent terms demanded by globalization became clear to them; political maturity must be grown into.
The prospect of Turkey’s membership in the EU conjures up nightmares of Europe’s economy overrun by cheap immigrant labor and its culture and society swamped in a rising Muslim tide. France’s case is illustrative: in one sense, France’s nettlesome Muslim community is the unwanted child of its rape of North Africa in its days of empire. In another sense, while the problems of integrating Islam into France’s glorious but hidebound culture may be quite daunting, Muslim immigration stands to reward France generously in the long run. Look at our own experience: just about everyone came to America in a desperate condition of one kind or another, and it was their sheer determination to better themselves that fostered the spirit that built America into what it is today: the World’s Country, which gets the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world. A case in point: 4 out of 5 American recipients of the Nobel Prize have been either first- or second-generation immigrants; that speaks to the highest reward of all–that which comes from intellectual capital. Whether Europe scorns or embraces its Muslim community may well determine to which it will remain an archaic culture or become a progressive one. What’s more, is there anything the world needs quite so badly at this point than a bridge between the West and Islam? And how better to build that bridge than with a secular and progressive Muslim state like Turkey?
The political convulsion that consumed Iran in the late 1970s over U.S. support for the Shah—and the hostage drama that ensued—should remind us that however badly Iran may need Western technology and investment, oil remains a potent weapon of Islamic rage against the West. Iran’s emerging nuclear weapons capability lends a sinister new dimension to this conflict, which may not be resolved until the day comes when we address the root causes–not of terrorism per se, but of the profound misery that causes desperate people to the ideologies of hatred and take up that weapon of last resort of the helpless: violence. What could we have done with a fraction of the money that we expended on “defense” in the 15 years that have elapsed since the fall of our most recent enemy, the Soviet Union? How many millions of lives could have been saved (and friends earned… and at such modest cost) by assisting the world’s poorest people in achieving basic sanitation and disease prevention? When are we going to learn that everything in this world is intimately inter-related, and that the well being of the most wretched people in the farthest-flung parts of the earth has as much bearing on our own well being as that of our fellow American?
With the cost of the Iraq War at $2 trillion and counting, can we continue to afford to fill in every pothole on the road to global democracy? Or should we just allow other nations to find their own way, on their own time and terms, in ways that make sense for them? At the end of the Second World War, only six nations were democracies; today, some 120 are, and most of those have come around in their own way, once the benefits of participating in the community of nations on the enlightened and transparent terms demanded by globalization became clear to them; political maturity must be grown into. It’s surprising that we were unable to see in the Vietnam and Iraq experiences echoes of the struggle that we ourselves had fought back in the American Revolution. There was a time when we played the best game of guerrilla warfare in town—against the British—and even if we were unwilling to empathize with the same nationalist spirit that we once laid our own lives down for, we should have seen the sort of fight that was coming from even a casual examination of the history of Vietnam and its 2000-year long struggle to throw out the Chinese. But who cares about history… and all that dead white male stuff?
In response to 9/11, this whole business in Iraq was cunningly and masterfully mapped out—with a far more sublime strategy in mind than the ordinary simpleton could ever have imagined–and calculated by Mr. Bush, Vice, Rummie and Rice to transpire precisely the way it has. After all, they leveled one of our paramount shrines, so it’s only right that we should level theirs. But rather than doing the job ourselves—and getting the whole world really mad at us–we’d get them to do the job for us. We’d start with a seemingly pointless and ill-planned invasion of a nation situated in the living, beating heart of the Arab world. With the presence of our troops as unwitting bait, this would spark an insurgency that would—given the sectarian tensions that have long sundered the Arab world—inevitably turn Muslims upon themselves in an endless paroxysm of self-destruction that would, in the fullness of time, leave every mosque and shrine from Nigeria to Mecca to Indonesia reduced to rubble. With the icons of their religion thus ruined, Muslims the world over would become—as happened to the Hawaiians after the missionaries invaded and upended their idols—spiritually eviscerated and dying of despair and its attendant maladies. Within a few generations, they’d be gone, leaving the world forever rid of their terror, their poisonous hatreds, and their intractable pathologies. Meanwhile, all we would need to do is hunker down in our super-fortified bases and wait for the time when we, as victors in this diabolical intrigue, could arise and claim our prize: their oil. Mr. Bush’s name may yet be inscribed amongst those of Metternich, Henry Kissinger, and history’s other Grand Masters of geopolitical strategy.
The British created Iraq in 1918, confident that it would become a beacon of enlightenment unto the Middle East, that it would nurture moderate Arab regimes, that its monarchs would serve as peacemakers between Zionists and Arabs in Palestine, and that it would anchor the region in the wider interests of a far-flung empire. The experiment persisted for forty years, and it failed. The United States has occupied Iraq for more than two years now. Our stated ambition there is to “spread freedom,” nurture moderate Arab regimes, act as a peacemaker between Israel and its neighbors, and anchor the region in the wider interests of American national security. Yet the lessons of Britain’s failure have eluded the American promoters of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who remain strangely uncurious about Great Britain’s chastening moment in the Mesopotamian sun. The reality in Iraq is that 135,000 American soldiers cannot create a stable “democracy” in a society rent by intensifying ethnic and religious conflicts. It is useful to recall in this regard Henry Kissinger’s observation (made in regard to the war in Vietnam but pertinent here) that guerrillas are winning if they are not losing. The longer US troops are involved in Iraq, the more victory will remain “on the horizon” – that is, a goal that recedes as one moves towards it. It’s surprising that we were unable to see in the Vietnam and Iraq experiences echoes of the struggle that we ourselves had fought back in the American Revolution. There was a time when we played the best game of guerrilla warfare in town—against the British—and even if we were unwilling to empathize with the same nationalist spirit that we once laid our own lives down for, we should have seen the sort of fight that was coming from even a casual examination of the history of Vietnam and its long struggle to throw out the Chinese. But who cares about history… and all that dead white male stuff?
The photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse have served the same purpose as the tele-journalism of the Vietnam War. It was easy to put the war out of one’s mind as long as it was relegated to the sanitized realm of armchair strategy or the evening news, as so many of American public (and the people who ran this war from Washington) were in the comfy habit of having the war served up to them. The fierce combat of the Tet Offensive, as played out on prime-time newscasts nation-wide—along with the myriad other photos and footage that made Vietnam America’s Television War–brought its ugly reality home to Americans who were at last made to understand that a war that was so far out of sight could no longer remain out of mind. The determination that was evident in the eyes of our enemy—and the indifference and futility that was to be seen in the faces of our soldiers and allies–had a way of taking hold of the viewer and shaking his conscience by its collar: their stark immediacy was such that they offered no sanctuary from our administration’s ignorant rationalizations and its word-processed, stage-managed public relations campaigns. Ultimately, the truth won out: the supreme irony of Tet was that its military victory for the United States proved to be the turning point that—in large part because of its extensive news coverage–soured American opinion on the ultimate prospects for victory in Vietnam, and broke the spine of public support for the war.
Democracy be damned. Increasingly, the acid test of American foreign policy will be access to global resources—oil, first and foremost. With 6% of the world’s population, the United States accounts for 40% of the world’s resources, and with the emergence of China and India as economic giants, the competition for these resources is likely to become cutthroat.
We’ve gotten used to regarding the fractious nature of Iraqi society in terms of the traditional religious fault lines of Sunni and Shi’ite (with the Kurds thrown into the mix as a wild card), but we’ve failed to consider the role in Iraq’s new social order of its 800,000-strong Christian minority. If the War on Terror continues to widen into a confrontation between Islam and Christianity, will these 800,000 Iraqi Christians reap the consequences? Consider the murderous hatred of the Jews by ancient Romans and modern Germans alike; of the Muslim minority by the Slavic majority of the Balkans; of the overseas Chinese by host-country Indonesians, Malays, and Filipinos—while here in America, people of all faiths get along because everyone more or less subscribes to the same American Dream and cultural standard. Nothing sows such terror and savagery in the human breast as the enemy within—the perceived threat of a stand-apart society to the shared values that form culture and the rules by which it safeguards itself.