Reconstructing the Middle East
How Might It Be Done?
There is an odd precision attaching to certain key events in the Middle East. Jimmy Carter’s third and final State of the Union address on January 23, 1980, was his “doctrine” speech and set in motion what Andrew Bacevich considers one long, unitary conflict that extends from Afghanistan through the Maghreb and lately into West Africa. This war is now in its 37th year and Bacevich, among many others, predicts no end to it as far out front as his eye can see. “We’re stuck,” he writes in the last pages of his new Book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Captives of “a deeply pernicious naïveté,” we have not won the war but cannot get out.
There are other such dates in the recent past: George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, for instance, from which date Iraq was doomed to descend into anarchy and violence that has not yet ended. Or December 18, 2014, when the last convoy of American troops departed Iraq, leaving behind a shredded society faced with the question whether an invented nation had any future as one.
Let us go further back, however, in search of dates in the past that are useful to our understanding. Two stand out above most others. The first is July 1, 1798, when Napoleon reached Egypt to conquer it in the name of French trade, rivalry with Britain, and modernization and westernization (thenceforth considered the same thing). The second is January 16, 1979, when the shah of Iran’s many-sided adversaries forced him into exile and the Iranian revolution decisively changed the nation’s course. I choose these dates advisedly. Chas Freeman, an American diplomat of long experience, astutely casts them as the fence posts defining an epoch.
Napoleon’s year in Egypt and Palestine set off a twocentury-long Western rampage through the Middle East,” Freeman remarked in a lecture last autumn, “that subjugated its peoples and systematically subverted their traditional values, imposed invented states and borders on them, developed and extracted enormous profit from their energy resources, deposed and appointed their governments, sold avalanches of military hardware to their armed forces, and killed and displaced millions of their people.
Of the latter date Freeman asserted:
The Islamic revolution of 1979 and the Arab uprisings of 2011 mark the end of this epoch of passivity and victimization on the part of the core nations of the Muslim umma [people sharing a common culture]. The Dar al-Islam’s [the Islamic homeland’s] humiliated people are now retaking control of their destiny. They are doing so amidst a widespread view that incumbent regimes are unjust, lack legitimacy, and remain in power only because they enjoy the protection of foreign, mainly Western—that is, American—patrons.
If we accept Freeman’s chronological frame, we must conclude we live amid profound transformations. This requires us to pose certain questions. If an epoch has ended and another begins, what is to be its character? Who is to give it shape, and by what principles? In ordinary language, is there a solution to the Middle East crisis and whose task is it to determine and develop it?
In his thoughtful and thought-inducing book, Bacevich offers another, grimmer way to view our moment: “That the ongoing enterprise may someday end—that U.S. troops may finally depart—appears so unlikely as to make the prospect unworthy of discussion,” he writes.
Freeman asserted a similar view in another of his lectures last year: “Judging by the plague of incompetent campaign gerbils and carpetbaggers we appointed to Iraq and Afghanistan after we occupied them,” he said:
Our government lacks the diplomatic professionalism, expertise, and skills as well as the politico-military backing 30 and resources needed to craft or sustain peace. We have no war-termination strategies and no one who would know how to implement them if we did, so America’s wars never end.
On this point it is vital to take issue with these two thinkers and former practitioners (a soldier and a diplomat respectively). If it appears unlikely America will cease its adventures in the Middle East, so opening the way to peace and sturdy political, social, and economic structures, this is precisely what makes discussion of these things not merely “worthy” but mandatory. To stay within the frame of the apparently possible at any given moment is to cancel all ethical, principled thought and aspiration.
One begins with an idea of the necessary as against the possible, to put the point another way. New thinking is by definition unfamiliar and its intent must appear “impossible” if it is authentically new. But this term reflects merely our perceptions and political will and has nothing to do with what is in fact achievable. Human agency brought the Middle East to the tragedies it now suffers, and it is human agency alone that holds all remedies.
This reality is far harder to face than any conclusion that all is as it will be and nothing can be done. But it is our responsibility to face it.
As Chas Freeman suggests, there is no escaping the West’s very considerable culpability in the monumental emergency the Middle East has become. Bacevich counts in decades, Freeman in centuries, but it comes to the same thing. Does it follow that the West’s obligation now is to repair all it has broken? This is its task?
Only if the arsonist is called upon to put out the fire. Only if you are into white-man’s-burden thinking. Only if self-determination is other than the sine qua non in the efficacy of all political, social, and economic institutions. Only if Napoleon was right to turn mosques into French cafes for the good of Cairenes and Alexandrians. Only if you fail to recognize that parity between West and non–West is the essence of the 21st century project.
Reparation is another word and another matter. It implies a role and a responsibility, but not a determinant role and no responsibility in matters of what we can call design. The West’s primary place in a Middle East reconstruction project is partly a question of material reparation but also an act of subtraction. In a word, its first task is to desist. To this point I will return.
The inference should be clear. A new design for the Middle East is for Middle Easterners to imagine and create. As is now becoming clear to more or us, this requires reckoning with another fateful date in history. On May 16, 1916—at this writing a century ago to the day—Mark Sykes and François– Georges Picot signed a secret accord dividing what are now Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon into late-colonial spheres of influence. British and French diplomats respectively, they drew lines on maps—the straight, severe lines familiar to us now, set down with little reference, if any, to those who were to live on either side of them.
The Sykes–Picot Agreement, as even The New York Times acknowledged on its centenary, stands as “ a low point in colonial efforts to manipulate the region to fit the interests of outsiders.” This notwithstanding, maintaining the Sykes– Picot frontiers remains a given in all efforts to negotiate solutions to the Middle East’s crises, notably now in Syria. But numerous parties to the Sykes–Picot question now argue that it is time to dispense with the old borders. The Islamic State has from its inception asserted the erasure of the line dividing Syria and Iraq as a core objective: This is inscribed in its very name. At the other end of the spectrum are the Kurds favoring an autonomous region. “At the 100th anniversary of the Sykes–Picot Agreement, borders/sovereignty have become meaningless,” Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, wrote in a May 16 Twitter note. “Sykes–Picot is dead.”
It may be, and the logic is plain enough. But in the cause of a reinvented Middle East, it is not so easy a call. To explain the implied hesitation, I will exit the region to Indonesia in the years after the Suharto dictatorship fell. There are useful parallels.
The question of unity within inherited borders has been a conundrum since Sukarno signed Indonesia’s declaration of independence in 1945. In a nation of 17,500 islands and more than 300 ethnic groups speaking as many languages, this was inevitable. It is a long, complex story, but the solution that finally emerged in the first post–Suharto years—he fell in 1998—was a decentralization policy under which autonomous regions could be negotiated. These cover all manner of political, administrative, budgetary, and other such functions.
Aceh, the province at the northwestern tip of Sumatra, is the best-known example of the policy in action. After many years of armed rebellion during the Suharto years, it achieved status as a daerah istimewa, a special territory as against a province, in 2002. Aceh’s resistance movement, it is worth noting, was Islamic. It achieved autonomy in the world’s largest Muslim nation, which is also among the most secularized of Muslim-majority nations.
In 1999 I covered Indonesia’s first post–Suharto elections— its first free elections since 1955. The principle then emergent seemed to me in some way defining of an essential 21st century task: To stay together we must come apart. A decade and a half later, Iraq and Syria confirm this thought, at least for me: They present variations of the same paradox.
In this line of thinking, national borders as now constituted do not—or do not necessarily—need to be discarded. I find numerous advantages in this proposition—again, one I first recognized in Java, Bali, Sumatra and other Indonesian islands while watching an historic election at the turn of our century. What we are talking about is one form or another of 31 federalism. In my view it applies not only in the Middle East but also in Ukraine, another nation now in crisis. In all cases, the strategy answers the same questions.
The first of these concerns history. Attempts to erase it are typically rooted in ressentiment and rarely reason. They are fated without exception to failure, as anyone who has tried it—a common error—can tell you. History is to be accommodated or—better word, maybe—reconciled with the present. We bear all of our past with us, as Sartre wrote in War Diaries, as that which we are no longer. The thought applies to nations and societies as well as people. The colonial period was many things, most of them awful, but it was never going to be a disappearing act.
Apart from avoiding an unwinnable war with history, federalist frames accommodate differences among peoples— historical, cultural, linguistic, religious—without allowing these to define nationality or citizenship, which is another common mistake. (See Israel.) In his famous 1882 lecture at the Sorbonne, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (“What Is a Nation?”), Ernest Renan argued enduringly for national belonging as “a daily plebiscite”—a quintessentially secular notion whereby one affirms one’s citizenship simply by living and acting within the polity. In my view, Renan’s thought would be especially relevant in a Middle East of federalized nations in that it replies to the single most interesting question the region now faces: How do we achieve democratic forms in a culture that draws no clear line between religious practice and political life?
What would this look like in practice? In the Syrian case, there is discussion now as to whether the nation is destined to consist of regions designated as Kurdish, Shiite, Shi’a, and Christian, each with one or another degree of autonomy. One might dwell in any of these and still be Syrian. One might, indeed, be Kurdish in a Shi’a region, a Christian in a Sunni region, and so on should one so choose. One shares “Syrianness,” and one shares also the understandings that lend it a meaning it does not now have. Damascus, a secular city, would remain one’s shared capital.
All manner of political and administrative institutions are preserved in this fashion. These are of practical and functional value as a matter of sheer scale and the efficient use of resources. Do those Kurds desiring full independence intend to open 100-odd embassies, for instance, and erect and staff multiple ministries and civil-service bureaucracies? This matter of scale also has a political dimension. The status of the nation-state is plainly uncertain in our time, even in the West, where it was invented (and then made a global export). It remains useful, nonetheless, as a vessel for political expression. This deserves very considerable thought. Federalism, in this context, is a reaffirmation of internationalism in the better sense of this term.
Identity is a complex question in the 21st century, to note the obvious. The argument here it to address the complexities by embracing them as against artificial simplifications of them. In the national structure I consider worthy of consideration, the poles of unity and individuality, the “modern” and “pre-modern” in peaceful coexistence, stand to lend a durable balance to national structures as these might be reinvented in a post–Sykes–Picot era. What Syria has been since two European diplomats invented it with pencils cannot be taken as a measure of what Syria will be, or at least could be.
The wealth of Middle Eastern nations is well known. So are the deprivations suffered by most of their populations. And so, hence, is the familiar thought that to possess large reserves of oil is almost certain to prove a curse upon a people. The only argument against correcting this, it logically follows, rests on the magnitude of the task: It is too big to contemplate. And this is not a serious argument.
There is little point in thinking about a political transformation in the Middle East without also taking up these nations’ misshapen economic structures. Most of the region—Iran an obvious exception—retains the imprint of the classic colonial model: Engagement was for extraction, not local development. So the label on the Middle East’s 21st century project must be “political economy.”
In lectures and sometimes in columns, I have numerous times advanced the thought of a Marshall Plan for the Middle East. It is a mistake that never fails to cause me trouble, but the reasons for this are instructive.
No need for extraneous detail. The European Recovery Program was a four-year plan the Truman administration launched in April 1948. The date suggests a lot of what we need to know: Truman had effectively declared the Cold War the previous year, and the E.R.P. was intended to accomplish far more than material reconstruction. The objectives were to blunt the appeal of the European Communist parties, notably in France and Italy, while planting essential elements of what we now call the neoliberal economic order. The U.S. spent roughly $125 billion on the E.R.P., adjusted for inflation, from 1948 to 1952.
There was no aspect of disinterest in the Marshall Plan, in sum. It was not an act of generosity, as customarily described. This was the Cold War’s West European front. The plan was conceived as strategic, enlisted in the service of America’s geopolitical ambitions—which had greatly enlarged after the 1945 surrenders.
None of this is what I intend to invoke in referencing the E.R.P. These things are useful to note as a list of precisely what I do not mean. When you strip out the elements just described, indeed, next to nothing remains.
Only this: The Marshall Plan had magnitude. It reflected large thinking of a kind we have not known in decades. It was not holistic, as we would say now, but it was far more encompassing than the one-dimensionally militarized policies that are all Washington can come up with today. It is this magnitude, this scale of thinking—an entire region, nearly 32 20 nations in need of reconstruction—that is my point of reference.
This falls into the “impossible” category in the Middle East context, of course. Our paradox consists in this: Until the global community comes around to such thinking, there truly is as little prospect of a solution to the Middle East’s crises as the pessimists tell us. Once again, the impossible turns out to be the necessary, too.
There is no point rehearsing a full-dress not–Marshall Plan Plan for the Middle East: I could not, even if there were space in CounterPunch’s pages. But a few essential elements of such a project can be usefully noted.
First, any such undertaking must by definition be designed and directed by leadership in the Middle East. Which leadership is another, obviously political question. The point here—also political—is to assert self-determination as a nonnegotiable principle. Political power as it is now constituted in nearly all of the region is plainly not structured and distributed to advance this principle. This imposing reality does not, of course, invalidate the principle.
Second, strategies need to be large—holistic in the best sense of this term. Schools, roads, bridges and ports, industrial sectors, water and sewage systems, civil services, public goods and public spaces—the list of spheres in need of address is long. This could be no other way, given how long social and economic development has been neglected across nearly the entire region.
A third point follows from the second. The wastage of human resources and intelligent minds in the Middle East is not quite as tragic as its consequences, but it is nearly so. Economists, educationists, urban planners, architects, industrial designers, social psychologists, technologists—the kind of people needed to contribute to these reconstruction efforts gives another very long list. To some extent one cannot quantify, this is surely a question of redirecting the efforts and energies of those now at work in political and economic environments erected to serve other, undesirable purposes.
The next point also flows from the previous. It is an unquestioned assumption in Western culture and in all those wherein Western influence is prevalent that technology is deployed primarily in the service of markets and profits. This relationship needs to be broken. It is a 21st century task everywhere, it seems to me, that technology—always a mere means—be applied to far more enlightened ends: It needs to serve social, cultural and philosophical thought as well as economic thought. It must answer to society before markets. Consider the Middle East in this connection: It is a textbook case.
Finally, there is always the question of capital when the topic of rebuilding the Middle East arises. Who is going to pay for it? Who can afford it? People stumble on this point routinely. It is another “impossible.”
One part of this answer seems obvious. Were the region’s oil revenues to be properly redirected—or directed properly Bombed Orphans School, Gaza. Photo: ISM. 33 for the first time, we ought to say—it is more or less inconceivable that there would be any shortage of funds. As a subset of this point, consider the vast sums national governments now spend on the “avalanche of military hardware” Chas Freeman noted. In this connection, it is interesting to note Saudi Arabia’s just-announced plans to restructure its economy and diversify away from oil. Hardly could the Saudi royal family be an effective agent for the kind reconstruction here considered. But “Saudi Vision 2030,” the plan of Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince, is at least evidence that new thinking is already taking root in the region.
It is prima facie obvious that the West has a very great deal to contribute to a multi-dimensional reconstruction project in the Middle East. That it has a moral obligation in this regard is also clear: It is a question of “historical justice,” as the novelist Peter Dimock puts it in another context. But the West’s—and especially Washington’s—incapacities are just as plain as these other truths.
Again and again what we find as the new century proceeds is that the U.S. is not up to meeting the era’s challenges. Our political culture is one of small minds. The magnitude of thinking that got done in the 1940s—again, setting aside intentions—is beyond our leadership. Vision is flawed by ideology and a preoccupation with global hegemony—origins of that pernicious naïveté Andrew Bacevich writes about. We are fighting a new Cold War with a nation that no longer exists. Orientalist thinking reasserts itself with a vengeance. And there is no apparent ability to understand, never mind master, the principle of disinterested action.
There is one truth above all others that gets entirely lost in all this: A region reordered such that its political economy serves its people for the first time in modern history is vastly, unambiguously in the West’s interest above all other outcomes.
These weaknesses leave America badly equipped to make the contributions it could. Reparation, as earlier suggested, would therefore define the limit of the American role, at least for the time being. Non–Western nations, notably China, seem better placed. In the past few months, indeed, the Chinese have pointedly emphasized the Middle East’s place in their project to connect the East Asian mainland to the Mediterranean. Maybe Beijing’s “New Silk Road” theme will prove merely grandiose, as critics say, and of self-interest there is no doubt. But China has no tradition of intervention and exploitation on the Western model, and it is “appropriate technology,” we might say: It has solutions to the problems of underdevelopment simply because it has suffered it. This is something to watch.
There is another thing to watch that few of us have to date. It concerns the capacity of Western nations to renovate their foreign policies and the ways they execute them. I conclude with this because it is worth considering in its own right and because thoughts on durable solutions in the Middle East can easily come over as otherworldly—a case of what the French call angélisme. I reject the charge, of course.
Within weeks of his appointment as Chancellor Merkel’s foreign minister in late-2013, Frank–Walter Steinmeier (a Social Democrat in Berlin’s weird coalition government) authorized a review of German foreign policy with a view to renovating it. “The world has changed, and the Federal Foreign Office must change with it,” Steinmeier declared when he introduced his ministry’s report in the Bundestag a little more than a year later. “I believe that foreign policy is about more than just two extremes: either just talking or shooting, either futile diplomacy or Bundeswehr deployments abroad.”
Steinmeier named his report Crisis—Rules—Europe, and it is easily available online. The elements to note here are several.
One, the foreign policy process is to be subject to the democratic process via a variety of mechanisms, ranging from town-hall meetings to consultations with designated constituencies such as labor and civil society groups. The intent here is transparency, the shining of light on the traditional policy cliques, to develop 21st century policies that reflect the aspirations of the citizenry. Ask yourself: What would America be doing in the Middle East if policy were to be openly debated and reflected our shared conclusions?
Two, having identified crisis as “the norm in the next 10 to 15 years,” Steinmeier created an independent department in the ministry to anticipate them, address them when they erupt, and help advance beyond them afterward. The key intent here is to rethink available resources and gather them in one room. The department is thus to be staffed by people I have already listed in another context: Economists, educationists, urban planners, architects, industrial designers, and social psychologists are to form foreign policy along with the wonks and the military people.
Three, political solutions are to be paramount, military action strictly defined as a last resort. The mechanism applied here is that strange, forgotten creature called international law: Observing it just as it is, Steinmeier argued, will be revolutionary enough. Imagine what would be going on the Middle East were this to be the case.
No, one hears no such talk as this emanating from Washington. And no, one cannot say how far Steinmeier’s program will take German policy. But neither can one argue that new thinking is simply beyond us—that the magnitude of the tasks facing the Middle East and the roles the rest of us should play makes talk of new, large thinking somewhat fantastic. Fantastic it is to flinch from it, in my view.