Community Forum: There are limits to the Middle East’s potential
This week’s writer is Haviland Smith, a retired CIA station chief who served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut and Tehran and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.
Middle East: Cauldron of conflict
For many Americans, the Middle East is a bewildering and confusing place. Absent a better understanding of the complicated realities in the Middle East, this situation is likely to continue, since the ultimate outcomes of the Arab Spring are and will remain cloudy for a very long time.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, when the European colonial powers carved out most of the “countries” that exist in the Middle East today, they divided the entire region to suit their own convenience and for their own profit. In the process of doing so, they set in concrete the realities that now cause most if not all of the friction, anger and bloodshed that is part of life in today’s Middle East. There are few countries there that are internally content.
Taking Iraq as an example, and recognizing that it is simply symptomatic of conditions that exist almost everywhere else in the region, we find the following very real sources of domestic conflict in that country of roughly 31 million souls:
• Nationalism: Iraq is comprised of 75-80 percent Arabs, 15-20 percent Kurds, and 5 percent Turkmen, Assyrian, or “others.” In this context, it is important to realize that with a total population of about 30 million spread throughout the Middle East, Kurds comprise the largest national group in the world without a country of their own.
• Sectarianism: 97 percent Muslim, Iraq is comprised of 60-65 percent Shia Muslims and 32-37 percent Sunni Muslims, with a smattering of “others.” Again, it is important to understand that although they are the majority and now in charge in Iraq, the Shia before the 2003 U.S. invasion were often brutally ruled by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni iron fist.
• Tribalism: Tribes have long played a critical role in Iraq. The Albu Nasir tribal group, of which Saddam’s “Tikrit” tribe was a member, is one of many tribal groups that played extremely important roles in pre-Arab Spring Iraq and will continue to do so in the future as individual tribal groupings within Albu Nasir contest for power and influence. In addition to Albu Nasr, there are at least 150 tribes in existence in Iraq, each advocating for the wellbeing of its members.
But those realities aside, who are we to say that our democracy should override what we think of as the shortcomings of the Koran in which they so devoutly believe?
All of the countries in the Middle East are affected to one degree or another by these three realities of Tribe, Sect and Nation. These have led both foreign and native governors of the inherently fractious Middle East to maintain order by repressing those conflicts with iron-fisted rule. During the post-World War II period, American policy, dictated largely by our perceived demands of the Cold War, has been to support those repressive regimes, opting for stability in favor of the rights of the governed.
In this respect, one has to wonder why a succession of American administrations has insisted that we are there, “bringing Democracy to the Middle East.” What could conceivably be more laughable? Of course the real reason for such pronouncements by Democrats and Republicans alike is that they are trying to reassure an ill-informed American public that the fruits of our American exceptionalism — democracy — will somehow make the world right again.
Where it is possible in the very long run, at least many decades from now, that some or all of these countries may somehow evolve into democratic rule, it seems unlikely. With millions of people who are totally unfamiliar with democracy and possess few if any of the necessary preconditions for the establishment of democracy (pluralism, the general right to vote, fair elections, the rule of law, guaranteed human rights for all, separation of powers, freedom of speech, press and religion, good governance and the absence of corruption), it seems highly unlikely that democracy will find fertile ground there.
Instead, we might hope for self-determination; that the people get to select the kind of governance they want. We will not see democracy flourish. We will see halting and imperfect steps taken by some good people who seek power for their people and some bad people who seek it for themselves or their causes. It is likely to be painful and often violent and perhaps brutal, but it will be their own.
Given our recent activities and policies, we have little credibility in the Middle East. We cannot hope successfully to impose any sort of system on them.
We can only hope to polish up our own rather tarnished “Shining City” to the point where others might want to emulate it.
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