Small World: Informed insight on the Middle East

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

A retired Foreign Service friend came to visit last week and I put the following questions to him. Edmund Hull speaks fluent Arabic and after working in several Near Eastern hot spots ended his career as Ambassador in Yemen which he later wrote about in High-Value Target: Countering Al Qaeda in Yemen (2011).

What are the sources of the present turmoil and instability in the Middle East?

Unfortunately, many Middle East countries — Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq — suffered from “decades of dictators” that prevented decent governance and promoted deep corruption. Abundant natural resources were to no avail. Then in 2011, democracy spread into the region, but the societies were unprepared. Elections were some times held, but the all-important culture of democracy — respect for minority and individual rights, free media, transparent budgets, loyal oppositions — was weak. The “centers” collapsed, and most states have descended into civil wars or reinforced authoritarian rule.

Why do you suppose Middle Eastern countries have lagged in development behind others — South Korea, India, China — which were once their equals?

Middle East countries lag in economic development because their governments are not accountable. Elites exploit ample economic resources and restrict competition. The media is too weak to expose endemic corruption. The judicial systems are hard-pressed to enforce laws. A vicious circle links economic interest with political power. The public interest is largely ignored and resources are turned to narrow patronage.

We used to say that American interests were to keep the Soviets out of the Middle East, keep Israel in it and get the oil out at a reasonable price. How would you describe American interests in the region now and for the decades ahead?

American interests in the Middle East have narrowed. Oil and gas are less important as new sources, particularly close to home, have developed. Outside interventions by the United States or other powers have come at an extremely high price and “great powers” meddle at great risk. For the United States, the single “vital” interest is transnational terrorism that threatens the U.S. homeland. The lesson of 9/11 remains valid — that extremist groups far away can threaten our way of life if left free to recruit, train, and plot attacks on American soil. However, the diminished U.S. military footprint in the Middle East and the preoccupation of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban with local enemies and opportunities may justify a new strategy: “Kill and be killed” if they target the U.S. homeland and “Live and let live” if they do not as far as direct U.S. action is concerned. Moreover, the United States shares with the international community a humanitarian interest in limiting conflict and relieving the suffering of innocent victims. Huge numbers of refugees stress the neighboring countries and present Europe with impossible problems.

Which countries are now suitable for helping us support our interests?

As a general rule, the United States should make common cause with countries where and with whom we have common interests. With no country — not Israel, not Egypt, not Saudi Arabia — do we have sufficient shared interests to justify an alliance. Selective engagement, based on U.S. interests, should be the rule.

How would you describe popular attitudes toward Americans in the region?

With notable exceptions — e.g. Kurds, Israelis, Kuwaitis etc. — Middle East populations view the United States negatively. This view is longstanding and derives, to a significant degree, from our largely uncritical support for Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory. There is also a new challenge: How the United States relates to Islam and the wave of extreme politics falsely claiming Islamic justifications. The U.S. government needs to oppose these violent extremists without alienating Muslims at large. The Obama administration has done well in this regard.

So, what’s the bottom line for the United States in the region?

In 2011, the Middle East “tectonic plates” shifted, and we will be dealing with the consequences for decades to come. An historical analogy would be the French Revolution in the late 18th century that brought new forces in play and caused decades of conflict and revolutionary change in Europe. Great Britain pursued a cautious and patient policy in protecting its interests and countering the extreme manifestations of that revolution. Similarly, the United States today confronts revolutionary forces in the Middle East. We need to recognize and respect the historic magnitude of these changes and practice similar caution and patience in protecting our interests.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.


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