Welcome to The Muddle East

Geography has left the U.S. with very skewed view of the world, Aaron David Miller says. Much of the Arab world is melting down, he says. America will have its hands full in the region for years to come. And it may well be able to help shape outcomes to some of these problems that will further its own interests. But it must give up any illusion that it can somehow produce solutions. These are, by and large, Middle Eastern problems, and their solutions will need to be owned by those who live in the neighborhood…

welcome-to-the-muddle-eastEven if U.S. and Iranian negotiators had managed to meet the November 24 deadline for a nuclear agreement with Iran, America faces a very inconvenient reality in the Middle East: We’re stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, and where ambiguity and uncertainty will rule over clarity and stability for years to come. And we better get used to it. Part of the problem, of course, is us. We sit thousands of miles away, in a protected cocoon with nonpredatory neighbors to our north and south and fish to our east and west — what one historian brilliantly called our liquid assets. And while this physical detachment is a wondrous advantage, it has also given us a very skewed view of the world.
We may have freed ourselves from the dark forces of history and geography. But the rest of the world hasn’t. Just ask the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, Egyptians, Israelis or many others. For a start, our skewed view contributes to our naivete because we no longer really understand the mentality of the small power who lives in the bad neighborhood on the knife’s edge. It also explains our arrogance, because we really don’t have to listen. Our margin for error is very wide given our size, power and protected status, which helps explain our idealism and why we somehow believe we can and should find those solutions.
Finally, our location informs our pragmatism, and the sense that somehow we can develop answers to these problems based on our ownHollywood, happy ending and heroic view of the world. I’m sure you remember “Mission Accomplished” under the last President — and the campaign he launched to turn Iraq and Afghanistan into functioning democracies. Yet 11 years later, and we’re now heading into Iraq War III.
Even our current President believed that the Arab Spring required the United States to get on the right side of history by acquiescing in former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. But Egypt today is arguably less free and prosperous than under Mubarak. And let’s not forget President Barack Obama’s words about “ultimately defeating ISIS.” Let’s get real.
Even though we killed Osama bin Laden and dismantled al Qaeda’s central core, the gravest threat to our security right now isn’t ISIS at all but an affiliate of an al Qaeda we were supposedly to have destroyed, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). These groups emerge from the poisonous environment that is now the Middle East. In order to defeat them permanently, we’d have to fix the entire region. We can’t do that.
And now we come to the inconvenient truth.
The Middle East is a broken, angry, dysfunctional region (just make it BAD for short.) With the exception of Tunisia and perhaps Kurdistan — both still works in progress — and several of the Arab kings, the Arab world is melting down. It is now, and will be for a good deal longer, marked by civil war. It is dysfunctional, and it is made up of largely failed or failing states that lack good governance, respect for rule of law, gender equality, transparency, accountability and respect for freedom of conscience. Some argue that more time is required — they urge us not to judge prematurely. Fair enough. But even the longer term trend lines don’t look good.
Where are the leaders who are capable and willing to rise above their narrow partisan, sectarian affiliations to govern in the interests of a nation as whole? Where are the institutions that reflect the popular will, inclusiveness and legitimacy of the public? And where is the good governance that seeks to deliver freedom, security and economic prosperity? Ultimately, where are the moderates within the Arab Muslim world who will denounce, fight and marginalise the extremists who have corrupted their religion?
The politically incorrect read on all of this is that this part of the world just isn’t ready for prime time. Indeed, there is not a single issue that appears on the verge of a sustainable solution. And there won’t be for some time to come.
Israeli-Palestinian peace? To do that, you need leaders, real ownership and decisions to close the yawning gaps on the big issues. But right now, there aren’t any of those things in sufficient quantities. What about Iraq? That remains a country whose future is extremely uncertain as corruption, sectarianism, and regionalism threaten to pull it apart. Syria? Right now it is a veritable black hole with at least four subconflicts: ISIS vs. America; Bashar al-Assad vs. the so-called moderate Sunni opposition; jihadis vs. jihadis; and sooner rather than later, perhaps, America vs. al-Assad. What kind of Syria all of these tensions will produce is simply unknowable. Suffice it to say, a unified, democratic state where everyone lives in peace and harmony will likely not be one of them.
The fact is that more progress has been made on the U.S.-Iranian nuclear issue than all of these other issues. And yet even here should a deal be reached, the politics, lack of trust, conflicts on so many other regional issues, and challenges of implementation will all but guarantee perennial problems between the US and Iran. America will have its hands full in this region for years to come.
And it may well be able to help shape outcomes to some of these problems that will further its own interests. But it must give up any illusion that it can somehow produce solutions. These are, by and large, Middle Eastern problems, and their solutions will need to be owned by those who live in the neighborhood. Michael Jackson opined in his classic song “Man in the Mirror” that if you want to make a real change, than start by looking in the mirror. If the region wants to fix itself with America’s help, that’s the place to start. n
(Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle Eastnegotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *