The Middle East Civil War: What Next?

mdlestcvlwrTwo generations ago, back when Gamal Abdel Nasser stirred the hearts of third world nationalists all over the globe, there was a term that gained widespread currency: Pan Arabism.

Pan Arabism was the idea the Arab world could be united around a set of common interests and principles, foremost among them a strident animosity toward colonial/imperial power (Israel, of course, was seen by Arabs and most Muslims as an extension of that power).

Pan Arabism was a fleeting dream and it failed on virtually every front – independence was compromised by Soviet efforts to pull the region into its orbit, a much discussed Egyptian/Syrian confederation crashed on the rocks of geo-political reality, and attempts to confront Israel ended in the disastrous 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Egypt lost Sinai, Jordan the West Bank and Syria the Golan Heights. In its wake, the Arab world turned not toward reason but insanity — Saddam, Khadafi, Asad and Arafat all emerged as new leaders.

Pan Arabism never had a chance in the face of stark Middle East realities. Different Arab states had different interests. Different groups within Arab states had strikingly different interests, loyalties and worldviews. Nasser, for all his alleged charisma and popularity, could not pull Islamic extremists into his socialist camp. He fought a deadly war against the Muslim Brotherhood and executed one of the spiritual and intellectual leaders of Islamic fundamentalism, Sayid Qutb. They paid back his regime years later with the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, who had served as Nasser’s number two.

Conflict played out across the region, as sectarian, class and nationalist animosities, cast against regional and international tensions, not to mention the clash of modernity and traditional culture, led to regional wars (Iraq/Iran), civil wars, (Lebanon) coups and brutal repression.

Fast forward a half century later and what has changed? The faces come and go, but the underlying tensions and issues remain. Unable to embrace enlightened modernity, the Arab and Muslim world weaves back and forth between Islamic tyranny and modern/secular tyranny. Whatever the brand, the one constant has been tyranny. Tyranny, alas, is mandatory in a political culture where communal rights are unknown and peaceful, honest elections a rarity.

The emergence of ISIS and Boko Haram, among other groups, is just the latest installment of terror manufactured in a region where public executions, beheadings, and the targeting innocent civilians are now commonplace. The absolute depravity of these crimes (we really are talking fascism of the Nazi variety) might finally have opened the eyes of our clueless president, but the truth is that it is too late to put the genie back in the bottle. We are far less safe today than we were when President Obama took office.

This is a civil war and we really have only two options: 1) to side with those who oppose the most dangerous elements of the terrorist network, whatever their brand of tyranny; or 2) withdraw and cede the field to the regional players.

Option 1 means a bit of diplomacy is in order. We can help organize and mobilize the opposition to ISIS. Bear in mind the risks. The vacuum left by ISIS will be filled by other terrorists controlled by state actors or pseudo state players (Hamas, Hizbollah, Muslim Brotherhood, etc.). The weapons and support we give them to destroy ISIS today will, eventually, be turned against us or our allies in the region tomorrow. It is the Middle East, after all.

We can and should play a role, but it should be done – and here I agree with Obama – in an understated way. Neoconservatives announced arrogantly that they would remake the region, but history shows that every foreign power that has tried to impose geopolitical order on the region has failed, and usually rather dramatically. The British got swallowed up in Iraq after World War I and in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s. The Soviets managed to have marginal influence on Nasser and other regimes in the 1960s and 1970s, but their influence was fleeting and its later intervention in Afghanistan proved disastrous – the former Soviet states are still dealing with their own brand of Islamist extremism. The United States has fared no better – we have invested 4,500 lives, trillions in treasure, only to spawn two dysfunctional states, a Middle East peace process that is oxymoronic and regional animosity that is likely to last for generations.

We also have to face this harsh and rather frightening reality– fascist Islam might well be what the majority of Muslims and Arabs want, though there are many varieties of this twisted brand of Islam. In any case, until the moderates unite in opposition to these terrorist networks, the terrorists will be powerful and potentially victorious.

Islam is a world religion mired yet in its violent and dysfunctional history. Its brand of extremism cannot be defeated by Western power. It can only be defeated by another Islamic ideology or the emergence of a secular Arab/Muslim order endorsed by a significant part of the Arab/Muslim population. There is no easy solution and the cost will be enormous for the people in the region forced to suffer this horrific and ongoing tragedy.

The Catholic Protestant wars in Europe were not ended by outside powers. They ended only when those in power grew weary of endless bloodshed and conflict and signed the Treaty of Ghent (you can look it up). An enlightenment strand of thinking was critical as well in opening eyes to another way of faith – one rooted in tolerance and respect for other beliefs.

The Middle East civil war that is now obviously in play will not likely end in our lifetimes; reformation and peace will require a new ideological worldview, one with more staying power than Pan Arabism. It will also require the courage of millions of Arabs and Muslims willing to oppose the evils that Islamic extremists, in their current state of radicalism and violence, are inflicting on the world.

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