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May 22, 2007

A Contrarian Takes on The Middle East, Part III
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Last week, I responded to Edward Luttwak's incredibly inane piece on "why the Middle East doesn't matter." In my initial post, I didn't get a chance to address the last couple grafs, which are important, if only because they represent a strain of thinking that has become increasingly prevalent on both left and right - the "Arabs are backward, so let's leave them alone" school of thought:

Softliners make exactly the same mistake in reverse. They keep arguing that if only this or that concession were made, if only their policies were followed through to the end and respect shown, or simulated, hostility would cease and a warm Mediterranean amity would emerge. Yet even the most thinly qualified of middle east experts must know that Islam, as with any other civilisation, comprehends the sum total of human life, and that unlike some others it promises superiority in all things for its believers, so that the scientific and technological and cultural backwardness of the lands of Islam generates a constantly renewed sense of humiliation and of civilisational defeat. That fully explains the ubiquity of Muslim violence, and reveals the futility of the palliatives urged by the softliners.

Luttwak gets the diagnosis more or less right, but gets the cure totally wrong. It is certainly true that Muslim extremism is fueled by what Tom Friedman refers to as the "poverty of dignity." So, yes, there is a pervasive sense of humiliation among Arabs and Muslims, but the real problem is that, because of the lack of democracy in the region, Arabs and Muslims have virtually no legitimate, peaceful outlets with which to express their indignation, anger, and frustration. Not surprisingly then, they end up taking refuge in extremism and conspiracy-theorizing, and resorting to political violence. Arabs have lost their ability to chart their own course, to ask their own questions, to form their own governments. They are, thus, passive recipients of what others decide for them. This humiliation is not a permanent feature. It can be ameliorated through democracy, insofar as democracy - by granting people the right and power to make their own choices - can restore dignity, moral authority, and political agency to those who wield its instruments.

Then Luttwak decides, again, to stop making sense:

The operational mistake that middle east experts keep making is the failure to recognise that backward societies must be left alone.

This is a theme that runs throughout the article, that some foreign cultures - particularly Islam - are simply immune to change. Luttwak refers, at one point, to "very odd belief that these ancient nations are highly malleable." To say that any people is resigned to some unfortunate fate because of certain cultural, religious, or historical traits is not only fatalistic, but racist. I'm not sure how this is different than saying that American minorities, who lag behind the rest of the country according to various educational and financial indicators, should be "left alone" to wallow in their "backwardness," and that we should stop trying to "impose" "our standards" on "them" because maybe they're not cut out for "Western standards" of success.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, their business is our business. Their history is our history. Our fates, for better or worse, are intertwined. Isolationism is no longer an option. Ignoring the very real, systemic problem that plague the Middle East would be dangerous. When we left the battered Afghans to their own devices in the early 1990s, we know what happened there. When we abandoned the Shias and Kurds in their postwar uprising against Saddam (the first time around) they were slaughtered. The legacy of that decision is a tragic one, and one that haunts us to this very day. The pains and problems of a region that has so evidently lost its way are not only their problems, but our problems as well.


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I'm not sure the Shia/Kurd uprising example is instructive here. In that case, the first President Bush explicitly called for an uprising and then provided no support to it. The isolationist position would have made no promises after the Gulf War and may have had different results. Not that leaving Saddam in power without an uprising would have been wonderful, but the nature of the moral culpability is different.

That said, you are quite right on Afghanistan. We didn't just call for an uprising, we put a lot of weapons and money into defeating the Soviet invasion. So I'd say that's a case where the U.S. was strongly intertwined and culpable.

In further support of you argument I'd also throw in the example of Kurdistan as a case where U.S. intervention paid off. If I've got my history right, that intervention was prompted in part by U.S. shame about the postwar uprising. Anyways, Kurdistan was relatively propserous and even today we get substantially more support from the Kurds than the rest of Iraq.

I think the big problem with isolationism is that oil will likely prompt us to still engage in interventions that generate a lot of blowback, albiet perhaps fewer interventions than we do now. At the same time, it will also mean that we won't offer support that could get positive results in the region.

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