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May 17, 2007

A Contrarian Takes on the Middle East, Part II
Posted by Shadi Hamid

It appears that Michael in his previous post was also sufficiently baffled by Edward Luttwak's somewhat bizarre and not-very-well argued piece on "Why the Middle East Doesn't Matter," an admittedly provocative title which, one would think, would bear promise of, at the very least, a mildly interesting 10-minute read. I should have known better. When I first saw this gropingly contrarian title on the bookshelf at Borders, I glanced over with interest. I thought it weird that someone who wasn't a Middle East expert would write an article, which states, in the very first sentence no less, that Middle East experts have been so "unfailingly wrong." It is rather tiresome when articles begin with what is so evidently a straw-man argument. Which Middle East experts is he talking about exactly? The ones in academia, or the ones in the State Department, or those at Washington, DC think-tanks? The Saidists or the neo-culturalists? The "apologists for empire" or the "anti-imperialists?"

And, now, a fisking is deserved. Luttwak tell us that

The first mistake is "five minutes to midnight" catastrophism. The late King Hussein of Jordan was the undisputed master of this genre. Wearing his gravest aspect, he would warn us that with patience finally exhausted the Arab-Israeli conflict was about to explode, that all past conflicts would be dwarfed by what was about to happen unless, unless…

So Luttwak thinks that this supposed "catastrophism" has been unwarranted. I suppose his threshold is a bit higher than the rest of us, who have been sufficiently daunted by September 11th, a war in Iraq and the resulting sectarian bloodshed (also known as a civil war), a deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian situation, a rising Iran which seeks to acquire nuclear weapons, an empowered Hezbollah, emboldened Arab autocrats brutalizing their own populations, a dire constitutional crisis in Turkey, and, if you count Sudan as part of the Middle East, the Darfur genocide, and, if you count spillover effects from the region, then radicalized, disenfranchised Muslim minorities in Europe. I suppose Luttwak wants for more catastrophe to justify paying attention to this, or any other, region.

He then goes on to say, as if to goad us into thinking that he is not quite with it: "Strategically, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been almost irrelevant since the end of the cold war." It would be one thing if he tried to explain how this could be. Instead he delves into some rather incoherent discussion on declining global dependence on oil. I will spare you that.

Then on and on with those pesky - and conveniently unnamed - Middle East experts:

Exactly the same mistake keeps being made by the fraternity of middle east experts. They persistently attribute real military strength to backward societies whose populations can sustain excellent insurgencies but not modern military forces.

This is a truly bizarre assertion. I'm not aware of many scholars "who persistently attribute real military strength to backward societies." I thought it was pretty much common knowledge that Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Yemen, and pre-invasion Iraq, all had absolute jokes of armies. In order to make his point, Luttwak is forced to refer to Nasser's Egypt. Gamal Abdel Nasser died in, um, 1970. He also makes reference to pre-1991 invasion Iraq. Again, this all seems a bit dated.

Now the Mussolini syndrome is at work over Iran. All the symptoms are present, including tabulated lists of Iran's warships, despite the fact that most are over 30 years old; of combat aircraft, many of which (F-4s, Mirages, F-5s, F-14s) have not flown in years for lack of spare parts; and of divisions and brigades that are so only in name. There are awed descriptions of the Pasdaran revolutionary guards, inevitably described as "elite," who do indeed strut around as if they have won many a war, but who have actually fought only one—against Iraq, which they lost. 

I wasn't aware that people were hyping up Iran's military capability. When scholars have argued against attacking Iran, "tabulated lists of Iran's warships" have not figured prominently, if at all. With that said, there is no doubt that Iran is a force to be reckoned with, and, on this, nearly everyone in the DC policy community - particularly Iran experts, a group to which neither Luttwak (nor I) belong - is in agreement. Iran does have influence in the Middle East. It does have hegemonic reach, and Luttwak fails to offer any evidence to the contrary. In a post-9/11 world, influence, power, and an ability to mess with America, can no longer be measured in conventional military terms. This isn't, after all, the Cold War, another period, presumably, replete with catostrophisms that never turned into catastrophe.

As for Iran's claim to have defeated Israel by Hizbullah proxy in last year's affray, the publicity was excellent but the substance went the other way, with roughly 25 per cent of the best-trained men dead, which explains the tomb-like silence and immobility of the once rumbustious Hizbullah ever since the ceasefire.

This is not news to anyone. I don't think anyone argued that Hezbollah defeated Israel in conventional military terms, which is precisely what made the whole situatio