Bernard Lewis. Foreign Affairs. Volume 71, Issue 4. Fall 1992.
In the period immediately following the ceasefire in the Gulf War many voices were raised saying, “Everything has changed. The Middle East will never be the same again; this is a new world, a new Middle East, and all the problems and answers are different.” And then, when the new world order failed to materialize in days, or weeks or even months, many voices—some of them the same voices—were heard saying, “Nothing has changed. Everything is back where it was before, the same actors playing the same parts and acting out the same scripts.”
Momentous events may happen quickly, as they surely did in Kuwait and Iraq last year, but some time is needed to understand the changes that events have revealed, accelerated or caused. By now it is becoming increasingly clear that there are indeed many changes in the Middle East, and that while these vary considerably in their scope, scale and range, few things and few participants remain as they were before.
These changes are related to two sequences of events: one short-term and regional, namely the war in Kuwait and Iraq; the other long-term and global, namely the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Some changes may perhaps be ascribed directly to these events; others—probably most—had been in progress for some time and were revealed, and perhaps also accelerated, by the cataclysmic events in the region and in the world.
We may begin with the regional events—the Gulf War and its aftermath. Many of the consequences of this war are still problematic. Some are becoming clear and can be listed without much danger of disagreement. One of them, a cause rather than a consequence of the Persian Gulf crisis and war, is the failure—some would say the demise—of pan-Arabism and perhaps even of the Arab world as a political entity. The decline of pan-Arabism as a force shaping the policies of Arab governments can be measured in the level and intensity of their support for other Arab governments and peoples. In 1948 the Arab states were unanimous in rejecting the U.N. partition resolution and in attempting, by military as well as political and economic measures, to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state—and also, incidentally, the Arab state—proposed by that resolution. By 1982, when the Israelis invaded Lebanon, entered its capital and evicted the Palestine Liberation Organization, the reaction in Arab countries was remarkably restrained. One reason for this restraint was the Iran-Iraq War. Both governments and public opinion in the Arab world were sharply divided by the war, and Syria, a major Arab country, was a nonbelligerent ally of Persian Iran against Arab Iraq.
Perhaps even more striking was the American air raid on Tripoli in 1986, when Middle East experts gave warning that this action against Libya would unite the whole Arab world against the West, and against the United States in particular. Nothing of the kind happened. In 1967 a false rumor that the United States had intervened in the June war on Israel’s side brought attacks by enraged crowds on American installations in many Arab capitals. By 1986 a direct American assault on an Arab capital evoked, at the most, mixed feelings in other Arab capitals and virtually no popular outcry. In the meantime the Arab states were increasingly indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians. Some of them are now even willing to call Israel by its name and—apart from Egypt—for the first time since the ceasefire negotiations of 1948-49 to sit and talk face to face with Israeli representatives.
There have of course always been quarrels and rivalries between Arab states, and these sometimes impeded Arab unity or cooperation—such as the mutual distrust between King Farouk of Egypt and King Abdallah of Jordan, which hampered Arab military operations in 1948. There have been frontier disputes and even border skirmishes, for example, between Algeria and Morocco, between Egypt and Libya, and between the Saudi kingdom and its neighbors. When Saddam Hussein invaded, conquered and annexed Kuwait in August 1990 he completed, and in a sense formalized, a change that had been developing over a long period.
Now for the first time, in defiance of all the accepted norms of inter-Arab relations and in violation of the Arab League Charter, which precludes the resort to arms in inter-Arab disputes, one Arab state had launched a full-scale war against another. This in turn led to an inter-Arab conflict in which a group of Arab states, with Western powers as allies, fought against another Arab state. This was not an American-Arab war, despite attempts to present it as such. It was not an Israeli-Arab war, despite attempts to transform it into one. It was not an ideological war, despite Saddam Hussein’s belated but surprisingly effective appeal to fundamentalism and populism, and the coalition’s brief and perfunctory obeisance to democracy. It was, in the last analysis, a war between Arab rulers, in which America reluctantly became involved, in support of its allies and in defense of the perceived common interests of the free world, and in which Israel was used, briefly, painfully and unsuccessfully, as a distraction.
These events marked the formal abandonment of the long-cherished dream of pan-Arabism, of a united Arab state or even a coherent Arab political bloc. It would be rash to say that pan-Arabism is dead, since many of the features that led to its emergence are still there. But as a matter of current politics and for the foreseeable future it no longer counts as a political force. It survives among diminishing groups of intellectuals, mainly outside the Arab lands; it is still cherished by a variety of special interests, often for reasons unrelated to the concerns or well-being of the Arabs themselves. But it is not a factor in international or inter-Arab or even domestic Arab politics.
Is this change irreversible? Nothing is impossible, and it may be that the U.S. or Israeli governments will succeed where all the Arab governments have failed, in reviving the cause of pan-Arabism and recreating an Arab political bloc. What is much more likely, however, is that the position of the Arab world will more closely resemble that of Latin America—a group of countries linked by a common language and culture, a common religion, a common history, a common sense, even, of destiny, but not united in a common polity.
A second major change that has been revealed rather than caused by the Gulf War is the end—at least for the time being—of the effectiveness of oil as a weapon in the hands of the producer countries. This weapon, so powerful as an instrument of policy in past crises, was in this particular crisis totally ineffectual. At a time when the oil supplies from two major producers were cut off—Kuwait’s by the Iraqis, Iraq’s by the coalition—with the consequent serious drop in the productive capacity available, the price of oil actually fell.
Is this change reversible? Perhaps, though it seems unlikely. Other sources of oil are being found and developed, notably in the former Soviet republics; existing producer countries will desperately need oil revenues and will compete with each other in production. Meanwhile growing awareness of the environmental and political fallout of oil has spurred the search for less destructive and less hazardous fuels. A time will come, perhaps in twenty-five years, perhaps in fifty, when oil will be superseded by other, cleaner, safer sources of energy. That time is not near, but producers are increasingly aware that the unwise use of oil power for financial extortion or political blackmail will bring that time closer. To make oil a weapon once again in the hands of the producers would require a special—but not unprecedented—combination of foolishness and incompetence on the part of those who make the world’s political and commercial decisions.
The Gulf War shattered some illusions and endangered other cherished beliefs. One of those concerned the efficacy of bought technology. If you have the money you can buy all kinds of sophisticated technology and weaponry—there is no lack of sellers, supplies and expert advisers, even of credit. But buying technology does not make an advanced technological society, nor does it enable the buyer to field an advanced technological army. In the military sense this was probably the most important lesson of the war. The swift and overwhelming defeat of the Iraqi armed forces reminded the world of something that it had begun to forget: the technological and military edge that the modern West had achieved over the rest of the world, and which in the past had enabled even small European countries like Holland and Portugal to conquer and govern vast empires in Asia and Africa. That technological edge is much diminished and in some countries, for example in Japan, it has disappeared altogether. It still remains in the Middle East, and may help to explain the repeated victories of Israel against vastly more numerous and powerful neighbors.
The Gulf War and, more particularly, events since the ceasefire have also demonstrated the baselessness of the illusions that were held concerning the effectiveness of sanctions as a way of bringing Saddam Hussein to heel. There were many who argued that the United States should “give sanctions time to work,” often with the unspoken second line: “And if they don’t work, let’s forget about it.” By now it should be clear, even to those who had no such original intention, that the second line would have been the inevitable result.
Both the Western and the regional powers, it would seem, still hold on to beliefs that, though battered, are not dead. But there are questions. Can the Western powers really safeguard their vital interests in the region through local proxies or proteges? Do they even have such interests? Can Middle Eastern powers defend themselves from subversion and invasion without Western help and, if not, what level and type of help would they need? All these are open questions at the present time. It is sadly probable that the course of events during the coming months and years will provide answers to them.
The ending of the Cold War also undercuts the other main cause of Middle Eastern importance: the overland transit routes and bridges between Europe, Asia and Africa. Specifically the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of Russia as a major player on the international scene have brought, and will continue to bring, changes of global importance affecting the Middle East as every other part of the world.
The most immediately visible and probably the most enduring of the regional consequences of this global change is the redefinition of the Middle East. We have always been a little vague about the geographical meaning of this expression, which was invented in the West in the early years of this century and which has since been adopted by the whole world, including the Middle East itself. Originally denoting only the countries around the Persian Gulf, it has since extended in all directions. While the geographical definition of the region denoted by this term has varied considerably at its eastern, western and southern edges, there has hitherto been no doubt at all about the northern limit of the Middle East, which was, of course, the Soviet frontier.
That dividing line no longer exists. It was always artificial, alien and misleading, a frontier established by the expanding power of imperial Russia, which in the early and mid-nineteenth century conquered and annexed vast territories in Transcaucasia and Central Asia that culturally, ethnically, linguistically and religiously formed part of the historical Middle East.
With the breakup of the last of the great European empires and the independence of the southern Soviet republics, the Middle East has resumed its historical dimensions. Six of these republics are predominantly Muslim. One of them, Tajikistan, speaks a form of Persian; the other five speak languages closely related to Turkish. In addition there are important enclaves of Turkish-speaking Muslims in many places in the Russian and other non-Muslim republics. The countries north of the former Soviet frontier are closely related to the countries south of it, speaking the same or similar languages, professing the same religion and sharing the same historical memories. Samarkand and Bukhara are, after all, as much a part of the historic Middle East as are Esfahan and Damascus. Many of the great creators of Middle Eastern Islamic civilization were born in these countries—to name but a few examples: the poet Nizami, the scientists Biruni and Kharazmi, the philosophers Farabi and Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna, and, perhaps most remarkable of all, Bukhari, whose magisterial collection of Muslim traditions is second only to the Koran itself in the reverence in which it is held all over the Muslim world.
The emergence of this new Middle East may indeed be one of the most important changes of all for the older Middle East. Even the Islamic bloc will not be the same again, with six new republics added to it from an entirely different background. Already these newly independent republics are being intensively courted from various quarters in the Middle East. Saudi agencies and individuals have been spending vast sums of money to finance a revival of Islam—meaning, of course, their own traditional and conservative version of Islam. The Iranians, with somewhat less money but at least equal personal dedication and with far closer contacts in geography, language and culture, are working hard to spread their own brand of radical, militant, anti-Western fundamentalism. In some ways the Saudis are unwittingly making the Iranians’ task easier. Secular, modern Muslims are usually immune to the Iranian type of propaganda, while those who have received a traditional Islamic education are open and responsive. Saudi religious activities are, in a sense, funding prep schools to prepare candidates for Iranian-style advanced education. Pakistan appears to be interested in establishing diplomatic, cultural and commercial links; even Israel has won noteworthy initial success in cultivating good relations with these republics through technical and agricultural aid of various kinds.
More important than any of these is the effort being made by the Turkish Republic to restore the links, long since broken, with their Turkish brethren to the east and to share with them the Turkish vision for the future—a lay state, an open society, a market economy, a liberal democracy and a westward orientation.
The choices before these republics are symbolized in the current debate over the alphabet. Before the Russian revolution they wrote their languages in the Arabic script. Under Soviet rule, after a brief interval with the Latin alphabet, they were given new alphabets based on the Cyrillic script, which have remained in exclusive use for all these languages. They are now discussing three possible choices. Some wish to retain the Cyrillic script, a choice that would obviously involve a continuing relationship with whatever replaces the Soviet Union. Some wish to return to the Arabic alphabet, to restore their broken links with the Muslim world to the south—with Iran and Pakistan and more remotely the Arab lands. Some wish to adopt the Latin alphabet as it is used in the Turkish Republic—a choice that has already been made in Azerbaijan. Their alternatives might be summarized as some form of post-Soviet association, Khomeinism or Kemalism. The choices they make will be momentous, not only for themselves, but for the whole Middle East.
Both for the former Soviet republics and for the older independent countries of the Middle East there is one great change that transcends all others and will shape the history of the region for a long time to come. This change is still unrealized, or perhaps half-realized. It is the end of an era in history, and some time may yet pass before its full effects are felt and its implications understood.
By common convention the modern era in Middle East history began in 1798, when a French general named Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Egypt, then an Ottoman province, and occupied the country with surprisingly little difficulty. The French stayed there for several years until, significantly, they were evicted, not by the Egyptians or the Ottomans, but by the British. This inaugurated a period of almost two hundred years when the Middle East was dominated by foreign great powers—sometimes from outside, sometimes, as in the inter-war period, from within the region.
This means that as far back as living memory can reach, and for some time further than that, the countries of the Middle East have been disputed between rival, more developed outside powers whose strength greatly exceeded their own. There were times—before the rise of Rome and again after the fall of Rome—when Middle Eastern powers competed for the domination of the known world. But those times are long past, and for many centuries now the countries of the Middle East have variously enjoyed and endured the attention of outsiders: first, the commercial and diplomatic rivalries of mercantilist European states, then the successive clashes of the British, French and Russian empires, of the Allies and the Axis and, most recently, of the United States and the Soviet Union. In both peace and war, the governments and sometimes the peoples of the Middle East were the object of intensive efforts by outside powers to win their hearts and minds, so as to gain access to their communications and resources.
Governments, ministers and foreign policy experts in the Middle Eastern countries have known no situation other than that in which ultimate power resides elsewhere, and in which their task is to avoid the dangers and exploit the opportunities that this rivalry presents. This was the only way they could look at politics; they had known no other. Much the same is true of the Middle East experts, whose professional task it was to deal with these statesmen and who often interpreted that task as doing whatever was necessary, preferably at third-party expense, to gain and to retain their goodwill. Like their regional colleagues, they too have known no other situation.
Few of them appear to have understood the momentous change that has taken place, and its meaning for them and for their countries—indeed, many politicians and advisers continue to operate rather like those familiar characters in movie cartoons who walk off the edge of a cliff and advance some distance in the air before they look down, realize that there is nothing underneath, and drop.
Half the change was understood fairly quickly. Russia, because of its internal problems, is at least for a while out of the game. It has in consequence been observed that now for the first time ever there is only one superpower with overwhelming strength and no real rival to challenge its power or will in the Middle East or anywhere else.
In a substantial sense this perception is true. But some of the inferences drawn from it, especially regarding the Middle East, rest on dubious or false assumptions.
Because of some resemblances of language and institutions, there is a widespread belief in the Middle East that the United States is the British empire back in business with new management, a new trading name and a new address. This is not so. The United States is not an imperial power in the sense in which that term could be applied in the past to Britain, France, Holland, tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union. The government of the United States is ultimately answerable in this, as in all else, to the people of the United States, who have no appetite whatsoever for overseas imperial adventures. This is a society different from that of the old empires, with different self-perceptions and aspirations and different policies.
The United States will no doubt seek to remain the predominant outside power in the Middle East, but the operative word is “outside.” Any attempt to get more closely involved inside the region would be bitterly—and probably effectively—opposed at home. The present mood that one can sense very strongly in this country is one of reluctance bordering on revulsion. This is not due only to current economic difficulties, though obviously they contribute significantly, but to something in the basic structure of the American society and polity. One simply cannot see the United States playing a classical imperial role in the Middle East. It failed painfully to do so even on its doorstep in Central America, and it is not likely to succeed any better in an area that is so remote, both geographically and culturally.
Empire does not go well with liberal democracy. The British and French empires in their day were doomed when the disruptive idea of freedom affected both their own people and the peoples over whom they were ruling, making the one unwilling to impose, the other to accept, imperial domination. Something of the same sort may be happening in Russia now, but it is basic and intrinsic in America.
I have no doubt at all that Russia will be back—a country with the size, the numbers, the resources, the talents, the experience, the ambitions of Russia will not stay out indefinitely. There will be a hard time, which may last well into the 21st century, but sooner or later Russia—under whatever kind of regime—will be back as a major player in the international game. Unlike the United States, Russia would have no structural impediment. It would also have a well-grounded concern with events in a volatile region adjacent to its southern frontier, wherever that may finally lie.
What other possibilities are there? Europe? Certainly no individual European power, probably not even the European Community, which Mark Eyskens, the former Belgian foreign minister, aptly remarked is an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm. This judgment was confirmed by the EC’s failure to deal with the on-going crisis in Yugoslavia—a European state on its borders. Before it could play any significant role in determining the course of events in the Middle East, there would have to be a major restructuring and redistribution of power within the EC, and that, for the time being at least, would be strongly resisted both at home and abroad.
Far Eastern powers, Japan, even China? This is a distinct possibility, but not for the immediate future. If the prophets of doom are right, if Western civilization declines and decays and the center of gravity of the world shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as it had already previously shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, then perhaps the Middle East might be contested by Far Eastern powers, as it was once contested by the powers of Europe. But this is a matter for philosophical speculation rather than for immediate political concern. A less apocalyptic possibility is that the rising powers of east and perhaps south Asia might seek a political and military role to match their growing economic role in the countries of the modern Middle East, from which they are separated by much shorter distances than is the United States.
But that too is not for the immediate future, and in the meantime the United States, so it would appear, remains alone. Today the only serious restraint on the American administration is American public opinion. Of the many blunders made by Saddam Hussein, the greatest of all was to infuriate the American administration and antagonize public opinion at the same time. Without this double shock it is unlikely that American democracy would have allowed the dispatch of an army to a Middle Eastern battlefield. And after the shock it became clear that American public opinion would not tolerate keeping American troops in the Middle East a day longer than was strictly necessary, and perhaps not even as long as that.
Since Russia cannot, and America will not, play the imperial role, and since no other claimant is as yet in sight, this creates an entirely new and unprecedented situation. Currently the countries of the Middle East face a challenging and, for some, frightening prospect: the prospect of having to take responsibility for their own affairs. It may be a while before Middle Eastern leaders realize that they can no longer compel foreign aid, nor plausibly blame foreign domination when things go wrong. In this new situation both outside and regional powers must reassess their interests, purposes and possibilities. There are as yet few signs that such a reassessment is in progress—few, but not unimportant.
The first concern of any American government is of course to define U.S. interests and to devise policies for their protection and advancement. In the period following the Second World War American policy in the Middle East, as elsewhere, was dominated by the need to prevent Soviet penetration. The United States regretfully relinquished the moral superiority of the sidelines and became involved in stages: first supporting the crumbling British position and, then, when that clearly became untenable, intervening more directly and, finally, replacing Britain as defender of the Middle East against outside attack, specifically from the Soviet Union.
The first postwar concern was to resist Soviet pressure on the northern tier—to secure the Soviet withdrawal from Iranian Azerbaijan and to counter demands on Turkey. This policy was clear and intelligible and, on the whole, successful in saving Turkey and Iran. But the attempt to extend it to the Arab world by means of the Baghdad Pact backfired disastrously and antagonized or undermined those it was intended to attract. The Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel al-Nasser, seeing the pact as a threat to his leadership, turned to the Soviets; the pro-Western regime in Iraq was overthrown, and friendly regimes in Jordan and Lebanon were endangered to the point that both needed Western military help in order to survive. From 1955, when the Soviets leap-frogged across the northern tier into the Arab world, both the threat and the means of countering it changed radically. While the northern tier held firm, the Arab lands became hostile or, at best, nervously neutral. In this situation the American relationship with Israel entered a new phase.
This relationship was for a long time shaped by two entirely different considerations: one of which one might call ideological or sentimental; the other one, strategic. Americans, schooled on the Bible and on their own history, can readily see the birth of modern Israel as a new Exodus and a return to the Promised Land, and find it easy to empathize with people who seem to be repeating the experience of the pilgrim fathers, the pioneers and their successors. The Arabs, of course, do not see it that way, and many Europeans share their view.
The other bond between the United States and Israel is the strategic relationship, which began in the 1960s, flourished in the 1970s and 1980s and appears to be in abeyance now. The value of Israel to the United States as a strategic asset has been much disputed. There have been some in this country who viewed Israel as a major strategic ally in the region and the one sure bastion against growing Soviet penetration. In this sense the American strategic relationship with Israel, absent in the early years of the state, was a consequence, not a cause, of the growing Soviet influence in the Arab lands. Others have argued that Israel, far from being a strategic asset, has been a strategic liability, by embittering U.S. relations with the Arab world and causing the failure of U.S. policies in the region.
But if one compares the record of American policy in the Middle East with that of other regions, one is struck, not by its failure, but by its success. There is after all no Vietnam in the Middle East, no Cuba or Nicaragua or El Salvador, not even an Angola. On the contrary, throughout the successive crises that have shaken the region, there has always been an imposing political, economic and cultural American presence, usually in several countries—and this, until the Gulf War, without the need for any significant military intervention. Those who look only at the Middle East are constantly aware of the difficulties and failures of policy in that region, but if one looks at the picture in a wider perspective, one cannot but be astonished at the effectiveness of American policy in the Middle East as contrasted with, say, southeast Asia, Central America or southern Africa. It seems likely that this record of relative success may owe much, first, to the steadfastness of the northern tier and, second, to the presence of a powerful, self-reliant and stable democratic power in the region.
Whatever value Israel might have had as a strategic asset during the Cold War, that value obviously ended when the Cold War itself came to a close. The change was clearly manifested in the Gulf War last year, when what the United States most desired from Israel was to keep out of the conflict—to be silent, inactive and, as far as possible, invisible. President George Bush was surely right to ask Israel not to respond to the Iraqi Scud missile attacks, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was surely wise to accede to this request, though it is a pity that those Israelis who warned him that Israel would be taunted for its compliance were so quickly proved right.
In any case Israeli inaction was the right policy at that moment for both Israel and the United States, and it was clear that in the Persian Gulf crisis and war, Israel was not an asset, but an irrelevance—some even said a nuisance. Some of the things that the Israeli government later said and did were unlikely to change this perception.
Meanwhile a new American policy has emerged in the Middle East, concerned with different objectives. Its main aim is to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemony—of a single regional power that could dominate the area and thus establish monopolistic control of Middle Eastern oil. This has been the basic concern underlying successive American policies toward Iran, Iraq and now perhaps once again toward Iran, or to any other perceived future threat within the region.
The policy adopted so far, in order to prevent such a hegemony, is to encourage, arm and when necessary support a regional and therefore mainly Arab security pact. This policy inevitably evokes the unhappy memory of earlier attempts, which did more harm than good. This time the proposed pact has a somewhat better chance. The presumed enemy is no longer the redoubtable Soviet Union, and regional rulers are taking a more sober view of the world and their place in it. But such a pact, based on unstable regimes ruling volatile societies, is inherently precarious, and the chain is no stronger than its weakest link. The recent history of Iraq illustrates the different ways that such a policy can go wrong. By embracing the monarchy, we procured its overthrow; by fostering Saddam Hussein, we nurtured a monster. It would be fatally easy to repeat either or both of these errors, with considerable risk to our interests in the region and terrible consequences for the people who live there.
In the present situation the willingness of some Arab governments to negotiate peace with Israel, and the American concern to push the peace process along, become intelligible. Many Arabs are beginning to realize that on the best estimate of Israel’s strength and the worst estimate of Israel’s intentions, Israel is not their most serious problem, nor is it the greatest threat that confronts them. An Israel at war with its neighbors would be a constant danger, a distraction that could always be used by a new—or even the same—Saddam Hussein, perhaps more successfully next time. But an Israel at peace with its neighbors could provide, at the very least, an element of democratic stability in the region.
Recent elections in Israel have certainly improved the prospects for successful negotiations. But even with the most pacific of Israeli governments the peace process will be long and difficult. There are so many bitter memories, such profound suspicion on both sides, which even now some of the parties do little to diminish and much to augment. The United States can make a major contribution by convincing both sides of its steadfastness, fairness and good faith. A posture of judicial impartiality would be neither appropriate nor credible for a power that, like all the other participants, is rightly and inevitably concerned first and last with the pursuit of its own interests. Policymakers would be wise to recall the excellent advice of a medieval Arab author, Ibn Hazm, who said, “He who befriends and advances friend and enemy alike will only arouse distaste for his friendship and contempt for his enmity. He will earn the scorn of his enemy, and facilitate his hostile designs; he will lose his friend, who will join the ranks of his enemies.”
The principal concern is of course oil. Contrary to a widely held view, this is not primarily a question of price or access. The general assumption, probably fairly sound, is that sellers of oil would have greater difficulty in finding other customers than would customers in finding other suppliers. The real danger is not commercial extortion, but politically motivated monopoly. If Saddam Hussein had been allowed to continue unchecked he would have controlled the oil resources of both Iraq and Kuwait. If the rest of the region had observed that he could act with impunity, the remaining Persian Gulf states would sooner rather than later have fallen into his lap, and even the Saudis would have had either to submit or be overthrown. The real danger was monopolistic control by a megalomaniac dictator of Middle Eastern oil—which is a very large proportion of world oil.
In addition to oil there is another concern, perhaps not immediate but already causing some alarm: the coming nuclearization of the Middle East by the acquisition of nuclear weapons, or perhaps even the building of a nuclear capacity by one or more potentially hostile powers in the region. This is in the long run probably inevitable. At best it can be postponed, limited and perhaps controlled. It cannot be prevented, and this change, when it comes, will totally transform the situation in the region.
In a nuclearized Middle East, with the emergence of one or more nuclear powers, Israel would almost certainly recover and, indeed, increase its strategic value to the United States and, more generally, to the West. But this is not imminent and has little effect on current policies. In the current perception the urgent issue is to prevent the monopolization of oil by a regional power. The best way to achieve this is by some sort of security arrangement with regional powers. The Persian Gulf crisis and war showed how such an arrangement could work—and what little role there would be for Israel.
Another element that also has potential strategic value is what I called the ideological or sentimental relationship. There are, in general, two quite different kinds of alliance. One of them is strategic and may be a purely temporary accommodation on the basis of perceived common threats. Such an accommodation may be reached with any type of ruler—the kind of government he runs, the kind of society he governs, are equally irrelevant. The other party to such an alliance can change his mind at any time, or may have it changed for him if he is overthrown and replaced. The alliance may thus be ended by a change of leader, a change of regime or even a change in outlook. What can happen is well illustrated by events in Libya, Iraq, Iran and the Sudan, where political changes brought total reversals of policy, or in another sense by Egypt, where even without a change of regime rulers were able to switch from the West to the Soviets and back again to a Western alignment.
The same flexibility also exists on the American side. Just as such allies can at any time abandon the United States, the United States has obviously also felt free to abandon such allies, if the alliance becomes too troublesome or ceases to be cost-effective—as, for example, in South Vietnam, Kurdistan and Lebanon. One could name other examples and, as the debate has clearly shown, there are many who would have liked to add Kuwait. In abandoning an ally with which there is no more than a strategic accommodation, one can proceed without compunction and without risk of serious criticism at home.
The other kind of alliance is one based on a genuine affinity of institutions, aspirations and way of life—and is far less subject to change. The Soviets in their heyday were well aware of this and tried to create communist dictatorships wherever they went. Democracies are more difficult to create. They are also more difficult to destroy, and their destruction may require some help from their friends and even some of their citizens as well as their enemies. The fate of prewar Czechoslovakia is the classical example.
True alliances, based on common values and standards, exist between the United States and the democracies of western Europe, Australasia and Canada. It seems likely that most Americans would be prepared to add Israel to that list, thereby recognizing stronger links, stronger mutual loyalties and commitments and a more enduring relationship. This remains true despite some recent Israeli actions that, though not unprecedented in democracies at war, have tarnished Israel’s democratic image. Israel has an obvious vital interest in maintaining such a relationship in addition to—and in the present situation instead of—a purely strategic one. As other examples show very clearly, purely strategic relationships are neither durable nor reliable on either side. Israel had a substantial strategic value in the past, and may well have a major strategic value in the future. But for the moment—that is, as long as the Arab governments of the coalition stay in power, hold together and remain allies—Israel has little or no strategic value, and this is what counts in a political culture where all too often foreign policy is a series of improvisations, neither informed by any knowledge of the past nor inspired by any vision of the future.
For the governments and peoples of the Middle East the opportunities and the dangers are incomparably greater. What is at stake for them is not only a matter of interests and policies, but the whole future direction of their societies.
What are their choices? The most obvious is the mixture as before—to continue with the same political games, with the same or similar radical dictatorships and traditional autocracies trying to subvert or invade each other—with this important difference: that the West would no longer be concerned but would rather remain indifferent to whatever happened, to wars, disasters and upheavals, as long as the oil continues to flow. There is a parallel, perhaps a precedent, in Angola, a country that was utterly devastated by revolutions, upheavals, civil wars and massacres to the almost total indifference of the outside world. As long as the oil companies continued to work and the oil still flowed, no one greatly cared what the various factions did to each other. This could easily happen in the Middle East. The Western capacity for turning a blind eye, already manifested in other respects, should not be underrated. In the past, outside powers have sometimes intervened to prevent, to limit or to halt Arab-Israeli wars. Arabs and Israelis alike would be unwise to count on such interventions in the future.
Another possibility of which we are acutely aware at the present time is Islamic fundamentalism, a loose and inaccurate term that designates a number of different, and sometimes contrasting, forms of Islamic religious militancy. The eclipse of pan-Arabism has left Islamic fundamentalism as the most attractive alternative to all those who feel that there has to be something better, truer and more hopeful than the inept tyrannies of their rulers and the bankrupt ideologies foisted on them from outside. These movements feed on privation and humiliation and on the frustration and resentments to which they give rise, after the failure of all the political and economic nostrums, both the foreign imports and the local imitations. As seen by many in the Middle East and north Africa, both capitalism and socialism were tried and have failed; both Western and Eastern models produced only poverty and tyranny. It may seem unjust that in Algeria, for example, the West should be blamed for the pseudo-Stalinist policies of an anti-Western government, for the failure of the one and the ineptitude of the other. But popular sentiment is not entirely wrong in seeing the Western world and Western ideas as the ultimate source of the major changes that have transformed the Islamic world in the last century or more. As a consequence much of their anger is directed against the Westerner, seen as the ancient and immemorial enemy of Islam since before the Crusades, and against the Westernizer, seen as a tool or accomplice of the West and as a traitor to his own people.
Religious fundamentalism enjoys several advantages against competing ideologies. It is readily intelligible to both educated and uneducated Muslims. It offers a set of themes, slogans and symbols that are profoundly familiar and therefore effective in mobilizing support and in formulating both a critique of what is wrong and a program for putting it right. Religious movements enjoy another practical advantage in societies like those of the Middle East and north Africa that are under more or less autocratic rule: dictators can forbid parties, they can forbid meetings—they cannot forbid public worship, and they can to only a limited extent control sermons.
As a result the religious opposition groups are the only ones that have regular meeting places where they can assemble and have at their disposal a network outside the control of the state or at least not fully subject to it. The more oppressive the regime, the greater the help it gives to the fundamentalists by eliminating competing oppositions.
Militant Islamic radicalism is not new. Several times since the beginnings of the Western impact in the eighteenth century, there have been religiously expressed militant opposition movements. So far they have all failed. Sometimes they have failed in an easy and relatively painless way by being defeated and suppressed, in which case the crown of martyrdom brought them a kind of success. Sometimes they have failed the hard way, by gaining power, and then having to confront great economic and social problems for which they had no real answers. What has usually happened is that they have become, in time, as oppressive and as cynical as their ousted predecessors. It is in this phase that they can become really dangerous; when, to use a European typology, the revolution enters the Napoleonic or, perhaps one should say, the Stalinist phase. In a program of aggression and expansion these movements would enjoy, like their Jacobin and Bolshevik predecessors, the advantage of fifth columns in every country and community with which they share a common universe of discourse. There is also the possibility that they might have nuclear weapons, either for terrorist or for regular military use. Whatever doubts one may have about the ability of the fundamentalists, once in power, to achieve their declared aims, one should not underrate their capacity to gain and to use power.
Another possibility, which could even be precipitated by fundamentalism, is what has of late become fashionable to call “Lebanonization.” Most of the states of the Middle East—Egypt is an obvious exception—are of recent and artificial construction and are vulnerable to such a process. If the central power is sufficiently weakened, there is no real civil society to hold the polity together, no real sense of common national identity or overriding allegiance to the nation-state. The state then disintegrates—as happened in Lebanon—into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions and parties. If things go badly and central governments falter and collapse, the same could happen, not only in the countries of the existing Middle East, but also in the newly independent Soviet republics, where the artificial frontiers drawn by the former imperial masters left each republic with a mosaic of minorities and claims of one sort or another on or by its neighbors.
It is no doubt to guard against these and other dangers that the Saudis and Egyptians and some others, with the encouragement and support of the United States, are trying to devise and install some kind of regional security arrangement—less than an alliance, but more than the moribund Arab League—to secure protection against aggression and, more difficult, against subversion. At the lowest this would mean that each tyrant confines his tyranny to his own subjects and does not interfere with his neighbors. Apparently some limited compromise might be permitted on the second of these points. Saddam Hussein was left to do whatever he pleased in Iraq, but broke the rules by invading Kuwait. Hafiz al-Asad could do whatever he pleased in Syria, but, playing his cards more skillfully, was accorded a free hand in Lebanon. These two examples illustrate the inherent instability and uncertainty—not to speak of the immorality—of any such arrangement. Sooner or later some tyrant or fanatic, or one who combines both qualities, will break the rules and launch an invasion or subversion leading to a regional conflict in which nonregional powers might, but in present circumstances probably would not, become involved.
Of late, many voices have been heard in the Arab lands, and more openly in the Arab diaspora, speaking of freedom, and more specifically, of liberal democracy. For most of modern history the word “freedom” in Arab political discourse has been a synonym for independence. It meant the freedom of the nation and country from domination by foreigners and had nothing to do with the place of the individual within the nation. Today that kind of freedom has become axiomatic, even extending to the newly independent territories of the last great European empire—Russia. Only the most inveterate of conspiracy theorists would now pretend otherwise. The word “democracy” in Arab political discourse has long denoted the sham parliamentary regimes that were installed and bequeathed by the British and French empires—a simulacrum of free institutions, manipulated by small groups of rich and powerful men, unheedful of the mass of the population and, for the most part, unheeded by them. All these regimes were of brief duration: one after another was overthrown and replaced by autocratic regimes that had at least the somewhat equivocal merit of authenticity and the ability to maintain themselves in power.
More than forty years have passed since the departure of the British and French imperialists from the Fertile Crescent—longer than the entire period of their rule in those countries. The bittersweet experience of independence has given many Arab thinkers and writers a new awareness of the deeper meaning of freedom and a truer sense of democracy. Many now argue that the root cause of all the evils and failures of the Arab world is the lack of freedom and that only democracy can provide the answer to their problems. The record of the past is dismal, but the warning and instruction it provides are all the more cogent.
Democracy is difficult—perhaps the most difficult to operate and preserve of all known forms of government. It arose in a limited region, among the peoples of western and northwestern Europe, and was transplanted by them to their colonies overseas. It has flourished, or at least survived, in some other places; sometimes, as in India, bequeathed by the departing imperial rulers; sometimes, as in the former Axis countries, imposed or implanted by the victors. In Israel democracy was created by a predominantly European population in the aftermath of a British colonial administration. Remarkably it has survived both demographic and political change, and has not succumbed to the pressures of decades of military emergency. In Lebanon a working democracy operated for a while with a mixed Christian and Muslim political elite, but it ended in civil war and foreign occupation.
Only in one country of the Islamic world has democracy continued, despite many difficulties and setbacks, to function and even to flourish—Turkey. In Turkey democracy was neither bequeathed by imperial rulers, nor imposed by victorious enemies. It was the free choice of the Turks themselves. The path to democracy for Turkey has been long and hard and beset with obstacles. But the Turks have shown that with goodwill, determination, courage and, above all, perseverance, it is possible to overcome these obstacles and advance on the path of freedom. Turkey is not an Arab country, but it shares with the Arabs a very large part of the religious, political and cultural heritage of the Middle East. The Turks have shown that it can be done, and others may yet find themselves able to do the same.
One of the lessons of Turkey’s success and others’ failures is that a major prerequisite for the working of any kind of free institutions is the level of social and economic development needed to support it. Even if anti-democratic political traditions and habits can be overcome, the immense economic problems of the region—poverty and social and technological backwardness—would present great obstacles. Indeed, until these are resolved, the prospect for any genuine political democracy is likely to remain a mirage. The Turkish example might suggest that some degree of separation of religion from the state is also a prerequisite.
If indeed the choice is for freedom, the peoples of the Middle East might at long last rid themselves of the politics of tyranny and terror, corruption and cajolery, blackmail and force, domestic or regional or international. They would accept—as well as demand—responsibility for their decisions and for the consequences of those decisions, and find a way to live the freer and better life to which they have for so long proclaimed their commitment. The important difference is that now, for the first time in more than two centuries, this choice is entirely their own, as will be their success or failure in whatever they choose. Those who care about the Middle East and its peoples can only hope that they will choose well and soon, for this window of opportunity will not long remain open.