The Next 100 Years in the Middle East

9/21/2016

I’ve just left a House Armed Services Committee hearing entitled “15 years after 9/11: The State of the Fight Against Islamic Terrorism.” I wanted to share these thoughts in the hopes that it will generate thoughtful responses from others who might help in producing better policy than those we’ve pursued in the past.

First of all, if you’re interested in seeing the full hearing, you can click this link https://youtu.be/hpxXR67rp5c.

The panelists, former ambassador James Jeffrey, senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation Brian Jenkins and U.S. Army counterterrorism expert Bryan Price, were good and provided thoughts on different dimensions of the issue.

What I found interesting right from the start, however, is that none of them explicitly named the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and the decision to use military force in Libya in 2011 as factors in the destabilization of the Middle East and the rise of ISIS.

The problems they described, from hollowed-out state institutions, to power vacuums, to the threat of Iran are all directly connected to these decisions.

That reminded me of what a leading national security expert recently said to me: “These people have been killing each other since the time of Cain and Abel. There isn’t anything we can do about it.”

Why do we have such a hard time admitting the West’s role and culpability in the problems in the Middle East? Why do so many of us cling to the notion that the Middle East is inherently screwed up and is only a problem to be managed?

If we take a step back and look at the last 100 years and think about the next 100 years, I think we will be far better served than focusing on how quickly or forcefully we react to the problems that arise.

As Scott Anderson points out in an excellent piece in the New York Times: “How the Arab World Came Apart” http://nyti.ms/2bkjcnv, of the 22 Arab states in the region, the three countries that have completely failed (Syria, Iraq and Libya) are all largely Western constructs, lacking coherence or an intrinsic sense of national identity. Century-old creations of the British and French, they were also created to perpetuate rule and control by a minority faction thereby guaranteeing repressive governance lest the majority ever gain control and exact their revenge.

So these last 100 years beg the following question: if the Middle East is not inherently screwed up, and instead if it is the tectonic political decisions that were imposed 100 years ago and the consequences of those decisions — exacerbated by two incredibly ill-conceived regime change wars — that are now playing out, is there a way for the international community to play a constructive role in helping the people of the region make the difficult political decisions necessary? Strategies that acknowledge that the artificial countries of Iraq, Syria and Libya make no sense. Can we use the relatively successful breakup of Yugoslavia as a model?

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