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Looking for Peace in All the Wrong Places: Stabilizing the Middle East

ICE Graveyard 9/04/2016 Joseph V. Micallef

2016-04-09-1460205082-7775884-MiddleEastustanks_baghdad_2003.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-04-09-1460205082-7775884-MiddleEastustanks_baghdad_2003.jpg
US tanks entering Baghdad in 2003
This is the second installment in our two part series on "The Middle East After ISIS". Inpart 1 we examined a post-ISIS Middle East. In part 2 we look at the region's prospects for stability.

Today, much of the Islamic world, and the Middle East in particular, is in a dangerous state of disarray. Three powerful forces, a crisis if political legitimacy, the spread of sectarian and jihadist violence and the rise of an aggressive Persian imperialism, are combining to undermine the political topography that has characterized the region for the last half century. The result is an increasingly unstable region that is trending toward ever-greater disorder and chaos. Can the Middle East be stabilized and if so what role should the United States and its allies play in doing so?
The nations of the Middle East today are governed by a range of governmental institutions ranging from military backed strong men (Egypt, Sudan and much of Saharan Africa and the Sahel region); single party ruled states (Algeria); monarchies that share some power with democratic institutions where the monarch/leader retains a veto power over existential changes (Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Iran); monarchies where the ruler is relatively absolute but is "counseled" by various advisory bodies, some of which may be elected (Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain); and those that have some semblance of political party based democratic governments but are characterized by governance that has a high degree of domestic violence (Tunisia, Nigeria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan).
Israel and Turkey have historically been the two functioning political democracies in the Middle East. The former isn't part of the Islamic world, although it certainly is affected by its instability, and the latter, under its current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is increasingly veering towards authoritarianism. All of the other predominantly Islamic countries in the Middle East and Central Asia would fall, more or less, into one of these categories or a combination of them.
What virtually all of these regimes have in common is a high degree of institutional corruption that rewards ruling elites and their supporters and which undermines their legitimacy. Those countries that are wealthy, namely the petro-monarchies of the Gulf, can deliver a high level of services to their citizens regardless of the degree of systemic corruption, although in an era of sub-$50 a barrel oil this will be much harder to do. Those countries that are poorer are unable to deliver those services that their citizenry demands.
Since many of these countries are characterized by a high degree of government ownership and control over the national economy, virtually all of the citizenry's needs, from education to transportation to utilities to health care, invariably fall under government responsibility. The poorer countries, like Egypt, would remain poor regardless of the degree of institution corruption that existed. Such corruption simply serves to aggravate the differences in the status of the haves and have nots and stokes public anger at the failure of ruling elites to meet the citizenry's needs.
Not surprisingly, regardless of the extent to which their citizenry is dissatisfied with the effectiveness of their governments, ruling elites have relied on a broad and elaborate internal security apparatus to ensure they stay in power. Also not surprisingly, this apparatus has grown increasingly coercive as public anger against the ineffectiveness and corruption of ruling governments has mounted.
The danger posed by such dissatisfaction was underscored in the Arab Spring, not only by the wave of public unrest that swept the Middle East, but more importantly by the pervasive role of social media in facilitating the organization of those protests and communicating that activity, both domestically and to a larger international audience.
Moreover, the historic support of the United States and its European allies for many of the ruling Middle Eastern governments has meant that to some degree Western governments are blamed for the perseverance of those regimes and for the coercive means, often times using equipment and technology supplied by European and American firms, which they employ to retain power.
Thus calls for regime change in the Middle East invariably, although not exclusively, have an anti-Western component to them. A component that often times involves a rejection not only of those Western countries that are seen as having facilitated the continued existence of an unpopular regime, but a broader rejection of Western cultural and political values and institutions.
In a democratic system when a set of political elites loses the confidence of their constituents they are replaced by another set of political elites, ones having another political orientation that is typically expressed as a different political party or movement. In fact, it has often been suggested by a variety of Western leaders, from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, that replacing Middle East strong man with more inclusive democratic regimes was a way of restoring legitimacy to these governments, while at the same time creating a means for the citizenry to express their frustrations and desires, and in the process give their consent to a new generation of leaders.
It's a good theory, but in the Middle East it hasn't worked that way. Attempts at fostering more democratic, and therefore more inclusive, governments that would have popular support from their citizenry have not been successful. In Libya and Syria regime change has led to chaos and civil war. In Iraq, regime change has enfranchised Shias and Kurds, but has disenfranchised the country's Sunni citizens and led to another civil war.
In Iran regime change replaced one undemocratic secular regime with an undemocratic theocratic one, or at the very least one in which the expression of democracy is only allowed within the very narrow parameters of where it is compatible with a Shia theocratic state.
In Egypt, the military stepped in to reverse democratization when it became clear that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's political proxies were using their electoral success to permanently institutionalize their control of Egypt's government. Tunisia is moving toward a democratic multi-party system, but whether it can survive the significant challenge posed by violent jihadists and other undemocratic groups remains to be seen.
Democratic pluralism works when there is a consensus among all of the participants to respect the rules of the game. That means that once you achieve political power you are also prepared to relinquish it when the citizenry withdraws its consent. Unfortunately in the Middle East today there are far too many political actors that are perfectly happy to use the democratic process to obtain power but are unwilling to relinquish it when their constituents ask them to do so.
Moreover, Western style democratic pluralism comes with all of the trappings of secularist Western societies, including, among other things, gender equality, free speech, freedom of thought and expression and tolerance for other religious viewpoints. Among jihadists, and for that matter many socially conservative Muslims, Western style pluralism and its secularist trappings are incompatible with Islam because in their view it places man and his democratic institutions above the will of God.
The Enlightenment settled this issue in Europe back in the eighteenth century. In the Middle East, it is still an open question. What the Middle East needs is a theory of democratic governance that would be accepted by Muslims as being compatible with Islam. Such a theory would likely need the development of a Fifth school of Sharia law, one that would be consistent with the reality of twenty-first century life. To date this does not exist, although to their credit a few brave Muslim intellectuals have publically called from precisely such a synthesis.
Democratic pluralism is unlikely to emerge in the Middle East unless it can be made compatible with Islam. Even Turkey, which has been a democratic secular state for most of the last century, is finding it difficult to reconcile its Islamic heritage with the democratic secularism of the Ataturk revolution, and the Turks have had almost a hundred years to sort that out.
In a sense none of this should be new to Western intellectuals. We've been down this road too. For much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Christianity and democratic pluralism were usually at odds. Many religious conservatives saw democratic pluralism and its institutions as being incompatible with their religious beliefs and often times made the same arguments that conservative Muslims make today. The European Christian democratic movement grew out of the attempt to reconcile Catholicism with democratic pluralism and still remains politically relevant.
In turn, democrats were deeply suspicious of organized religion seeing it as an impediment to the growth of democratic governance. The founders of the American republic may have been quick to declare "one nation under God," but they too were deeply suspicious of organized religion. The separation of church and state was not just designed to protect religious freedom from the state it was also designed to protect the state from organized religion.
The United States and its allies have the ability to affect a regime change anywhere in the Middle East. What we still lack, after four decades of direct military engagement in the region, is a credible alternative of what to change to. For that matter, so does the Muslim world. We can replace any strong man at will but all we get for our trouble is either another strongman, albeit a kinder, gentler version, a sort of Saddam-light, or chaos. In the case of Iraq we got both. Small recompense for the treasure and blood that was expended there.
There are two other factors that are aggravating this crisis of legitimacy in the Middle East and are creating even more chaos and instability: the rise of Persian imperialism and the rapid escalation of sectarian and jihadist violence.
The use of the term "Persian" rather than "Iranian" is deliberate. The modern state of Iran is simply the most recent expression of an ancient Persian civilization whose power has waxed and waned across the Middle East for millennium. For the better part of the last four centuries Persian power has been constrained, first by the Sunni empire of the Ottoman Turks and then by European imperialism. That imperialism would lead to the Anglo-Russian, and eventually American domination, of the historic Persian state that would last well past the middle of the twentieth century.
Persian power is again on the rise, this time ostensibly on the pretext of protecting the rights of downtrodden Shia minorities in the rest of the Sunni dominated Middle East. Its justification notwithstanding, the fact remains that this new found concern for their Shia brethren is resulting in the expansion of Persian influence and control over large portions of the Middle East.
Today we can speak of an Iranian "arc of influence" across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, all the way to the Gaza strip. To the Gulf States of the Arabian Peninsula, it seems that Tehran is intent on creating a second arc of Iranian influence, this time encompassing Bahrain, the Emirates, the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Should that second arc come to fruition, the heart of the Sunni Middle East would find itself encircled by two great, pincer-like arms of Iranian influence and control.
The rise of Persian power has fueled an upsurge of Sunni-Shia sectarian violence, which has further polarized the Middle East, and increasingly led to a reorientation of the region's politics along a Sunni-Shia divide. Saudi Arabia has responded with the Salman Doctrine, an explicit pledge to intervene in the Arabian Peninsula whenever a Sunni government is threatened by Iranian backed Shia militants, while at the same time, looking to roll back Iranian influence in Syria and elsewhere in the "Iranian arc."
Jihadist groups have also aggravated this sectarian violence by specifically targeting Shia groups. Historically jihadist violence in the Middle East was directed toward American military power in the region and the military and security apparatuses of those governments friendly to the West. The specific targeting of Shias as legitimate targets of Sunni jihadist violence is one of the most enduring legacies of Islamic State (IS). The roots of that strategy lie directly with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and with the predecessor organizations that would eventually evolve into IS.
In the Middle East Shia-Sunni violence is a fundamental source of instability. It creates a pretext for Iranian interventionism, it creates security challenges that governments must address, and it risks igniting a proxy war, as it did in Yemen; a proxy war that could quickly escalate into a Saudi-Iranian confrontation.
More importantly, Shia-Sunni sectarian violence fuels the growth of Sunni jihadist groups and in turn fuels recruitment of even more jihadists. Dealing with sectarian violence and its consequences poses both military and financial challenges to governments that are already struggling to finance the provision of basic services to its citizenry, and is a major factor that could cause these states to fail. An additional consequence of this violence is the virtual eradication of non-Muslim religious groups, principally Christian, in the region.
Sunni-Shia sectarian violence is largely a problem of the Middle East and Asia. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have significant Shia minorities. Pakistan's Shia community is second only to that of Iran and is larger than Iraq's, although technically, India has a slightly larger Shia population than Pakistan. There are significant Shia populations in the "stans" of Central Asia. These range from 80 to 85 percent of the population in Azerbaijan, and 10 to 15 percent in Kazakhstan.
In North Africa, however, there is no significant Shia population. Jihadist violence in the region is directed at various Christian communities, from Egyptian Copts to the various Christian groups along the sub-Saharan Sahel, other Islamic jihadist groups and to "secular" governments, both pro-Western (Morocco, Tunisia) and not (Algeria).
Many Saharan countries lack the financial resources to mount an effective defense against jihadist inspired violence and risk being overwhelmed by such groups. This has already happened in countries like Mali. Even Nigeria, which has considerably more resources and a far more sophisticated and modern military, has struggled to contain the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency in its north.
What can the United States and its allies do to stabilize the Middle East? The simple answer is, not much. We cannot create political legitimacy where none exists, and we cannot impose political institutions that are perceived as incompatible with the region's history and culture.
While we can effect regime change at will, we don't have anything better to replace those regimes with except more of the same. On the other hand, we cannot be indifferent to the rise of sectarian and jihadist violence. This violence threatens to make a difficult situation even more chaotic and unstable and will inevitably lead to a long succession of failed states.
There is a role for the judicious application of American political and military power to reduce sectarian and jihadist violence. That does not mean an ever ending succession of boots on the ground, nor does it mean that Washington accepts an open ended commitment to be the region's policeman. It does mean, that on those occasions where we can identify a specific military mission with clear, well-defined objectives that will result in the reduction of violence in the region, it would behoove us to be engaged.
That means the smart application of American power in accordance with sound military principles, not the token use of military force under rules of engagement, which all but guarantee our ineffectiveness. The same is true of our political agenda. While we speak of bringing peace to the region, President Obama's foreign policy has often done the exact opposite.
We have enabled the rise of Persian expansionism by not insisting that Iran agree to stop destabilizing its neighbors as a precondition for lifting economic sanctions, while at the same time we have supplied the armaments that have allowed Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to escalate the war in Yemen.
The fact is that had we intervened early on to curb the rise of the Islamic State, the violence and brutality that have accompanied the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars would have been markedly reduced. No, we would not have prevented either civil war. That's beyond our power, but we would have certainly mitigated the more extreme violence and social disruption that those wars have precipitated, including the flood of over a million refugees into Europe.
It also means that we need to drop this self-delusion that we can somehow impose our traditions and institutions of democratic pluralism on the region. We are not going to "fix" the Middle East. Regime change in the Middle East hasn't worked. It didn't work with verbal pressure or with outright military intervention. It didn't work when we led from the front or from behind. It didn't work for a Republican administration in Iraq and it didn't work for a Democrat administration in Libya, or for that matter Iran three decades earlier. It certainly isn't working in Syria.
From that stand point you have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. Certainly not someone I admire, but in Syria he got it right. The Kremlin intervened with a fraction of the military forces we have in theater, with a very specific, well-defined military mission designed to stabilize a client regime. Russia accomplished more in six months than the United States did in two years.
That's not a reflection on our military forces, it's a reflection on a political leadership that couldn't define its mission and imposed rules of engagement that virtually guaranteed it would fail. Of late, the Obama administration seems to have gotten it, with better defined, more focused military objectives. Pity it took the White House two years to figure it out.
At present it is easy to blame Islam for the turmoil and chaos of the Middle East. Certainly the intolerant, undemocratic Islam, rooted in the culture and mindset of the twelfth century, which is espoused by jihadist and Salafist organizations, is playing a major role in destabilizing the region. In the long run, however, the political institutions that will create democratic pluralism and political legitimacy throughout the Middle East must ultimately emerge from the region's Islamic culture and heritage.
In the short-term, Islam may be the problem, but long-term it is also the solution. Whether the Middle East can hold together until those solutions can be found and implemented remains to be seen. Until then all we can do is try to curb the violence that is tearing the region apart.

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