Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.07.30

Do We Know What Time it is in the Mideast?

JBpress on July 25, 2014

How do the Middle East hands, in Washington or elsewhere, analyze and explain the current confusion in the region? In Iraq, ISIS aims at conquering Baghdad and Israel continues its ground operations against Hamas in Gaza. Syria's Assad regime survives stubbornly and the Iraqi Kurds are going for independence. What in the world is going on in the Middle East now?

Conventional wisdom doesn't work
Has Islamism risen again after the Arab Spring? No. What happened in Egypt, for example, is that liberal democratic elections only allowed Islamism with no governance ability to rule, leading to a resumption of military rule. Was this because the U.S. influence in the region has declined? No. The U.S. Mideast policy since the 1970s has been a series of mishaps and failures.

Over the past 35 years, America has lost Iran, withdrawn from Lebanon, been humiliated by Al-Qaida and now Uncle Sam is losing both Iraq and Afghanistan where thousands of American lives were sacrificed. Analyzing and correctly understanding what is going on in the region seems to require a new set of perspectives and imagination.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire still continues
The following is my take. In 1922, the giant multiethnic Ottoman Empire, once dominant in both the Middle East and Europe, finally fell and was divided into a group of artificially crafted new states strongly influenced by the United Kingdom and France. Since these new states retained most of this ethnic diversity they were not "nation states" by European standards.

This was because the dictatorial regimes there, whether monarchies or Arab socialistic republics, gave certain minority groups favorable treatment while harshly cracking down on any kind of ethnic or sectarian enmities. Ironically, the recent Arab Spring and "democratization" efforts have started to change the relative calm among such ethnic or sectarian groups.

When and where formerly oppressed majority groups take over power, in Iraq or Syria for example, the minorities lose their vested interests as well as their own place in the country or region. Tribalism in which members share the same religion and space has been politically reevaluated. The more ethnically diverse a country is, the less integrity as a nation it comes to enjoy.

Thus, in many places and regions in the Middle East, minority groups now face a decision: Whether to stay there as a permanently discriminated minority or leave for good and pursue more freedom and independence. In many cases, they are leaving. What is recently being witnessed throughout the Middle East is nothing but a bloodless ethnic cleansing by removing minorities' membership from the local community. In essence, the subdivision of the Ottoman Empire still continues.

No strategy in U.S. Middle East policy
If the above hypotheses are accurate, the following must be what is happening in the region. The Ottoman-style cohabitation among various ethnic or sectarian groups in the Middle East continues to disintegrate and the existing artificial states created by Western powers are in the process of being redivided or reintegrated into groups of "nation states" or much smaller but more homogeneous "tribal states," which are more ethnically united and easier to govern.

No foreign intervention can control such a process. Ironically, Western attempts to democratize the Middle East seem to have further undermined the political stability in the countries of the region. If that is the case, the fundamental question arises: Do we have to maintain the status quo, or should we pursue a serious relationship with those new groups of nation or tribal states?

The Obama administration, persistently determined not to actively interfere with any potential conflicts overseas, doesn't have any strategy or leadership. Washington has already lost two non-Arab partners in the region, namely Iran and Turkey, and now the United States seems to have cooled her relations with her traditional regional ally, the State of Israel.

Does anybody really know what time it is in the Middle East? Apparently, Washington doesn't. If somebody does, it must be those who reside in the region. The Obama administration has only been doing things reactively, without a long-term strategy or vision for the post-Ottoman Middle East. Regrettably, we cannot count on Washington in this respect.