How Much Does the Middle East Matter?

How Much Does the Middle East Matter?

The rise of “declinist” literature (that’s not really a word, is it?) has been well-documented by others – these efforts aimed at recording (or perhaps inviting) the end of the American era. The gist is of the thesis is that America will remain strong, but will increasingly find itself challenged by rising powers, among them China, Russia, and India. America“s declining influence under Bush is, it seems, often used a pretext to advocate correcting our seeming obsession with the Middle East and shifting our focus to “broader” global threats. I got a weird feeling the other day when I saw the following comment from Ezra Klein:

The Middle East has sort of overwhelmed all other foreign policy issues over the past few years, but with the Iraqi government now demanding we pull out by 2011 and Bush basically agreeing to that, that state of affairs will quickly ease and other issues will take preeminence.

I find this to be a troubling line of argument, because it presumes that the Middle East wasn”t that much of a problem before Iraq (or even 9/11), when in fact it was. The problems we face in the region today – whether it be religious extremism, sectarianism, terrorism, or general economic stagnation – are products of the pre-9/11 era, when Republicans and Democrats alike supported misguided, sometimes destructive, policies toward the region. To think that once Iraq is “solved,” we”ll be able to, in some sense, wash at least one of our hands of the Middle East overlooks the fact that the region was, is, and will continue to be dangerous, independent of the Iraq war.

The reasons for the Middle East failings are deep-seated, with a long history. Iraq is very small part of this history. A bigger part of that history has to do with the continued failure of ostensibly secular “pro-Western” regimes to provide basic services or basic freedoms to their own citizens. It also has to do with the fact that the U.S. has supported Arab autocrats at the expense of Arab publics for decades. While we have ignored hundreds of millions of Arabs, they, it seems, have not ignored us. We failed to realize that the internal character of states is not only an internal matter. What goes on inside Middle Eastern countries – the ongoing political and ideological battles between secularists, leftists, moderate Islamists, radical Islamists, Salafis – affects us, our allies, and our interests. If anything, this should be a prime lesson of the last 8 years.

Let”s go back now to the issue of how much U.S. policymakers should be focusing on the Middle East. The problem with the Bush administration wasn’t that it was overly focused on the Middle East; it was that it was overly focused on the Middle East, and managed, at the same time, and somewhat amazingly, to make it even more screwed up than it already was. The latter part – rather than the former – is where we went wrong. The correct corrective, therefore, is not to decrease “meddling” but rather to address the region’s myriad problems not by engaging less, but by engaging better.

The Middle East is worse off more now than it was in 2003, and this means that the problems arising from this region are likely to increase in the coming years and decades. We cannot simply ignore them or “manage” them. We need to find creative – and, God yes, peaceful – ways to address them, solve them even, where we can.

There was once much talk about democracy in the Middle East. Now, not so much. This isn’t surprising. People got burned out by all the “reform” talk, reform that led to nowhere. The Bush administration was serious about reform for all of, what, like 10 months in 04-5? So many of us lost faith in the possibilityreal change in the region, all the while losing faith in Arabs themselves and their own desire for democracy. We said it was too early. We decided to wait, until they were ready, or perhaps – more accurately – until we were. And while we’ve turned away, the situation continues to deteriorate. We ignore it at our own peril, and at theirs too.

I’ve been living for the past 5 months or so in Jordan and a bit in Egypt. It is a tragic, frightening picture, if only because the picture is not so clear at first blush. But there is a sadness here, a sense that something has been lost. Here, sadness turns more often than not into apathy. Other times it turns into anger.

Jordan is now less democratic and more repressive than probably at any time in the last 20 years. And not just me, but many others, have said that the situation for both the secular and Islamist opposition in Egypt is probably the worst it’s been since the terror of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the founding father of Arab dictatorship.

Sadly, as the political situation gets worse in the region, our policy recommendations become less bold. This is the opposite of what it should be. Of course, foreign policy idealism is no longer popular, and that is fine, only if we recognize that the region is changing, and so must we. I will devote my next few posts to documenting some of these changes, many of them troubling, but luckily not all of them. Stay tuned.