A new cen­tury for the Mid­dle East

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

One cen­tury is enough. The year 2016 should mark the start of a new cen­tury of home­grown Mid­dle East­ern pol­i­tics fo­cused ur­gently on the chal­lenges of sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment.

The Mid­dle East’s fate dur­ing the last 100 years was cast in Novem­ber 1914, when the Ot­toman Em­pire chose the los­ing side in World War I. The re­sult was the em­pire’s dis­man­tling, with the vic­to­ri­ous pow­ers, Bri­tain and France, grab­bing hege­monic con­trol over its rem­nants. Bri­tain, al­ready in con­trol of Egypt since 1882, took ef­fec­tive con­trol of gov­ern­ments in to­day’s Iraq, Jor­dan, Is­rael and Pales­tine, and Saudi Ara­bia, while France, al­ready in con­trol of much of North Africa, took con­trol of Le­banon and Syria.

For­mal League of Na­tions man­dates and other in­stru­ments of hege­mony were ex­er­cised to en­sure Bri­tish and French power over oil, ports, ship­ping lanes, and lo­cal lead­ers’ for­eign poli­cies. In what would be­come Saudi Ara­bia, Bri­tain backed the Wah­habi fun­da­men­tal­ism of Ibn Saud over the Arab na­tion­al­ism of the Hashemite He­jaz.

Af­ter World War II, the US picked up the in­ter­ven­tion­ist man­tle, fol­low­ing a CIA-backed mil­i­tary coup in Syria in 1949 with an­other CIA op­er­a­tion to top­ple Iran’s Mo­ham­mad Mos­sadegh in 1953 (to keep the West in con­trol of the coun­try’s oil). The same be­hav­iour has con­tin­ued up to the present day: the over­throw of Libya’s Muam­mar el-Qaddafi in 2011, the top­pling of Egypt’s Mo­hamed Morsi in 2013, and the on­go­ing war against Syria’s Bashar al-As­sad. For al­most seven decades, the US and its al­lies have re­peat­edly in­ter­vened (or sup­ported in­ter­nally-led coups) to oust gov­ern­ments that were not suf­fi­ciently un­der their thumb.

The West also armed the en­tire re­gion through hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars in weapons sales. The US es­tab­lished mil­i­tary bases through­out the re­gion, and re­peated failed oper­a­tions by the CIA have left mas­sive sup­plies of ar­ma­ments in the hands of vi­o­lent foes of the US and Europe.

So, when Western lead­ers ask Arabs and oth­ers in the re­gion why they can’t gov­ern them­selves, they should be pre­pared for the an­swer: “For a full cen­tury, your in­ter­ven­tions have un­der­mined demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions (by re­ject­ing the re­sults of the ballot box in Al­ge­ria, Pales­tine, Egypt, and else­where); stoked re­peated and now chronic wars; armed the most vi­o­lent ji­hadists for your cyn­i­cal bid­ding; and cre­ated a killing field that to­day stretches from Bamako to Kabul.”

What, then, should be done to bring about a new Mid­dle East? I would pro­pose five prin­ci­ples.

and most im­por­tant, the US should end covert CIA oper­a­tions aimed at top­pling or desta­bil­is­ing gov­ern­ments any­where in the world. The CIA was cre­ated in 1947 with two man­dates, one valid (in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing) and the other dis­as­trous (covert oper­a­tions to over­throw regimes deemed “hos­tile” to US in­ter­ests). The US pres­i­dent can and should, by ex­ec­u­tive or­der, ter­mi­nate CIA covert oper­a­tions – and thereby end the legacy of blow­back and may­hem that they have sus­tained, most no­tably in the Mid­dle East.

the US should pursue its some­times-valid for­eign-pol­icy ob­jec­tives in the re­gion through the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. The cur­rent ap­proach of build­ing US-led “coali­tions of the will­ing” has not only failed; it has also meant that even valid US ob­jec­tives such as stop­ping the Is­lamic State are blocked by geopo­lit­i­cal ri­val­ries.

The US would gain much by putting its for­eign-pol­icy ini­tia­tives to the test of Se­cu­rity Coun­cil votes. When the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil re­jected war in Iraq in 2003, the US would have been wise to ab­stain from in­vad­ing. When Rus­sia, a veto-wield­ing per­ma­nent mem­ber of the Coun­cil, op­posed the US-backed over­throw of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar alAs­sad, the US would have been wise to ab­stain from covert oper­a­tions to top­ple him. And now, the en­tire Se­cu­rity Coun­cil would co­a­lesce around a global (but not a US) plan to fight the Is­lamic State.

the US and Europe should ac­cept the re­al­ity that democ­racy in the Mid­dle East will pro­duce many Is­lamist vic­to­ries at the ballot box. Many of the elected Is­lamist regimes will fail, as many poorly per­form­ing gov­ern­ments do. They will be over­turned at the next ballot, or in the streets, or even by lo­cal gen­er­als. But the re­peated ef­forts of Bri­tain, France, and the US to keep all Is­lamist gov­ern­ments out of power only block po­lit­i­cal mat­u­ra­tion in the re­gion, with­out ac­tu­ally suc­ceed­ing or pro­vid­ing long-term ben­e­fits.

home­grown lead­ers from the Sa­hel through North Africa and the Mid­dle East to Cen­tral Asia should recog­nise that the most im­por­tant chal­lenge fac­ing the Is­lamic world to­day is the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion. The re­gion lags far be­hind its mid­dle-in­come coun­ter­parts in science, math, tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tion, en­trepreneur­ship, small busi­ness de­vel­op­ment, and (there­fore) job cre­ation. With­out high-qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, there is lit­tle prospect for eco­nomic pros­per­ity and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity any­where.

Fi­nally, the re­gion should ad­dress its ex­cep­tional vul­ner­a­bil­ity to en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and its overde­pen­dence on hy­dro­car­bons, es­pe­cially in view of the global shift to low-car­bon en­ergy.

The Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity re­gion from West Africa to Cen­tral Asia is the world’s largest pop­u­lous dry re­gion, an 8,000 km swath of wa­ter stress, de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion, ris­ing tem­per­a­tures, and food in­se­cu­rity.

Th­ese are the true chal­lenges fac­ing the Mid­dle East. The Sunni-Shia di­vide, As­sad’s po­lit­i­cal fu­ture, and doc­tri­nal dis­putes are of de­cid­edly lesser long-term im­por­tance to the re­gion than the un­met need for qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, job skills, ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies, and sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment. The many brave and pro­gres­sive thinkers in the Is­lamic world should help to awaken their so­ci­eties to this re­al­ity, and peo­ple of good­will around the world should help them to do it through peace­ful co­op­er­a­tion and the end of im­pe­rial-style wars and ma­nip­u­la­tion.

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