Ending the Inertia: Confronting the Middle-East Problem
Western governments are haunted by ghosts of the past. The memories of failed interventions in the Middle-Eastern remain etched into our collective consciousness. However, today, action is integral to securing stability. We must draw robust and credible red lines in the region, establish protected zones in Syria to mitigate the refugee crisis, and use available opportunities with more determination. The longer we avoid confronting conflicting interests of other powers, the greater the chance of failure.
Ten years ago it seemed the Bush administration had a plan for the future of the Middle East – but considering the goals portrayed after 9/11, it ended in utter failure. Today many questions remain unresolved or unanswered: Freedom and democracy for the Arab world? Apparently many stopped believing this is possible. The eradication of terrorism? Now religious extremists are truly a threat, and have even started building their own state. Development and prosperity in the Arab world? Now millions of refugees escaping war and violence in the region have begun to destabilize Europe.
Our politicians are perplexed by these developments, and if they have a plan, it can't be seen. Western governments seem trapped by the failures of the Bush strategy, apparently believing that "there are no good options". However, doing nothing could be the worst option. There is no reason to be discouraged by the failure of the Bush plan because it was clear from the beginning that it would not work out. Many won't want to hear that, but now it is time to stand up and lead us out of this misery – if not the U.S., then the E.U., or other alliances.
Putin apparently has a plan. He has stepped into the power vacuum, and is willing to take the lead in Syria. The logic of the Russian actions follows closely the concepts of the Bush plan, using brute force to crush anybody resisting the new order, but with two major differences: it is firstly not a half-hearted approach, and secondly the goal is clear and simple: keep Assad in power at any cost.
The main problem of western strategies was that they tried to achieve contradictory goals in Iraq and Afghanistan: promote freedom, but crush groups that oppose the central government. Establish democracy and civil rights, but use drones for targeted killings of suspects. Catalyze development, but collaborate with corrupt elites. This was hypocrisy and inconsequence regarding our own standards. But the problem started earlier with our perceived superiority and the messianic idea that we could bring others the benefits of civilization. We could, probably, convince others of the advantages of humanism, but not by imposing it on people whom we don't understand – and only if we live ourselves according our values.
There are many examples to illustrate our hypocrisy and the contradictions in our policies: as much as we like freedom, what is it worth without stability? Can we educate other countries on how they should be governed? How should we deal with the 'Arab spring'? Should we respect the human rights of terror suspects, or is it acceptable to use torture in order to prevent attacks? Do we truly embrace democratic arguments, or prefer to silence critic voices by "political correctness"?
The rise of religious extremism is a direct consequence of this western hypocrisy: we are spiritually weak. But the worst problem is our negative attitude towards Islam, which might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many seem to have given up on Muslims and the Middle East, apparently believing that nothing can be done, and that dictatorships establishing the quietness of graveyards are better than democratic experiments. Let's be frank: demonizing Islam was useful to construct legitimacy for the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was wrong from the beginning, and now we can't master the 'demons that we called'.
One should not advocate sending armies into the Middle East in order to fight wars that cannot be won. But – as Russia very successfully demonstrates – we can act through people and countries of the region. Symbols can be powerful but only if they are credible. We need to start believing again in our own values. Terrorism is not the outcome of a religious movement but of social, cultural, and economic conflicts. It grows where values like human rights don't count.
Right now we should draw robust and credible red lines: Russia could be an ally in the fight against the IS, but if they continue to bomb moderate groups in Aleppo, we will supply missiles to the rebels there. Establishing robust protected zones in Syria along the Turkish border could strongly mitigate the refugee crisis. We can act through Turkey, and should use available opportunities with more determination. The longer we avoid confronting the conflicting interests of other powers, the less successful negotiations will be.
Dr. Bernhard Lucke is a researcher working at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg in the fields of soil geography and environmental change. He has spent many months of field research in various Middle Eastern countries, and spent a year teaching at the German Jordanian University in Amman. As well, he studied at Penn State University in the framework of a Fulbright Scholarship.
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