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Archive for August 23rd, 2006

Something has been nagging me ever since Condoleeza Rice categorized the recent violence between Hezbollah and Israel as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” I like the language of the analogy, but it set me thinking. We are seeing changes in the Middle East, for sure, and the Middle East in a hundred years will most likely be a greatly changed region. My question is, how will it be different? It seems like the Middle East is approaching some kind of tipping point, but which way will it go? In the last episode of the first season of Deadwood, Al Swearengen muses that “announcing your plans is a good way to hear god laugh,” and I think the same could be said for making predictions. However, what we can do is take another look at things and reevaluate where we are, and be willing to change course based on a deeper understanding of the issue.

The other day I was watching the News Hour, and the discussion was about Bush’s statement that “failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to U.S. security.” My first question to Bush would have been to ask him to define “failed states,” so as to clarify any ambiguity. Does he mean “failed democratic states,” or “states that have descended into anarchy,” or “states that are ruled by terrorists,” or “states in the throes of civil war”? It seems to me that the level, nature and cause of the failure would be an important factor in assessing threat to the United States.

One of the guests, Ralph Peters (retired Army lieutenant colonel and author of the book, “Never Quit the Fight”) had this to say:

…I draw on the definition of failed states…as far as Iraq goes, it hasn’t failed yet. We need to remember that. The odds may only be 50-50. But if it does fail, the president’s assumption that it’s a direct threat to us may not prove right. A failed Iraq with Sunni and Shia going at each other may be al-Qaida’s Vietnam.

You know what, failed states, and certainly in the Middle East as well as elsewhere, tend to concentrate on their internal problems. They don’t generate terrorists. The terrorists that attacked us on 9/11 and elsewhere came from stable states, I would argue other kinds of failed states in the Middle East.

The danger in a failed state, as Afghanistan was briefly, is it throws up a radical movement that provides a safe haven for terrorism which then directly threatens the United States. But if Iraq comes apart, they’re going to be preoccupied with their own problems for a long time.

…we are without doubt witnessing something without precedent, the crash of a once great, still proud civilization, that of Middle Eastern Islam. And the problem is that the Middle East is not competitive in any sphere…[a]nd it’s a problem of humiliation and jealousy, but it is homegrown. Again, you know, we made mistakes in the Middle East. We made a bad problem somewhat worse.

…it’s the classic heart-breaking problem I encounter in the Middle East, where last week I was in Israel sitting down with senior Israelis. And the senior Israelis were looking at what was going wrong and criticizing themselves, their own system, “How do we make this right?”

I also sat down with a group and Saeb Erakat, who’s about as good as the Palestinians get. Erakat immediately went into, “It’s all Israeli’s fault. It’s all the United States’ fault.” And, you know, the plumbing doesn’t work, so it’s [the] CIA and Mossad.

The other guest during this discussion was Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. While he pointed to foreign occupation and meddling in the Middle East as large determining factors in the region, he nonetheless acknowledged that the Middle East had some serious preexisting problems:

But it’s true. Before the United States was involved, there were deep, profound problems in the Middle East. One of the things I talk about in this book, one of those problems was external intervention.

This is the most strategically important region in the world. This is a region which, since the British discovered oil in Iran in 1901, has most of the world’s oil reserves. The degree to which it has become a penetrated system — Britain, Russia, later on the Soviet Union, France, Italy, Germany, and now the United States — are a large part of the problem in that region.

To say that there’s no indigenous problem would be false. Of course there are profound indigenous problems. I wouldn’t put it in the kind of stereotypical terms that Colonel Peters has. Of course there are.

I started to feel like I was onto something big – here we have two people with fairly different perspectives agreeing that there were big, even fundamental, problems within Middle Eastern civilization, independent of foreign “penetration.” This is a starting point, a premise, that clearly others have thought of long before me. To me, things start making a whole lot more sense when I frame related events with the idea that Middle Eastern, or more specifically, Arab, civilization is unraveling, and in fact has been for hundreds of years.

Lieutenant Colonel James G. Lacey, in his article, “The Impending Collapse of Arab Civilization,” notes that,

on the Arab League’s website there is a paper that details all of the contributions made by Arab civilization. It is a long and impressive list, which unfortunately marks 1406 as the last year a significant contribution was made. That makes next year the 600th anniversary of the beginning of a prolonged stagnation, which began a dive into the abyss with the end of the Ottoman Empire. Final collapse has been staved off only by the cash coming in from a sea of oil and because of a few bright spots of modernity that have resisted the general failure.

Lacey goes on to outline the general condition of the Arab world, getting his statistics from the U.N.’s Arab Human Development Report and the OECD, and it is very grim. Only 1.6% of Arabs, for example, have Internet access, 60 million people, mostly women, are illiterate, and GDP (after adjusting for inflation) is declining. Based on population trends, Lacey asserts that,

Things are indeed bad in the Arab world and will get much worse.

This statement should not be read as mere opinion. While predictions of the future are usually fraught with peril, those based on demographics are, barring some unforeseen plague or truly catastrophic war, uncannily accurate. Using even the most optimistic assumption—that fertility rates drop by fifty percent in a generation—the respected Population Resource Center, based in Princeton, New Jersey, expects Arab populations to grow from 280 million to almost 460 million by 2020 and to over 600 million a generation later. On the face of it the Arab world is staring political and economic disaster in the face. Arab governments and institutions are already failing to meet basic human needs in many Arab countries. It is hard to imagine how they will cope with the stress of such a massive population increase.

When you have a population explosion like this, you get what Lacey calls a “youth bulge,” or a large percentage of young people making up the population. We know, also, that acts of terrorism are largely executed by youth who are fueled by Islamism’s warped ideology and economies that cannot offer stable, fulfilling employment. Lacey explains that, “In socially and politically repressive societies, found throughout the Middle East, there are very few outlets for pent-up frustrations except for violence or immersion into religion—a combustible mixture.”

Taking this premise to an applicable conclusion, one that we can use to help stabilize the world while this collapse plays itself out, Lacey argues that,

By accepting that we are facing the collapse of Arab civilization we can, for the first time, create a grand strategic concept for success. We no longer have to engage in a war against terrorism, which is a method of fighting and not an enemy. Additionally, we now have a strategic explanation for what is going on that does not make Islam the culprit. Hence we do not have to fight a religious war to win.

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