Simplification in the Middle East

The Washington Post and the New York Times both had interesting articles on the complexity of the Middle East and the tendency for the US to regard the region as a binary: good vs. bad, moderates vs. extremists.  The result, of course, is a simplistic view of the struggles in the region that overlooks some of the major factors that are creating havoc.  It seems as though the Bush- era ‘axis of evil’ has simply evolved and expanded: countries in the Middle East cannot be described as only moderate or extreme.  Indeed, delving further, movements within countries cannot be boxed in either.  Doing so undermines US policy objectives and helps justify factions that oppose the US.

In the New York Times on Saturday, Maureen Dowd wrote about the disillusionment of many Arabs that occurred in the months that followed President Obama’s Cairo speech.  Immediately after the speech, expectations were very high for the new President, but, unfortunately, in the eyes of many, Obama failed to implement any of his promises or goals.  Dowd continues to talk about the alliance between Syria and Iran and their military support of Hezbollah and Hamas as well as the ‘paranoia’ of Israel.

Any attempt to label countries as good or bad, or moderate or extreme is bound to overlook and undermine US friendly elements as well as hostile elements

Although the goal of the article was not to demonstrate the complexity of the Middle East, it inadvertently achieved this goal.  By talking about the paranoia of Israel and the implied militarization of the Levant, Dowd underscores the American and Israeli view that those who disagree with Israel are bad.  Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are extremists and Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are moderate.  Dowd’s article also has Prince Saud al-Faisal describing the rhetoric of Iranian President Ahmadinejad as doing nothing but ‘create tensions.’  This may be true, but it again places Saudi Arabia firmly in the moderate camp and Iran in the extremist camp.

Robert Malley and Peter Harling’s article in the Washington Post was more explicit in stating the folly of the current US Middle East policy.  Also published on Saturday, Malley and Harling argue that the terms moderate and extremist hold no value and often are present simultaneously.  In the article the authors focus on the unclassifiable Syria.  Damascus has strong ties with the extremist Iran and the moderate Saudi Arabia, but opposes Iranian action in Yemen and the US backed Iraqi PM Maliki; it recently removed visa restrictions with both Iran (the so-called leader of the extremist camp) and Turkey (the leader of the moderate camp); and has recently signaled a strong willingness to make peace with Israel.

Unfortunately, the authors put forth an alternative dichotomy: instead of moderates vs. extremists (lead, respectively, by Turkey and Iran), the Middle East is stuck between two visions, one that highlights diplomacy, engagement and economic integration and a militarily driven quest for autonomy and dignity (led, respectively, by Turkey and Iran).  The dichotomy proposed by Malley and Harling is certainly more nuanced that the outdated, black-white, good-bad vision of the Bush era, but it is destined to follow the same short path to oblivion.

[tweetmeme] The problem, touched upon by Malley and Harling and completely ignored by Dowd, is that every country and movement in the Middle East has elements that encourage diplomacy and peaceful engagement as well as violent resistance.  The division of the Middle East into any kind of dichotomy is that the division ignores the inherent schizophrenia apparent in all political entities.

At the Studies in Political Islam blog, there is a post about the various Islamic parties across the region that have denounced violence and espoused the integrity of democracy, but are still considered to be extremist by their host countries and the US (the post looks as though it was written on a phone – graphically and grammatically not pleasing – but the content is very good).  Various regimes that are seen by the US as moderate are outlawing and cracking down on the Islamic opposition parties:  Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, HADAS in Kuwait, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, al Wefaq in Bahrain, the Islamist Congregation for Reform in Yemen and the Islamist Action Front in Jordan have all denounced violence, but they all face pressure from their governments and some are officially outlawed.

Of course, this is not to say that all of the above mentioned parties are politically or socially responsible or that they would form governments more amenable to the US.  It is simply to demonstrate the uselessness and indeed harm of the good vs. bad dichotomization of the Middle East.  Egypt is considered moderate, but outlaws the Muslim Brotherhood because it could democratically threaten the Mubarak regime (nominally, it ban on the MB is for its history of violence).

For a successful Middle East policy, the US must applaud democratic and peaceful overtures from unsavory parties while denouncing counterproductive policies by its own allies

Similarly, non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas (though Hamas was democratically elected, it is not recognized by most of the international community) are triangles that the West is trying to force into square holes.  Both are considered extremist groups and terrorist organizations, but there is overwhelming evidence of both militarization and political engagement in both.  Hamas has hinted that recognition of Israel will occur with a peace deal, but also has missiles aimed at Tel Aviv.

The author of the Political Islam site says the following:

There are hardliners and moderates in all Islamist movements which lead to internal disputes as they react to the changing  [sic] political dynamics in their country. The actions of repressive regimes can lead the movement to either radicalize or moderate depending on the specific dynamics within the country.

Incidentally, state governments also have policies that are moderate and policies that are extreme.  To take Syria as an example, the contradictory foreign policies of Damascus are well-documented above and the country has not taken a firm step in support of or against US policy in the region.  The best the US can do is to try to lightly pull Damascus towards peaceful ends and the nomination of a US ambassador is one way to do so.

If Syria makes peace with Israel, does it then become moderate?  It will still have, at best, friendly relations with Iran and a working relationship with Hezbollah.  Egypt is considered moderate, but has been in a state of emergency for over 20 years; Jordan is considered moderate, but has a very corrupt government; and Saudi Arabia is considered moderate, but has one of the worst human rights records in the world.  Hezbollah and Hamas are extremists, but provide social services for their people and participate in the democratic process.

When dealing with something complex, it is human nature to try to simplify; in the 1950’s Americans denounced certain people as communists and Nazis – diametrically opposed, but grouped together.  Today, US policy, in its search to simplify the impossibly complex, is overlooking important characteristics of regimes and movements that should be addressed.  Every actor in the Middle East has many hats and to have a successful policy the US must address them all.  Even if that means doing something as unsavory as denouncing the Egyptian participation in the siege of Gaza or recognizing Hezbollah as a democratic party in Lebanon.

Photos from Ventura County Star and

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