Middle East realities out of sync with Western responses

by Michael Bell

August 11, 2015

The 2011 popular uprisings in the Arab world brought much hope to liberals in the Middle East and their supporters in the West. They forecast that democratic change was imminent. They, however, were mistaken.

Instead, authoritarianism, exclusive ethno-nationalism and extreme ideologies dominate the region, creating distinctive psychobiological mindsets. These provide both individuals and communities a means of coping with feelings of humiliation and betrayal in a fragile, hostile environment. They provide seeming alternatives to the stress of alienation, unemployment, poverty and the absence of social and political freedoms.

The autocrats drove events to this point. They smother pluralistic development and drive citizens toward core paradigms. Using coercive force, the dictators have ensured that individuals and communities can never express themselves, realize even limited political freedoms or determine the direction of their collective future. Devoid of legitimacy, the authoritarians fail the peoples they rule. The result is chaos.

Fundamentalists reject pluralism. They advocate a return to what they see as the basic tenants of the Koran and Sunnah, bound by a strictly literal interpretation to be practiced without deviation. This provides a sense of belonging to the marginalized. Taken to the extreme, violence is justified, indeed required.

Western policymakers have acted as though military force alone will provide solutions. While allied air attacks against Islamic State do serve a purpose in degrading that organization’s capabilities, they will not affect ideological belief systems or ethno-national imperatives.

Western military mechanisms, no matter how effective they may be in physical combat, cannot address basic human needs for legitimate government, physical security on the ground or social and economic development.

Efforts to export Western values and practices, or democratization, can be labeled cultural imperialism. This does not invalidate a Western role but ethnicity and dogma have become governing realities in the region, no matter how uncomfortable we may find them. For Western policymakers, sober realism must be the watch phrase. What can be done, rather than what should be done, is the key calculus for success.

After what was initially portrayed as a great victory with the use of air power in deposing Muammar Gaddafi, the Western powers, having inadvertently facilitated crippling internecine conflict through their intervention, seem to have adopted a long overdue sense of sober realism. Heretofore Western decision-makers have been delusional in their expectations of a better world as the George W. Bush debacle in Iraq demonstrated so clearly.

While, transformational political change is impossible, we do have responsibility to mitigate the worst. The need for relief screams out. This means food, housing, health care, education and absorption, wherever it can be done. This is not an inconsiderable challenge but is in part, at least, achievable.

In this context, humanitarianism must go beyond traditional definitions stretching to geo-strategic realities. The increasing penetration by radicals into Jordan, as well-governed as any Arab state, means the Hashemite Kingdom must be underwritten militarily and financially, despite its autocracy. Were Jordan to fall, the other status quo powers, from Israel to Saudi Arabia, would be further under threat, leaving them still more exposed to an increasingly powerful and ambitious Iran. What is left of Iraq has already been sucked into Tehran’s orbit.

An already fragile Lebanon is also in danger, as Syria’s civil war has created an excrutiating burden, given its porous border, and the familial, sectarian and elite linkages that bind the two. Syria’s extremist groups have found fertile ground in the refugee camps and throughout the Lebanese Sunni community.

Normalcy is beyond reach in any foreseeable future because it must be based on profound behavioural changes by the protagonists. If we content ourselves with limited goals, as with supporting states at risk and those displaced in the greatest need, we may salvage something. More than that, we cannot do, because this would require disempowering deeply ingrained cult behaviour. Like it or not, this is impossible.

Michael Bell has served as Canadian ambassador to various countries in the Middle East, including Jordan, Egypt and Israel. He has also served as high commissioner to Cyprus and representative to the Palestinians. Mr. Bell is now a senior fellow at Carleton University, as well as a senior associate at the University of Ottawa. His latest paper, Middle East Realities and Western Responses, was published by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute,

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