"The Tail Wags the Dog" | Debunking the myth
How far is it true that the West has brought the Middle East to what it is today? Developments in the past decades point an unapologetic finger to the Western powers for orchestrating chaos in the region. But prior to that lies a hushed-up history buried beneath pacts and mandates.
It was on the ruins of a deconstructed Ottoman Empire that the contemporary Middle Eastern state system began fledging. This age of global conflict saw the fall of more powerful European empires. It is true that the Ottoman Empire was the casualty of its own catastrophic decision to join hands with Germany and enter the War it could have refrained from, and ended up on the losing side. This was the turning point in the history of the Middle Eastern region and decided the course of events that would follow. There was no Arab sense of nationalism in the region until now. This idea was pasted upon them by the mandate system.
In the immediate aftermath of World War I, the local Middle Eastern actors consolidated their positions, restructured the region, and, as expected, their bargain for power was significantly enhanced during the Cold War era when global polarisation and nuclear balance of terror constrained the manoeuvrability of power. Despite the end of the Cold War, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Unites States being the “only remaining superpower”, their impact on the middle east was rather negligible. As the greater powers’ attention got occupied with their resources, the local actors largely retained their political and strategic manoeuvrability.
Despite the unprecedented global pre-eminence of the United States, it failed to deter Sadam Hussein from invading Kuwait or to make him withdraw peacefully from the Emirate, and was thus left with the only alternative of war. Although the United States won the war, it is an example of the influence the great power did not have on the Middle East, until the last resort. America’s ability to wage war was hinged on Saudi Arabia’s permission to use its territory as well as the support of Egypt, Syria, and the Gulf states. Hence, the precipitating factor behind the invasion was not US pressure but the local self-interest of the Middle Eastern power-bearers. Similarly, nor could the “super power” prevent the creation Al-Qaeda and its worldwide spread of “jihad”.
Some of the Obama administration’s foreign policy blunders include ignoring the surge of militant Islamism, mishandling the “Arab Spring”, failing to contain Tehran’s dogged quest for the Bomb – the limits to Washington’s ability to influence regional dynamics. The Obama administration witnessed an exceptional extent of cluelessness and disregard for reality. Karsh explains, “the Obama administration went out of its way to deny, ignore, euphemise and whitewash anything smacking of Islamic violence, radicalism or expansionism.” This led to Obama’s attempt to facilitate the rise of ‘moderate Islamists’ and to see the Muslim Brotherhood as an outlet of moderation.
Karsh puts it clearly and bluntly that Middle Easterners have always found it easier to blame others for their misfortunes but the main culpability of the regions endemic malaise lies with the local players. Arabs have been fighting Jews, Iranians, Kurds, and fellow Arabs for decades and this has nothing to do with external intervention. A variety of indigenous factors such as religious militancy, ethnic differences, economic and territorial greed, hegemonic ambitions are the reasons behind the region’s internal conflict.
A latest example of this is the crisis unfolding in Qatar now, “the tiny Gulf state” which claims the world’s highest per capita income and is capable of influencing the course of Gulf and Middle East politics – much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia. Karsh concludes with the difficult message that “violence was not imported to the Middle East as a by-product of foreign imperialism but has rather been an integral part of the region’s millenarian political culture.”
The tail wags the dog, but a true “spring” remains awaited.