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Notes from London

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on March 21st, 2006

Plenty is being said, but very few people are asking the big and important questions about the future of the Middle East: not in Washington, and certainly not here in Europe, specifically London.

For Europe, not to mention Russia, India, and China—and, of course, the United States—the most important question is what the Middle East will look like in a decade or two or three.

Will it be united or divided? Islamic or secular? Free and democratic, or still autocratic? Rich or poor? At war or peace with itself, or with the world?

Serious thought is required about these questions, and to the related questions: what sort of a Middle East would be in the best interest of Europe, other powers, and the United States? And: what sorts of steps, taken now, will increase the likelihood of such a favorable outcome?

One might expect that the Iraq war, whatever its merits (and I am one who believes we are all better off without Saddam Hussein) would have provided the occasion for this necessary discussion, but it has not.

For example, a very powerful factual and rational critique of the American-led war in Iraq is possible. Whether agreeing or not, almost anyone ought to be able to muster the long list of intelligence failures, errors in strategy and tactics, political mismanagement and so forth that have been associated with the effort.

But where are we likely to find such a critique? Certainly not in the European, and specifically the British, press. Both are almost uniformly critical of the effort America has led. Their arguments, however, are oddly parochial. In most of the British press, passionate yet mindless Bush-bashing is the order of the day—as if, somehow, no issues or problems had existed until George Bush appeared on the scene. Tony Blair and others who have supported Bush are also criticized—but chiefly because of that support, a view that rests mostly on a reflexive distaste for things American, rather than on a well-considered view of national interest, capabilities, and so forth.

As in the United States, even respectable journalists indulge themselves in ludicrous conspiracy theories. Somehow, it seems, misleading intelligence was manufactured not only by the CIA but by European governments as well, and then pushed hard  by Mr. Bush, evidently in order to launch a risky war for no reason that anyone can state very clearly. 

Of course intelligence was faulty and the costs and course of the war were badly misjudged. But to say that  is very different from arguing that the whole thing was  based on a fraud, as one hears even more loudly in Europe than in the United States.

Why the passion with which these arguments are put forward? This is a rather deep psychological question, but clearly people everywhere are sick of the war and its cost—remember that even FDR was dropping in the polls as World War II dragged on and furthermore it is one that has been led by Americans whom many Europeans resent and against whom they harbor difficult-to-articulate ideological objections, as well as finding them socially disagreeable.

I have been studying the opinions of these Europeans for three of the last four weeks, spent in England.

What these Europeans don’t seem to understand is that, like it or not, the Middle East begins far from America’s shores—a good four thousand miles—but is Europe’s back yard. This is Europe’s war, even more than it is America’s—just like World War II.

The coming nuclear Iran and Turkey and other states will threaten Europe before they threaten the United States. But this obvious fact is missing from nearly all commentary.

The assumption in much European commentary is that the United States has its own reasons for being involved in the Middle East, reasons having nothing to do with them. Therefore they can stand aside (I say this recognizing that European forces are involved, but truth be told, they are token forces). Editorials in the leading London newspapers tend to be about what America should do, not about what the British should do.

The degree to which Europeans fail to grasp the fragility of their frontiers comes close to what psychologists call dissociation—a breakdown of mental connection with reality. The European Union borders on the east with Russia and Ukraine, on the southeast with the Balkans, and on the south, across the Mediterranean, with the immense and ever more powerful world of Islam. They have the sorts of borders that give strategists nightmares.

Beyond these borders immense processes of change are going on. The conflict in Iraq, the drama in Iran, the precarious state of Pakistan, and so forth—all of these are part of a great historical attempt by the world of Islam to recapture something like the position it possessed, with occasional breaks, from the rise of the first Caliphate to the collapse of the Ottoman empire: roughly from the seventh to the early twentieth centuries.

During almost all that time a powerful Islamic polity existed at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and commanded, to greater or lesser degrees, the southern Mediterranean littoral. Eurasia south of Russia and west of Gansu in China was Islamic.

The twentieth century was one of tremendous frustration for champions of Islam, as their territories were divided and thus weakened, in part by colonialism, in part by secular nationalisms.

Today they present a sorry picture. Poor, uneducated, almost entirely autocratic, divided—and with the profits of their one great asset, oil, held by a narrow elite and as likely to be domiciled in Switzerland as at home.

Furthermore, with the rise of oil-backed financing, the face of Islam itself is changing, with new sects such as the Wahabis displacing longer established but less affluent streams.

The industrial world relies on Middle Eastern oil. The territory is at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, where great trade routes intersect. No shortage exists of angry and frustrated young men willing to fight, or of organizations for them to join, or of money to support them, or of weapons to arm them.

The United States is of course very much dependent on this part of the world. But we are nowhere near so dependent as is East Asia. We are also vulnerable when the new Islamic terrorists attack us, as 9/11 demonstrated. But we are far less vulnerable than Europe.

A really major war in the Middle East will be a disaster for all. But it will be more of a disaster for Europe and Russia and even China than for the United States.

Yet somehow the impression seems widespread here in London that should conflict in the Middle East threaten, say, the British Isles, Washington will not simply offer to help. It will positively insist on helping, forcing itself on Europe for its own reasons, even if Europe has doubts.

For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that once Iraq is finished, in whatever way, the United States will turn inward and prove very unwilling to play global policemen, or whatever it was we thought we were doing, again. I believe that emotion will be strong enough to override even clear national interest.

Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that an American failure in Iraq will be infinitely worse for us and for the world than was our defeat in Vietnam. I’m just not sure the world knows that.

Iraq, however, is only one small corner of a far larger map. The whole world is now confronted with profound change in the entire world of Islam, from Turkey to Xinjiang to Bangladesh to Indonesia. Everyone should be thinking about the various courses this change may take, whether a particular course is good or bad, and how we can affect the choice.

Sadly, the focus on Iraq and the opportunity it provides to vent both legitimate frustration and standard anti-Americanism, is proving to be an irresistible distraction for the very people who should be doing the thinking.

I head back home soon. My expectation that I will find in our American media the sort of long term thought so desperately required is effectively zero. But I find it equally, if not more lamentable, that few if any European voices are providing it either.

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