The Middle East has long been synonymous with instability and violence. As ever, this is blamed on some inherent defect of the people, as if only reasonable Westerners know how to behave democratically, and the conflicts in places like Northern Ireland and the Basque Country never existed.
This is an example of “institutional racism”, one of the many practices the West claims to condemn, but is happy to introduce everywhere else at every opportunity. If the comic book Middle Eastern traders who are products of this same racist stereotyping can’t create democratic solutions which suit everyone, who can? As the old joke runs, the Middle Eastern nightly news is broadcast at nine o’clock – but for you, eight forty-five.
However there are signs that the paradigm of Western-Middle Eastern relations is changing, precisely because the wrong attitudes have informed this relationship for so long. The West is, as usual, trying to find a way out of the mess that he has made in the region. For the first time in a generation, that way out might actually be one the regional countries could take, without either losing out or gaining so much that it upsets their various patrons.
Not so bad after all
The Middle East has traditionally been divided by external policy into different factions: Jews versus Arabs, Christians versus Muslims, one sect verus another, “moderates” versus “radicals,” etc. This is why Israel is presented as a functioning democracy, despite all the backroom deals which create the main blocs, whereas Lebanon is not, despite its long traditions of government by gentleman’s agreement between ethnic and religious factions, which only failed when the West could no longer tolerate it making Western democracy look inferior.
However in recent years the West has rewritten the narrative. Increasingly there are only two sides: “constitutionalists”, which includes all the people who allegedly hated each other before, and “terrorists”. They try to paint it so simple, and with one side being right.
We are to understand from this that Saudi Arabia’s armed support of murder is constitutionalist and Hezbollah’s non-violent participation in mainstream Lebanese politics is terroristic. But the West has decided that, having created most of the terrorists to suit itself, it can now lump most of the previous factions together as the “good guys” who are threatened by the bad guys it has created for them.
People who live in the same country always have a wide range of common interests. Public services, opportunity, security and responsive government are universal concerns. Only when particular groups feel that they cannot have these things within their country do they press for a change in its political structure, or outright independence for their group.
So if the rest of the world wanted peace in the Middle East, they would encourage regional countries to adapt their political structures to the needs of local population groups. However the whole concept of “local population groups” being political entities is anathema to the same powers who insist they are when they want to divide people.
The Middle East has had to endure the same pre-packaged solution imposed everywhere else: governments which have the form of Western democracy, but are only tolerated as long as they do what the West wants.
Former UK Cabinet minister Eric Varley used to enjoy saying, “It is taking democracy too far when you don’t know the result of the vote before the meeting”. He wasn’t being serious, but was underscoring one of the weaknesses of Western democracy: in practice, the results of democratic debate are usually foregone conclusions, either decided behind the scenes or forced by arithmetic – and if it were otherwise, those in charge would change the system so they could get what they wanted another way.
The increasing imposition of pseudo-democracy on the Middle East only serves the interests of the Western powers. They get what they want at the expense of the locals. If it doesn’t work, or the democratic decisions made are not the ones the West wants, it’s because those nasty Arabs or Persians are destabilising their states from within because they aren’t democratic enough, rather than because they are expressing their own opinions and meeting their own needs, as they are supposed to do in a real democracy.
But promoting the fake idea that Middle Easterners act as individuals within a one man, one vote system has made the West believe that all the regional states once regarded as hopelessly divided or despotic are now decent and democratic. As such, they must be defended. It is much more difficult to claim that a country run by one group is better than that run by its rivals when they are all supposed to be the same flourishing democracies, whose inherent strengths are more important than the personalities or groups who run them. But what they fail to mention is that the country that boosts democracy and the benefits of voting has a system that does not work as who gets the most votes wins, as was the case in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Even Jordan, once considered the model of reasonableness in its region, is experiencing unrest as a result of its externally imposed pre-packaged pseudo-democracy. But no matter how difficult things get, the West isn’t going to admit that the system it wants is anything other than the best.
While the Arab League prances about—refusing to do anything of substance, notwithstanding what it could really do, even if it wanted. Western arrogance has given the region its best opportunity in decades to achieve pan-Arabism. If regional politicians play their cards right, the West will be too embarrassed to stand in the way of this, and the potential of the Middle East will be closer to being unleashed.
A few difficult cases
The West claims that it wants a way out of Syria, with Assad proving durable and the spectre of being seen losing to the Russians looming large. Reforming the Assad government, and demonstrating that it has reformed by including it in international anti-terrorism efforts, however hypocritical those are, would serve that purpose.
Any such reform would be formalised in an agreement to do the things Assad has always done, such as guaranteeing the rights of the Christian population – those communities which claim the whole Syrian population as their adherents as a protest against being divided by outsiders. There are many reasons for objecting to the Assad regime, but positive things it has actually done, even if sporadically, can be used as the basis to end the conflict with each side claiming victory, and reintegrating Syria within the international community which in turn would be presumed to keep it in check.
The US also wants out of Iraq, simply because it knows it can’t finance its operations there forever, and the American public has lost interest. A ramp down of US military presence could be justified if Iraq were contributing its domestic troops to an international anti-terrorism effort, undertaken by a coalition of countries which thus shared a common interest with the US.
The US could continue to pretend to be conducting a war on terror if other alliances independently did the same, for their own reasons. Though the US may hinder them in practice, combined efforts would keep Middle Eastern states in line with the US in public. It would also give the US another excuse for continuing to control and exploit regional resources, as many of those would be devoted to this anti-terrorist effort, giving regional countries technical control over them, but for the same ends the US claims to use them for.
The Lebanese government, the worst example of an imposed pseudo-democracy in the region, would be strengthened by a regional anti-terrorist alliance precisely because some of the parties involved in it, and controlling parts of Lebanon on the ground, are regarded as terrorist themselves.
The way to counter them would be to enhance the sovereignty and effectiveness of the government, which would inevitably mean detaching the political from the armed wings of the likes of Hezbollah and the Falange. With everyone in Lebanon tired of fighting and trying to rid themselves of foreign associations, a respectable offer could be made to achieve this, as it was in Burma, where notorious Shan States warlord Khun Sa was given protection provided he was involved in legitimate business, not drug and arms dealing.
Jordan, the quiet one, also has much to gain from a regional anti-terrorist alliance. Although some terrorists do operate from within its borders, it has always been held up as a better example than the
other states in the region, despite concerns about the powers of its monarchy and who is really making the decisions.
More recent “democratisation” has put this reputation at risk. Restoring this reputation in spite of democratisation would prove the US right and also potentially give Jordan a leadership role in any alliance, thus proving the US right historically too, when it preferred Jordan to its neighbours, and Westerners such as Wing Commander Jock Dalgleish provided technical support voluntarily rather than as part of aid packages.
Regional Arab countries often see Israel as the enemy, and as a state sponsor of terrorism. However the US should have every reason to encourage the Jewish state to work more closely with its neighbours, and the Palestinian Authority, if it wants to survive. However, that is far from reality … and integration with a regional anti-terrorist alliance would enable it to do this.
It would also provide an opportunity for the more religious parties which have recently come to prominence there to show they are able to work within an accepted democratic tradition, like the Far Right did in Austria to remove the sanctions placed on their country after their election. Israel would then be standing on the right side of international diplomacy and still sticking to its principles, not a position it is in very often.
After all the problems in Egypt, and the terrorism inflicted on it by outsiders to justify that, its government also has reason to present itself as changed for the better since it also went down the
pseudo-democracy route. Like the other Arab states it has longstanding grievances against many of its Arab neighbours as well as Israel, but could continue to pursue these, and host Islamists in its government, if it were part of a “moderate and democratic” regional anti-terrorism alliance.
The US could achieve a great deal by encouraging Egypt and other regional states to race each other to the top, in international relations terms. The US gets away with a lot by pretending it is the guardian of human rights and rule of law whilst depriving its client states of these very things. A vocal anti-terrorist alliance, however meaningless in reality, would enable each regional state to do its own thing by claiming it was part of a united effort to do the right thing, now it had the approved sort of government, and whatever was done within its borders was a foreign import, rather than a regional or national characteristic.
Flipping the flops
If all the Middle Eastern states are part of a regional anti-terrorism alliance, which demonstrates their new democratic credentials, it is more difficult to accuse them of being state sponsors of terrorism. This will not mean that they are not actually doing it, but that people need to believe the contrary.
Most, if not all, Western countries are vulnerable to the same charge when you see where the weapons come from, where the goods smuggled down the routes controlled by the terrorists are sold and who those countries have arms supply agreements with. But someone has to stand against this, for the greater benefit of humanity, so by default the Western powers are presumed to do so.
If Middle Eastern countries can make an anti-terrorist alliance work, they will eventually achieve the same. Say it often enough and (everyone will want to believe) that terrorism in the region has nothing to do with them. Then the terrorist operations the US seems to think are invaluable will carry on as before, serving both US purposes and those of the regional countries, while those countries can develop greater economic and political co-operation and claim that their imposed pseudo-democracies have changed them for the better.
Even though US policy failures have created this opportunity, everybody wins by creating a Middle Eastern anti-terrorism alliance – the countries themselves, the US and the terrorists, whose support will move further under the radar, making it easier for them to operate. An enforced commonality fills the gaps the Arab League has never been interested in filling.
It may keep a bunch of place sitters in “power” at their expense of their people, but they won’t see a problem with that, and in the medium term neither will their populations. The only question is whether the West can cope with the consequences of the Middle East being successful, the first of which will be that it chooses its own path, and the new pseudo-democracies wither away.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.