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samedi 29 décembre 2012

Friend or Foe?

There's an interesting piece of analysis in the New York Times about rising Sunni power in the Middle East. 

It focuses on Egypt, Turkey and Qatar and the role they play in countering the so-called "Shia Crescent", of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. And while it's true that power is shifting in the Middle East, choosing to side with emerging powers is not the best move for the US or European allies.

Your blogger responded to the article in the comments section:

A longer view of who is an ally and who is enemy shows that none of these situations is immutable. Iran was a close ally under the Shah, but not as the Islamic Republic. However, the mistake is interpret a link between religious governments and anti-American sentiment that does not take into account American actions. If populations vote for Islamist parties, it means those parties were able to appeal to enough people to win an election.
The question is why they are appealing and part of why is that secular leaders, often in concert with America, were often a disaster, enriching themselves while failing to develop their countries, repressing their populations, and leading many of their citizens to feel powerless and humiliated. Choosing an alternative (which is usually Islamist, since dictators made organizing other opposition next to impossible) is a way for them make their voices heard and maybe secure governments more responsive to the needs of their population.
While none of this augurs a situation where these countries are close American allies, nothing prevents useful cooperation on areas of shared interest, which might be better for the US in the long run, anyway.
The article does question US relations with leaders in the changing Middle East, but it continues to assume that American governments should and will exercise influence over these leaders.
Clearly the old leaders Washington relied on to enforce its will, like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, are gone or at least eclipsed. But otherwise confusion reigns in terms of knowing how to deal with this new paradigm, one that could well create societies infused with religious ideology that Americans find difficult to accept. The new reality could be a weaker Iran, but a far more religiously conservative Middle East that is less beholden to the United States.
If newly elected governments in the Middle East are more conservative, that reflects the choice of their populations. Now, there is a big difference between voting for an alternative and that vote signaling a mandate to implement widespread social changes, as opposition in Egypt and Tunisia demonstrates.

Your blogger also takes issue with the way that anti-American sentiment and religious conservatism are linked. Islamists are not nearly so concerned with how Americans live their lives at home as they are with US Foreign Policy's effects on their lives. Thus, being religious does not make someone anti-American, but suffering the effects of American policies may drive Middle Easterners to identify more closely with their religion.

Currently, populations in the Middle East are debating the role religion should play in government and more broadly in society. Although this debate is not new (there is a great deal of scholarly writing on the subject, throughout Islamic history and not just the 19th Century thinkers whose influence is still important), the difference today is that it is more democratic. Higher levels of literacy and the interconnectedness that technology makes possible allow a far greater number of people to take part in the discussion.

However, this is not a discussion that the US should expect to influence directly. There is a large difference between a useful exchange of ideas and a heavy-handed imposition of norms.  Many of the freedoms that underpin the American constitution do serve as an inspiration for people the world over, but how they choose to protect them is their business. 

The best course is for Western powers to avoid being too closely bound with any Middle Eastern governments. Where cooperation is possible, working together should be encouraged, but taking sides, either with particular leaders, or with one faction against another risks not only embroiling the US in conflicts we do not fully understand, but also further hurts our reputation abroad and adds legitimacy to anti-American sentiments.

And if that didn't convince you, there's a hilarious send-up of the Iran-Contra scandal from American Dad that demonstrates the pitfalls of taking sides and being overly involved in the internal affairs of other countries:

Update: Juan Cole also wrote a piece about the same issue, although less America-focused. Here are what he sees as the biggest changes from a US perspective:

A Sunni-dominated Levant would not necessarily be hostile to the US, though it is likely to bear some grudges for US inaction in Syria. But it would likely be severely hostile to Israel. A galvanized Syrian population and a revolutionary government, plus their support for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, could introduce dangerous new frictions, at a time when the Likud Party in Israel is moving even further to the right. Increased Syrian-Israel tension is likely to be one outcome. A strengthened Hamas might well be another (Hamas is realigning away from Syria-Iran and toward Egypt-FSA).