Who’s to Blame for the Arabs’ Troubles?

Two analysts try to explain what went wrong from the Arab world but both oversimplify and miss the point.

The sun sets on a mosque in Ankara, Turkey, August 25, 2008 (Ilkin)
The sun sets on a mosque in Ankara, Turkey, August 25, 2008 (Ilkin)

Those interested in the politics and culture of the Arab world may want to check out this short blog post from Tom Ricks over at Foreign Policy. Granted, Ricks doesn’t exactly contribute anything himself in terms of substance; his post merely highlights a debate between two scholars about the state of the Middle East today. But this is precisely why Ricks is one of the most knowledgeable journalists in international relations today. He knows when to step back and share the spotlight with other perspectives. (I should know. This past summer, Tom was kind enough to let me post a feature on his Best Defense blog.)

To summarize the debate (the original correspondence was actually conducted via email), a former US Army officer with a specialization in Middle Eastern affairs battles a bright journalist about the sources of the region’s troubles. This is a great debate to have, and one that hardly gets any airtime or attention from American columnists or news networks.

Both during and after the Cold War, the Arab world has lagged behind its peers on almost every front. The annual United Nations Development Report consistently ranks Arab governments at the bottom of the global index in terms of political reform, democratic participation, economic development and education. Autocratic rulers — many of whom have been in power for over three decades — often stymie free press, free assembly and the most basic forms of democratic opposition.

What explains this phenomenon? Norvell “Tex” DeAtkine, the former Army officer, places the blame on the Arabs themselves:

Over the decades I have been involved with the Arabs and their “world” I see their greatest problem as one of failure to recognize that their problems are deeply rooted and internal.

In other words, Arab governments should stop blaming the West for their domestic troubles. Tex goes so far as to blame Western academia for reinforcing the myth of outsiders having ruined the region.

The young journalist, on the other hand, a man named Nir Rosen, disagrees wholeheartedly. The United States and Western Europe do, in fact, share a large portion of the blame. After all, many of the region’s autocratic rulers, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s royal family, are funded and supported by Washington:

From the 1950s the United States in collaboration with the Saudis … have opposed and suppressed any secular, leftist, liberal movements in the Middle East. The United States’ relationship with the Middle East is both colonial and post colonial, we are thoroughly implicated and rarely have we been a force for progress or freedom.

Two extremely dissenting (may I say, radical?) views, yet two that have come to dominate mainstream criticism of American policy in the Middle East.

But there’s a problem with both of these arguments. Both depend on a faulty assumption that the Middle East is “black and white” and easy to predict. History and reality, on the other hand, contradict these assumptions in multiple ways. Trying to put forth a “black and white” hypothesis for the Arab stagnation over the past half century seems counterproductive.

The Middle East is certainly suffering, but not in the stark way that officer Tex and Mr Rosen think. Taking both views and meshing them together, on the other hand, provides us with a more credible and detailed set of variables in order to explain what our Arab friends are going through.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to ignore past American experience in the Middle East. During the Cold War, Washington was the chief arms supplier of a region that was already militarized, both to prevent the Soviets from expanding and to protect the stability of the oil supply. At the same time, Arab elites knowingly took those weapons regardless of their destabilizing consequences.

In 1980, Saddam Hussein launched a devastating invasion of Iran in the hopes of capturing crucial oil reserves and keeping the Shia Islamic revolution at bay. The eight year war resulted in the deaths of over a million men, countless civilians, and the destruction of two economies. Yet the United States gladly contributed to the fighting by pumping arms into Iraq, praying that a continuation of the war would kill off Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic regime in Tehran.

Today, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak cracks down on peaceful protest as if it’s second nature. And although Washington is not directly involved in the suppression, it essentially sanctions the activity by ignoring the oppression and continuing to arm Egypt’s security services to the teeth.

The point is not to relegate any one party as the primary catalyst for the Arabs’ poor political and social progress. Rather, the point is to be fair in one’s criticism. Both the United States and the Arabs are to blame. And both need to change in drastic ways if the Middle East is expected to catch up to its partners in East Asia and South America.