Taking the Long View on the Middle East

The region is undergoing a convulsion that could take decades to sort itself out.
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"Wallenstein: A Scene of the Thirty Years' War," by Ernest Crofts (Wikimedia Commons)

ASPEN, Colo.—The Obama administration, it seems, now has a strategy for addressing the spiraling crises in Syria and Iraq. It will spend $500 million on training and arming vetted Syrian rebels. It will push for the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It will mobilize military assets to prepare for possible airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which just declared a caliphate in the Syrian and Iraqi territory it has amassed.

The steps arise out of a debate in Washington about the proper U.S. response to the grinding civil war in Syria, the potential disintegration of Iraq, and the rise of extremist groups in both countries—a debate taking place within a timeframe of days and weeks. But during a panel on the future of the Middle East at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is organized by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, three experts on the region had the same discussion in terms of decades and centuries. Their long view made the fixes being bandied about by U.S. officials these days seem inconsequential by comparison.

George Mitchell, a former senator and Mideast peace envoy, noted that the Sunni-Shiite tensions that are now so raw in the region originated with the 7th-century political split over who would lead the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

"The conflict has continued for 1,400 years," he said, and "we in the West have nothing to look down our noses at, because go back and look at where Christianity was when it was 1,400 years old."

He made a sweeping historical case for why there are no easy solutions in Iraq, and why the country could soon unravel:

In the United States, in a far more simple time, it took eight years following the end of fighting in the American Revolution to establish the American government. In France, 50 years. In Britain, 210 years. Nobody should expect that the current turbulence is going to subside and that there will be a neat solution within a few years.

In fact, what is happening now is that the global order established following the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is itself collapsing and is going to be replaced by a new order. And you should concentrate on helping the people build up that new order.

Finally, the order established after the First World War replaced the Ottoman Empire, which for 400 years dominated the region based in Turkey. And Iraq at that time ... for 400 years was three administrative districts operated separately by the Ottomans. The notion and nation of Iraq is a recent construct. It's less than 100 years old, and it's undergoing great strain now which it may not be able to survive.

The Atlantic's Steve Clemons, who was moderating the discussion, interjected with a question: "Why is it not sensible for Americans listening to you right now to say to the Middle East, 'Call us in a few hundred years when you're over this?'"

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the president and CEO of the New America Foundation and a former State Department official, argued that the U.S. had firm humanitarian and security grounds for intervening now, and doing so aggressively. She called not only for more robust support of the Syrian rebels, but also for airstrikes against militants and the Syrian regime—action Mitchell opposed for not being in America's interest. But even she suggested that the turmoil in the Middle East could be part of a decades-long struggle, likening today's conflicts to the early 17th century in Europe, when Catholics fought Protestants during the Thirty Years' War.

"Exactly as in the Middle East now, you had two competing religious sects, and you had territorial revisionism—that deadly combination of [redrawing] boundaries and [trying] to redraw them along sectarian lines," she explained. The war "killed one-third of the European population."

"And today, if you look at Syria, over half the population has been displaced," she continued. "The number of Syrian refugees in Jordan as a percentage of the population is the equivalent of all of Canada moving to the United States.... Let's just think what that would mean for our school system, our health system, our infrastructure. And that's just Jordan—[not] the implications for Lebanon, for Turkey, and of course now we see for Iraq. That's the question: Are we willing to stand back and watch the equivalent of the Thirty Years' War happen in the Middle East?"

Marwan Muasher, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and a former Jordanian foreign minister, similarly argued that setbacks to democracy since the Arab Spring in countries like Egypt were only to be expected in a region that has no experience with democratic values like freedom of speech, women's rights, and minority rights.

"There is no transformational process in history that unfolded in three years," he said, in reference to the 2011 uprisings. "And so we cannot assume that just because we're seeing all the chaos today that it necessarily means that the region is going to see a dark future or that the region is going to see a bright one." 

"There are no shortcuts to democracy in the Middle East," he added.

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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