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Oil and Turmoil

July 11, 1996

In recent years, several Atlantic contributors have turned their attention to America's conflict-ridden relationship with the Middle East. In the wake of the Gulf War, the political scientist Christopher Layne explained "Why the Gulf War Was Not in the National Interest" (July, 1991), arguing that blunt military coercion by an external power such as the United States can never adequately resolve the subtle complexities of the Persian Gulf's political conflicts:

The Administration has been an innocent abroad in a region where problems are intractable and politics are Byzantine. The United States has been manipulated by regional powers -- Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria, Turkey, and Egypt -- pursuing their own agendas . . . . Americans should beware of the overweening ambition that is born of hubris. The world is not infinitely malleable. The United States has seldom done well trying to stage-manage the process of political change in other countries. It is the people in those countries who pay the price when American experiments in "nation-building" go awry. There are many problems in the world but few of them have "Made in America" solutions.

Two years later, in "The Persian Gulf: Still Mired" (June, 1993) the political scientist Alan Tonelson similarly argued that the United States should extricate itself as soon as possible from Gulf politics. The region, he asserted, is vehemently anti-Western and hopelessly unstable. If access to oil is the primary incentive for our entanglement there, then we need to push harder for energy alternatives:

To be sure, the Gulf states resemble real countries. They have heads of state, armies, and postage stamps. They send ambassadors abroad. Underneath, however, they are something else entirely: some are legal-political fictions, some family corporations in which the restive immigrant employees greatly outnumber the indigenous owners, others "tribes with flags." All are under constant assault by centrifugal forces ranging from ethnic and religious tensions to Islamic fundamentalism to pan-Arabism. For many regimes, making scapegoats of foreigners and infidels is the only hope of survival. In other words, the Gulf countries are either terminally insecure or irremediably bellicose.

Robert Kaplan's "Tales From the Bazaar" (August, 1992) takes a different approach to exploring U.S.-Arab relations. He focuses on the Americans who are, have been, or will in the future be prominently involved in diplomatic relations with Arab nations. Kaplan points out that U.S. Middle East specialists are generally considered to be among the most talented members of the State Department. "These people," he explains, "are a self-assured breed, for whom the word 'Arabist' implies a tight-knit fraternity within the diplomatic corps, united by their ability to speak a 'superhard' language and by a vivid, common experience abroad." Concerned observers, like foreign-policy expert Peter Rodman, however, worry that the very "breadth, depth, and texture of the Arabists' knowledge of the Arab world may work to immobilize their analytical thinking about it." Enamored of the exotic Arab world, Kaplan points out, the Arabists may, with disastrous consequences, sometimes fail to grasp or to acknowledge the grim realities of Gulf region politics. He does suggest, however, that a rising younger generation of Middle East specialists seems better equipped to address the complexities of the region's problems.

For more on the search for alternative energy sources, see "Mideast Oil Forever?" by Joseph J. Romm and Charles B. Curtis (April, 1996).

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