What Americans Don't Understand About The Middle East


Tom Ricks interviews historian Geoffrey Wawro:

Americans look at the Middle East through the lens of terrorism. This is analogous to the Cold War tendency to view the Middle East as a place under perpetual threat from Communism. In fact, most Middle Eastern peoples detest terrorism, and their security services are committed to its destruction. Unfortunately, states like Iran, Syria, Libya and Iraq under Saddam play a double game. Although frightened by terrorist extremism, they succor groups that they can wield tactically against their enemies, chiefly Israel. In the event of a U.S. war with Iran, those groups -- like Hezbollah -- would be unleashed against Americans and U.S. interests as well. What this means for Americans, is that we must proceed delicately.

It is foolhardy to imagine we can "rid the world of terrorism," if only because terror attacks are an asymmetric weapon wielded by weaker states against stronger ones. Syria is certainly a "terrorist state" in the sense that it gives cover to anti-Israeli terrorist groups -- which Damascus regards as no more objectionable than Israeli F-16s -- but it is also a country that we can do business with, solidifying gains in Iraq, managing Lebanon and the Kurds, and fighting al-Qaeda. This complexity, with its strong odor of amorality, exasperates Americans, but is an ineradicable piece of the Middle Eastern landscape, of the "quicksand" I describe in my new book.

(Photo: A US soldier from the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, is reflected on water logged on a street during a patrol at an area in Baghdad, 13 January 2008. By Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.)