What You Need To Know About The Middle East
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” — George Santayana
Steven Pressfield recently wrote an in-depth piece on Iraq, Why We Will Never See Democracy in the Middle East. His main thesis that we are operating in Iraq while largely ignorant of
its culture and history is something our leadership needs to hear badly, and his statement that “to understand the nature of the enemy in the Middle East and to evaluate the prospects for democracy and peace, we need to extend our gaze not five years into the past, but five hundred and even five thousand” is very true. History couldn’t be more relevent right now. It’s clear our leaders, invading a country totally unrelated to 9/11 with some broad verbal brushstrokes and comments like Trent Lott’s: “Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me,” are woefully ignorant of the Middle East.
Pressfield, who recently penned two books about Alexander the Great’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, draws upon his knowledge of the East-West clash back then to draw conclusions about the conflict today, and concludes the worldview of tribalism and the tribesman is simply
irreconcilable with worldview of democracy and the citizen. And this is completely unrelated to religion. Pressfield’s citizen vs. tribesman formulation has some major flaws (Arabs aren’t the only
ones with a tribal mentality, anyone remember Hatfield and McCoy?) and we know that
any culture, no matter how tribal, can develop democratic institutions. But the argument is fascinating, and has some valid and very important aspects: mainly, it’s very apparent that Western pluralism and capitalism is incompatible with tribalism. The tribesman, as Pressman points out, owes loyalty only to his tribe and group, not a nation-state. He has no interest in a corporate economy of working for rich guys; he works for his family and tribe only, and his livelihood is
primarily goat and camel-based. The American right-wing made a miscalculation of historic proportions when they preemptively invaded Iraq on the premise that we would be “greeted as liberators” like when we liberated Holland from the Nazis in WWII. It is a laudable goal to want to overthrow tyrants and liberate people, but Holland had a centuries-old liberal tradition they were yearning to revert back to; Arab tribesmen don’t have Western values and aren’t particularly interested in them, nor should we expect them to want them. They certainly won’t come to Western values by the sword, and if we would learn from history, we would know Alexander and the Greeks couldn’t convert pre-Islamic Mesopotamia into Hellenized citizens even though they put much more direct effort into the project than we are, British colonialism couldn’t convert Islamic Mesopotamia to Western values no matter what they tried, and on and on. Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Study the interactive flash map above of the history of Imperial conquest in the Mideast. It’s a fantastic resource and really puts the current conflicts into a wider perspective.
What drew my attention in the animated map are:
First, empires expanding to massive proportions, encompassing many diverse cultures through force, then collapsing. We should see what’s coming.
Second, the colonial borders creating artificial nation-states in the 20th century! OMG! Am I the only one that sees this is causing the bulk of the Mideast’s problems? What we’re seeing now is the violent cramping from a century of colonialist border constipation. We’re experiencing the severe, severe consequences of the British Empire arbitrarily drawing crayon borders on their colonial “holdings” all over the globe without regard to natural ethnic and regional divisions. Enclosing people who have little in common and hate each other into the same country is not a good idea. It means violence. I talked about this in my last blog on Iraq.
Random crayoning in of Kurds, Sunnis and Shias into the artificial country of Iraq leads to a bad situation that has never functioned without a brutal tyrant holding it together. Before Saddam, it was another despot, and before that, a British-installed monarch. As we speak, Iraq is rapidly and violently breaking down into three nations. With the tribal mentality, Shia militias are going, “are you my tribe? (Shia)? Oh, you aren’t?” *SHOOTS YOU IN THE HEAD*
And visa versa with Sunni vs. Shia. It’s no coincidence that the most mixed area of Iraq, Baghdad, is also the bloodiest.
The newly adopted Iraqi constitution creates ethnic regions with basically all the power, and federal authority has few powers, so the groundwork for new nation-states has been laid. I’ve heard people moaning that the Iraqi Prime Minister isn’t stopping the violence, but how can he if the constitution gives him little power? The constitution was like a divorce document and armistice accord between the three factions. We already have, for all intents and purposes, an independent Kurdistan. We may end up, after a few more decades of bloodshed, with an independent Sunnistan and Shiastan.
In Afghanistan, the same problem of walling in completely different ethnic groups with random British crayon borders is creating constant violence today.
Iraqis aren’t greeting us with flowers, they’re greeting us like this. The latest polls show that 65 percent of Baghdad residents want an immediate pullout of U.S. forces (Washington Post).
If we really wanted democracy, we’d lean on all the Arab nations to allow a pan-Arab referendum. I bet Arab tribesmen would overwhelmingly vote to dissolve colonial boundaries and revert back to some sort of pan-Arab Caliphate, just as Holland yearned to revert back to what they were familar with, democracy, post-Nazi occupation. But we love propping up the oil monarchies who enforce the old British borders to preserve their reason for existing, so we would never sincerely push real voter freedom in the Middle East. And Bush has no new plan to hold together Iraq, nor the additional troops needed to actually hold territory, so it will continue to dissolve along sectarian lines, with the Shia region already a client state of Iran. Great work, Bush!
The Galbraith plan that I discussed in my last blog on Iraq, addresses the three factions and the reality on the ground of three new nations violently forming. Unfortunately, our leaders will not discuss any other plan besides “stay the course” of aimless bloodshed, but a new Iraq is emerging either way.
Another thing that popped out at me on the animated map was Israel. Jews have lived in Israel throughout 2000-years of foriegn domination. The most famous Jewish Kabbalistic scholarship was in Safed, Israel in the 16th century, where many fled after the 1492 explusion from Spain. The Jews established the Middle East’s first printing press there in 1578. The Jerusalem Talmud was written by Jews in Jerusalem in the 2nd century. Not too long prior to that we built the second Temple and a Jew named Jesus walked the Earth. The Jews have had a presence in Israel long before the mass Jewish immigrations of the 1890s and 1940s. We’ve always been in our ancestral homeland, Israel, and always will be, notwithstanding all the “expel the Jews” BS. The difference is that Jews are now a self-governing majority, since such a huge population fled the Holocaust and previous Russian explusions, whereas before, as the map so vividly illustrates, Jews in Israel were governed under the boot of the Assyrian Empire, Babylonian Empire, Persian Empire, Roman Empire, Greek Empire, the Caliphate and half a dozen huge Muslim Empires, the Crusaders, then the Ottomans, then the British Empire. Jews, especially the Orthodox, are wary of relying on the colonial powers. Yet miraculously, our tiny tribe has survived and kept our identity despite all that and the recent mass Holocaust. We’ll live on. Like our cousins, the Arabs, we are also very tribal, and will continue to cling to our tribal homeland. I identify with those Iraqis caught in another conflict with a superpower. May peace come to ALL PEOPLES of the world very soon.
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Filed under: Politics and Government