by Emily Clarkson
In recent decades, the Middle East has erupted into a volatile region that has been the focus of international aid and interest, a foreground for ideological struggles and proxy battles as powerful nations seek to expand their influence in the oil-rich states. I say recent, but the truth is that the Middle East can trace its instability back to colonial times, and it’s likely that imperialism is one of the root causes of its current afflictions.
In the nineteen hundreds, nationalist sentiment grew against Ottoman, French, and British control in the region, leading to demonstrations or, in some cases, direct opposition to imperialist rule. Arabs chafed against the ailing Turkish Empire, which at its height had united North Africa, Anatolia, the Middle East, and part of Europe in the Islamic faith. Though in the sixteenth century the Ottomans posed a threat to Europe, by the time of World War I, the empire was in decline, propped up by the British and French as a buffer against Russian expansion. The Ottoman’s decision to forsake its allies in World War I in the hope of securing Russian territory after a German victory was as foolish as it was disastrous for the region.
The British and French partition of the Middle East under the Sykes-Picot Treaty after the Ottoman’s defeat ignored religious and ethnic divides, leading to the current contested borders. Even after decolonization from western states, the waves of nationalism didn’t stop. The fierce struggle for Kurdish independence, the religious polarization between Islamic Sunnis and Shi’ites, moderates and jihadists, Muslims and Christians, and the rising enmity toward western interference have led to nation-states destroyed by war, beset by economic turmoil, and haunted by political divide.
Would it be accurate to say that we caused this, as has been argued? We—the western states—the “democratizing,” “modern,” “liberal” influence on the world. We started it after all, with the ill-determined divide of the Middle East into its current boundaries. Of course, we can’t deny the Ottoman Empire its fool’s role in that either. But, was it imperialism that began it all, and Western intervention since then that tipped already strained relations to the breaking point?
In part, at least, these arguments seem well-founded. Perhaps the most depressing example of the consequences of Western interference was the Iranian coup of 1953. The U.S. and British backed a coup of Mohammad Mossadegh, then the current prime minister of Iran. Mossadegh was first democratically elected to the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, and then appointed as prime minister by the Shah in 1951. However, after Mossadegh’s push to nationalize Iranian oil jeopardized Britian’s control over petroleum reserves, the pro-Western Shah dismissed him a year later. Yet, Mossadegh held great public popularity, and his dismissal sparked riots that led to his quick restoration. Britain enlisted America, who feared Iran would fall into the Soviet sphere of influence, to help oust Mossadegh and thereby increase the Shah’s monarchical power, leading to an oppressive regime that was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, 26 years later.
If you want more examples, take the Syrian coup d’etat, or the Iran-Contra affair, or the Yemen Civil War, or…I could go on, but I think it is plenty overwhelming enough as it is. The reality is that Western intervention taints Middle Eastern politics, and can be directly linked to dictatorial regimes and the political and military turmoil that has seized the region. The idealized version of America as a righteous protector of democracy and human rights is not altogether true, nor do I think that it is even widely believed. Economic and political considerations of outside actors have characterized the conflicts that played out across the borders. Yet, even if we acknowledge our responsibility in creating this mess, the question still remains as to how to fix it.
We could assume a policy of non-interference. Let the states develop in their own time. After all, it has worked before, and it’s working right now in Tunisia. Even if the process is a little precarious, that’s the reality of building a nation. But, there are many failures to go along with that one potential success story. Most of the Middle East is so ravaged, and so used to a history of interference, that I’m not sure if we can completely step back at this point. The “Arab Spring” that earned Tunisia admiration across both the Western and Arab world catapulted Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria into even worse conditions than those they started with.
In Egypt, high unemployment and soaring prices after the 2008 financial crisis exacerbated anger toward Honsi Mubarak’s government, a dictatorship marked by high inequality, extreme poverty, political corruption, and the torture and imprisonment of opposition. The United States forced Mubarak’s resignation—although he had previously been an ally—and eventually the people elected Mohamed Morsi to the presidency. Yet, soon after Morsi took power, he passed an Islamist constitution contradicting the spirit of secularism that had spurred the revolution, and attempted to seize unprecedented power by dismissing constitutional limits on presidential power. The leader who replaced him, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, instituted a structure remarkably similar to the one before: a regime that repressed dissidents.
Bahrain’s “Arab Spring” inspired even less change. Remonstrations against the ruling Al Khalifa family were met with violence and imprisonment. Although the campaign continues, police brutality and freedom of speech infringements have kept resistance in check.
The nation-states of Libya, Yemen, and Syria followed a bloodier path. In Libya, rebel forces ousted Muammar Gaddafi with the assistance of NATO in 2011. However, the militia groups that had united against Gaddafi now split, prompting a second civil war. Then there’s Yemen, with a continued conflict. The previous authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, ceded control to his deputy, Hadi, in 2011. Unfortunately, the new government proved unable to contend with the political factions vying for power amid harsh economic conditions. Disillusioned, the Houthi rebels incited an uprising against Hadi, but 10 Arabic states supported by America, the UK, and France intervened to restore Hadi’s rule.
Syria’s destructive civil war stems from conflict between pro-democracy rebels and fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Protests crushed by government force escalated violence, provoking dissenters to carry weapons and eventually form rebel brigades. The insurgency, which originally began as opposition to Assad’s authoritarianism, evolved into a conflict between Sunnis and Shia Alawites, though international political rivalry and the seizure of Syrian territory by ISIS has further complicated the war.
The most destructive clash in the region, the Syrian civil war, displaced 6.3 million citizens internally and created more than 4.8 million Syrian refugees by December of 2016. Syria may contribute the largest number, but Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern countries have flooded Europe with migrants seeking better lives. The terrible conditions endured by the civilians, many of whom have no access to drinking water or adequate food, have led to a climbing death toll. Refugees burden Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, aggravating financial strain on their economies.
Heated debates across Europe over which countries should share the inflow have turned the refugee crisis into an international problem. In countries such as Germany, which have accepted a large number of refugees, political backlash over terror attacks and rising refugee costs demonstrate the controversy that has erupted across many states faced with the decision to either absorb large numbers of foreigners or turn their backs on civilians fleeing a nation that can no longer provide a safe home for them.
The issue has only been exacerbated by a faltering deal between Turkey and the E.U., wherein Turkey agreed to accept migrants stranded in Greece provided that the E.U. streamline its immigration process and give aid. Yet, the refugees have not been sent back. The deal seems under the point of collapse after recent purges undertaken by the Turkish government in response to a recent coup raised international concern. For many refugees, their dream of reaching Europe has once again been ignited, but for Greece, a border state struggling with the influx of thousands of refugees while facing its own economic hardships, the continual entrance of migrants has led to a desperate situation.
The current migrant crisis has reinvigorated an old debate. Should we accept immigrants fleeing poverty, persecution, and war in their home countries despite the burden they impose? Is it the responsibility of Europe, and even further, of the U.S. to shelter people who have risked their lives to escape from political and economic turmoil?
The answer right now seems to be a resounding no. As Western governments face the pressure of rising public fear of terrorist attacks from refugees fleeing states with established terrorist threats to the West, the solution seems to be to close our borders and bunker down more securely inside.
In America, Trump enacted a travel ban to protect the country from nations the government considers a threat, namely Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria. (Although Iraq was initially named, its ban has since been revoked.) While it is true that these countries contain factions that harbor resentment toward America for its years of interference in the Middle East, none of them were participants in the 9/11 attacks that were cited as a cause for the initial ban.
Opposition to the ban in the U.S. mainly centers on concerns that it attempts religious persecution rather than removing a genuine safety threat. This concern is likely why the language prioritizing religious minorities from these countries was removed. While some argued that giving preferential status to religious minorities would benefit those who suffered from religious persecution, others feared that it was a way for the U.S. to advance Christian values and discriminate against Muslims. Also removed from the original ban was an indefinite no-flight status for Syrian refugees, which has been reduced to a 120-day period, requiring review and renewal after the days are up.
It’s true that right now people are scared. They fear that refugees from the unstable Middle East will carry out terrorist attacks that might end up injuring them or a loved one. Whether or not this fear is founded, the ban at least serves a palliative role by alleviating some of this concern. Yet, the question remains whether a psychological, or even a real fear, is enough to warrant refusing people who have few other options to turn to. America, so far, has said yes. Of course, we’re not completely closed off, and the ban will end in 90 days after all—not to mention that a large proportion of America opposes it, including many judges seemingly committed to blocking it.
But, perhaps the greatest impact of this policy is its demonstration of the “America First” principle that characterized first Trump’s campaign, and now his presidency. While we have not always served our role of expanding democratic ideals and supplying aid—indeed, there were many times we fell short—it has largely been a responsibility we accepted, and even initiated. Maybe it’s part of the reason for the high degree of American interference in the Middle Eastern region, and the Middle East’s resulting dissatisfaction with the West.
In the past, economic and political considerations took probably a greater part in our interactions. Perhaps it would be best to abandon all pretense of responsibility if we no longer desire it. Yet this role that has haunted us for the last 100 years now seems so integrated into our identity as to be a basic principle of our nation. We have to ask whether we’re really ready to give it up.
If we aren’t, then we’ll need to consider a different strategy in Middle Eastern politics. Since overt tampering proved disastrous and non-intervention possibly worse, we should try to emulate our past successes. Although there’s contention over whether the first Persian Gulf War can really be called a success, its quick and clean execution might provide the key to how we should structure our foreign policy in the region.
After Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia and Egypt requested American and European assistance. In a rare display of unity, the U.N. Security Council authorized “all necessary means” of force against Iraq if it continued its occupation. The coalition forces, of which the U.S. was the largest in number, quickly overtook the Iraqi air forces and within two months defeated the ground forces in Kuwait and Iraq.
A major difference between the first Persian Gulf War and the second one is the international support the invasion to protect Kuwait garnered. In many of our other endeavors, the U.S. alone interfered in the Middle East while lacking international backing. The extra influence of European, Asian, and Arabic countries in the first Gulf War added pressure to Hussein and his allies, while also raising America’s reputation as a positive force (at least for much of the world). The simplicity of the coalition’s goal and their ability to carry it out may also be attributable to international cooperation. Individual countries have diverse goals, so their interference may be more oriented toward their interests, but a conglomeration of nations that shares one goal may be more altruistic and effective.
If we were to adopt a policy of non-interference except under occasions of international support, we might find it easier to achieve our initial aim without becoming ensnared in the messy process of rebuilding a nation. The second Persian Gulf War, better known as the Iraq War, demonstrates the consequences of haphazard interference in a nation. After deposing Hussein, America occupied Iraq for almost eight years to restore calm in what had essentially degenerated into a civil war. We didn’t consider what would come next after Hussein was overthrown.
While we need to allow the countries of the Middle East time to develop themselves, we also can’t completely abandon them. The results of the recent “Arab Spring,” which promised hope for the spread of Western ideals ended in disaster. The civil wars that continue to afflict Syria, Libya, and Yemen, the tension between the ruling Al Khalifa and its dissidents in Bahrain, and the renewal of oppressive dictatorship in Egypt despite the blood spilt to establish democratic rule is testament to the difficulties that a region historically marked by ideological, ethnic, and religious conflict will confront in instituting a stable reformed government.
We need to remember the history of imperialism, which both sparked nationalist pride and shattered the Middle East into boundaries where those sentiments would come into conflict. The current divisions and atrocities playing out across the borders of quite possibly the most volatile region in the world are as much to blame on the West as on the East.
The partition of guilt doesn’t really matter. What we do next does.