The Compromised Road to Peace in the Middle East: Having Our Cake and Not Eating It Too

This is another our-interference-in-the-Middle-East-got-us-into-this-mess piece. For this, I'm not ashamed. Graham Fuller, a respected commentator and the former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council of the CIA, made a similar claim at the beginning of the shift from daring to mainstream. Noam Chomsky agrees. But the history of interference and exploitation by Western aggressors has trampled the desert sands of the Middle East longer than our collective memories often allow.

It's not an exaggeration to say that nearly every crook and corner of this region has been touched by the lurid history of Western imperialism extending from before, but intensified during, World War I to the chaotic events of today. And the countries that carried out this brutal colonization imported much of their own intolerant attitudes that many in the West pin on Muslims. As one example among many, the religious intolerance, discrimination, and rivalry for which Westerners look down their noses at Islamic-majority countries in the Middle East? That was us not too many decades ago; we gave them that.

Of course, this one example -- even if it accurately describes some facets of Middle Eastern society, in isolated places, at sporadic moments -- is nevertheless only a streamlined caricature. Yet this doesn't diminish the fact that much of the behaviour, ideologies, and attitudes in the Middle East that offend Western sensitivities are remnants of our own past; we're looking in a frozen mirror or a time capsule, one whose lid we screwed on so tight through exploitation, marginalization, and political manipulation that these crudely demarcated countries didn't stand a chance.

And as the West has held an advantage from its wealth through exploitation, power through marginalization, and innovation through freedoms we refuse to afford others, our suppression and exploitation of other parts of the world -- including the Middle East -- have made it next to impossible for these regions to flourish to the same degree. Despite the many kind, generous, intelligent, hospitable, industrious, loving, and peaceful souls who live throughout the Middle East today, the violent bursts of religious rivalry in this region that flash across our TV screens or fill our Facebook feeds are artifacts of the attitudes we instilled in them seventy, eighty, ninety years ago; we simply didn't give them an opportunity to pierce the suffocating layer of the antiquated cultural and political habits we left behind. And believe me, with our unfettered interference in this region, it was and is our opportunity to give.

And so, given this disreputable incursion in a region we never had any business entering (like any other region in the world that seems to have performed much better without us), a primary feature of this history of colonialism -- political, cultural, economic, or a combination of the above -- also betrays the underlying reason for the ongoing violence in the Middle East in their various forms during the past several decades:

Western powers want to have their cake and eat it too.

This is the crux of the matter, the defining characteristic that makes the ongoing violence so intractable and unpredictable. NATO nations want to maintain two parallel strands that cancel each other out while pretending that they can co-exist: exploitation and peace. They want to swallow this region up and still have it left in tact on the serving dish.

Unwilling to make any true or comprehensive sacrifices on either side, these two conflicting and contradictory desires will inevitably disfigure one of them due simply to their proximity, until this disfigured desire becomes completely unrecognizable -- its opposite, actually. In the case at hand, peace becomes war, while our exploitation remains in tact. And it's not that the U.S. and its allies expect peace or are surprised when it is perennially and predictably threatened, but they certainly don't want violence to wash up on their own shores or sabotage their ability to continue exploiting the Middle East.

From Concessions to Sacrifice

Now it seems that some war-weary political analysts are expressing cautious optimism over the recent negotiations in Vienna between the major powerbrokers involved in the Syrian Civil War. The reasons for this optimism? The effects of war fatigue, bitter rivals have -- to the surprise of many -- agreed to be in the same room together (Iran and Saudi Arabia especially), and new or tweaked concessions have emerged -- a greater show of unity regarding the role of Assad in the proposed transitional Syrian government most important among these concessions.

Concessions. These, I'm afraid, are all relative -- relative to our expectations. And expectations, I'm even more afraid, are the ceilings we instinctively place on the "realistic" actions of superpowers and their allies based on repeated patterns and normative molds that we are unable to emotionally, psychological, and intellectually escape. Creativity, it seems, has a price tag.

Despite our unwillingness to concede this, however, for concessions to be genuine, they require painful sacrifices ... no, I mean really painful, radical, progressive, long-term, lasting, permanent, comprehensive, sincere, not-going-to-undermine-them-later-when-it's-more-convenient-and-nobody-is-looking, so-radical-you're-not-going-to-do-them-but-I'm-still-going-to-tell-you-to-do-them sacrifices.

If history is any indication, achieving this degree of necessary sacrifice is unlikely--laughably so, even. As Chomsky has observed, the typical pattern (so painfully obvious) in regions that the U.S. and its allies have interfered in and exploited to the Nth degree is to support a despot who is "pro-business" until external factors make it impossible to do so anymore, either because the military has turned on him or due to the intensity of popular unrest. Then, these Western powers tacitly and provisionally support those groups and individuals who oppose autocratic rule while introducing parallel platitudes praising democracy. Finally, they gradually and clandestinely re-establish a new dictatorship under the guise of democracy and solidarity with those who initiated the unrest. But this predictable pattern always includes our unwillingness to make genuine sacrifices even though that which we are unwilling to sacrifice is causing the backlash we don't want.

The responses of an ISIS prisoner on death row to the questions of his interviewer, Lydia Wilson, is a good example and reminder of those who feel squeezed by the moving pieces of this disturbing pattern: after admitting that concern for his family's financial well-being as they languished in poverty for so many years was the primary factor that drew him to ISIS, he turned to an American ex-colonel who was present in the room during the interview and remarked, "The Americans came. They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn't like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn't have war. When you came here, the civil war started." It's a sobering reminder of our hasty imperialism that this interview took place in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, the terminus of the line dividing Syria and Iraq on the map of the Middle East that formed the basis of the Sykes-Picot agreement, about which Mark Sykes nonchalantly remarked, "I should like to draw a line from the "e" in Acre to the last "k" in Kirkuk."

This is also the cyclical, insane context that many unheralded, courageous, and creative peacebuilders on the ground -- including analysts, strategists, and practitioners -- have to contend with and adapt to out of necessity.

So What Should We Do?

Despite the obvious sacrifices we should make, the question -- whose possible answers are seldom exhausted -- is still often asked, "What should we do about the violence in the Middle East, whether the war in Syria or the brutality of ISIS?" If, or rather because, we've already established our military presence in this region for over a century, this question typically takes the misguidedly self-assured form of, "What else are we supposed to do?" in a tone and tenor that renders all other available options absurd and with an indolent resignation to more failed policies and actions.

Disappointingly but not surprisingly, all the suggestions below of what we should do definitely won't happen any time soon because they require the sacrifice I've already suggested we won't make: the relinquishment of economic and geopolitical advantage in the world and the Middle East in particular. The pool from which we draw our expectations of what our politicians should do is as shallow as our expectation of a (finally) positive outcome after perennially recycling our failed policies and actions is irrational.

But a salient yet inconvenient truth hasn't gone unnoticed: the U.S. and its allies, in their refusal to sacrifice their economic and geopolitical advantage in the world, have nevertheless welcomed other sacrifices -- the erosion of freedom, security, harmony, relationships, shared humanity, unity, and peace of mind -- exhibited most recently in the lockdown in Brussels. These latter sacrifices, however, adversely affect the many who are far removed from the levers of wealth and power, while the former sacrifices -- i.e., those that American politicians and their corporate sponsors refuse to make -- would erode the scaffolding the props up America's plutocracy.

I've been deliberately holding off on listing the sacrifices because they're so obvious that to list them is borderline embarrassing. That said, what could we do that -- although difficult to imagine because they've never been done before -- surely a country that can mobilize a $607-billion military could do if they truly desired?

Reallocate all or most of the $607 billion currently earmarked for the U.S. military annually to...

  • track, confiscate, and/or destroy all U.S.-manufactured -- and, if other countries participate, their countries' (especially Russian) -- armaments and munitions in the Middle East;
  • close all bank accounts of terrorist organizations and otherwise cut off funding, especially from states -- some of them our allies -- that sponsor terrorism;
  • hack into and close all online forums -- including social media accounts -- used for recruitment and propaganda of terrorist organizations;
  • generously -- and I mean really generously -- fund peacebuilding and conflict transformation analysis and operations and their supporting organizations, with the United States Institute of Peace a good starting candidate;
  • invest wholeheartedly and comprehensively in social and economic development in regions most affected by terrorism;
  • completely fund and provide human resources for effective civil resistance movements and citizen diplomacy.

In their applicable parts at least, the above is, of course, a list that describes many other parts of the world from Mayotte and Iceland to Indonesia, Uruguay, and Sweden. Why can't we imagine and do the same for the Middle East? Making this list is a good start. As obvious as its items are, they help us visualize and imagine parallel realities that break the mold and shatter the constraints that politicians and CEOs force on us. Often that which is obvious becomes buried in our subconscious, and vocalizing what's obvious can elevate this to the level of consciousness -- which, in turn, can make us more conscientious. And becoming conscientious can help us become more informed and active.

And what would all these actions accomplish? They would drastically reduce the existence of all light and heavy armaments used in these violent rampages, undermine the ideological reasons to join terrorist organizations, eliminate the economic scarcity that renders paid positions fighting for groups such as ISIS attractive, and therefore minimize the frustration and desperation that leads to violence while building hope -- that is, the conditions that exist in places in the world that already look like the applicable parts of the above list.

We can make these changes, but the sad truth is we don't want to. In the problematic "us vs. them" paradigm, the "us" is just as immoral and opportunistic as the "them." We want to have our cake (peace) and eat it too (exploitation). It nevertheless gives those of us who bypass this "us vs. them" dichotomy an answer that, although not as plausible, is just as doable as bombing and exploiting the Middle East. Eventually, however, we're going to have to weigh the sacrifices we can choose to make against the sacrifices we've increasingly been forced to make. Hopefully that day comes soon.