April 1, 2020

New ‘big idea’ for Mideast could be big trouble

U.S. policy over the last decade has been very much influenced by big ideas designed to transform the Middle East. None of these ideas has worked, which is why Washington is
being bombarded with new, alternative big ideas.

I have watched one of these ideas evolve over the past year, getting bigger and bigger, and I would go so far as to call it the enemy from within.

But before I tell you what the enemy is, let us briefly look back at what has already gone wrong. We have to look back, because the debate today is the result of a decade of American failure in the Middle East. Three big American ideas or grand strategies for transforming the Middle East have failed over the last 10 years: peace, globalization and democracy.

Grand Failures

First, peace. That is the generic name, but you also know it under its brand name, the “new Middle East.” In the 1990s, some observers began to argue that the conflicts in the Middle East had been put out of business by the end of the Cold War. The Soviets were not around anymore to back up their Arab clients, such as the PLO and Syria. Their weakness supposedly left them more amenable to joining the “peace process.”

If peace agreements between Israel and its remaining enemies could be nailed down in a diplomatic push, the Middle East could become a cooperative zone, like the European Union. Animosities would wane; borders would melt.

The brand name, “new Middle East.” came from the title of a book published by Shimon Peres in 1993. Peres wrote: “I have earned the right to dream. So much that I dreamed in the past was dismissed as fantasy, but has now become thriving reality.”

But not every dream comes true, and the failed pursuit of fantasies is not without cost. In reality, it turned out that Syria and the PLO, even without the Soviets behind them, were not going to be pushed or pulled into any “new Middle East.”

Syria never came in, and the PLO stepped in at Oslo and then out again at Camp David. Yasser Arafat’s intifada then turned the “new Middle East” into an object of ridicule, and the peace process went down with it.

Second big idea: globalization. Where diplomacy couldn’t do the job, so the globalists said, economic forces would do it. Tom Friedman became the champion of this notion in his 1999 book, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree.” There he wrote about the “silent invasion going on in the Middle East — the invasion of information and private capital through the new system of globalization.”

The Arabs and Iranians would eventually have to put on what he called the “Golden Straitjacket.” “As your country puts on the Golden Straitjacket,” he wrote,” two things tend to happen: Your economy grows, and your politics shrink.”

Friedman filled his book with anecdotes about another Middle East, full of wired, business-focused Arabs and Persians. His book became a bestseller, because it made Americans feel good: Market forces would fix the world.

The United States tried to accelerate the process by organizing Middle East economic summits. And the United States punished bad guys with economic sanctions, which became the all-purpose jackknife of U.S. Middle East policy.

Even by the late 1990s, it was obvious that economic sanctions were not taming the radicals. But the globalization idea finally came crashing down with the Twin Towers on Sept. 11. Globalization, it turned out, could also empower the wrong Arabs — most obviously, Osama bin Laden and the global jihad.

They were using e-mail to plot terror acts, the banking system to transfer money and Web sites to post their videos, which were carried by Al-Jazeera via satellite to millions of viewers. Globalization in the Middle East, we now know, has not made politics shrink; it is making them expand, politicizing every corner of society, often against us.

If globalization wasn’t going to cure the Middle East, what would? Obvious, said the neoconservatives: democracy. The root cause of the problems in Middle East, they said, is the absence of democracy and the continued rule of dictators.

The way to cure the Middle East was to shake it up by promoting democracy — first by forced “regime change” in Iraq and then by encouraging liberals across the Middle East. The president launched what he described as a “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” It became known as the “Bush Doctrine.”

Now that big idea has crashed, too. It has crashed, first, as a result of the maelstrom in Iraq, and second, as a result of the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and the fact that free elections everywhere end in victory for Islamist zealots.

The “forward strategy of freedom” is ending in a quest for an exit strategy from chaos. Poll after poll now shows that the majority of Americans think there is no chance of making Iraq into a model democracy, and that is understating it. Promoting democracy to Arabs is coming to be regarded in this country as the ultimate fool’s errand.

So the three big ideas for transforming the Middle East — peace, globalization, democracy — all have been repulsed or hijacked by forces opposed to America’s vision.

The Next Big Thing

This has left us at one of those rare moments in Washington, when the playing field is suddenly made level for the competition of new big ideas. It happened after Sept. 11, and it is happening now because of Iraq.

In this environment, everyone gets a hearing. Jimmy Carter has a book on Palestine, and former Sen. George McGovern has one on Iraq. Ideas are ricocheting around town, some of them old, some of them recycled and some of them brand new.

We are seeing the beginning of a true battle of ideas. And there is a big idea out there that is moving toward the center of the battlefield and that I have no hesitation in describing as the enemy from within. This big idea calls itself “engagement.”