Understanding the Middle East Upheaval

By Shoshana Bryen

The 21st Century has thus far been one of turmoil in the Middle East that has reverberated in the West with terrorism and increasingly tenuous access to oil. It is essential for the United States to find its political footing amid the upheaval. As a practical matter, the turmoil caused by violent Islamic radicalism will not dissipate or cease in the wake of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s death.

By Shoshana Bryen

The 21st Century has thus far been one of turmoil in the Middle East that has reverberated in the West with terrorism and increasingly tenuous access to oil. It is essential for the United States to find its political footing amid the upheaval. As a practical matter, the turmoil caused by violent Islamic radicalism will not dissipate or cease in the wake of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s death.

After 9-11, President Bush framed two fundamental and related problems: First, right after the attacks, he chose the formulation, “the war against terrorists and the states that harbor and support them.” This reflected the President’s understanding that to carry out large-scale acts of terrorism, terrorists need what only states can give them – sanctuary, training grounds, arms, money, passports, diplomatic status and political support. Furthermore, states that want to kill without leaving a return address for retaliation (plausible deniability) sponsor terrorists to do it for them.

To call it a war against both terrorists and their state sponsors is to acknowledge the symbiosis and the need to break it.

Second, in November 2003, speaking before the British Parliament in Whitehall, President Bush talked about what drives the current upheaval in the region:

[Britain and the U.S.] in the past have been willing to make a bargain to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold. As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own back yard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.

The Obama administration, while not disagreeing with President Bush’s formulations, took a different path, assuming a level of American and Western responsibility – not for supporting tyrants, but for what President Obama called in his Cairo address, “a perception among Muslim societies of unjust aggression stemming from the West.”

President Obama also appears to take Tolstoy’s view of the rebellions across the Arab world. It was Tolstoy who said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

But, to the extent that they ever appeared “happy,” most Arab and North African countries appeared so as a result of repression – sometimes leavened by oil money, sometimes not. Today, every Arab family appears unhappy but while there are differences, with apologies to Tolstoy, they are primarily unhappy in the same way. And we can draw policy prescriptions from understanding the pattern.

For the United States to stop and consider each country, each revolution, and each change of government as independent, molding policy from scratch each time will leave the West farther behind the curve as events move faster than we can respond.

We are at the end of the nearly century-long post-colonial period in the Middle East and North Africa that began after World War I. We are seeing the collapse of maps drawn primarily by the British and French Foreign Offices – which they drew largely on the ruins of the colonial Ottoman Empire. Which, in turn, was drawn on the ruins of the Byzantine, Roman, Greek and other empires. This is not a history of independent countries.

Two primary forms of Arab regime emerged from British and French mapmakers – tribal sheikdoms and secular dictatorships heavily dependent on the military. All have religious and ethnic minorities that have suffered various levels of oppression.

There are four common elements underpinning revolutions from Tunisia to Bahrain, from Syria to Libya, from Yemen to Egypt. They are corruption, money, sex and humiliation.

Corruption: This was the most commonly heard popular complaint in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. Some regimes with oil have wealthy tribal, religious and princely elites, others such as Libya or Iraq under Saddam used oil wealth to fund the military that kept them in power. Secular dictatorships without oil (such as Egypt and Syria) also concentrated wealth in the hands of the military elite. Iran has oil, religious elites and a military oligarchy. The middle class, where it exists, is small and generally beholden to the elites for employment.

Money: The countries of the region are statist and/or nominally socialist, doling out jobs or co-opting people into government service, which makes for inefficient job creation. Large numbers of educated young people are unable to find work because no government can ever generate sufficient jobs, and the people cannot manage their way through the maze of government regulation to become market-based entrepreneurs. (Technology-based entrepreneurialism is impossible in societies that regulate communication.)

Sex and humiliation: Sex in the Muslim-dominated world is meant to be a function of marriage. The casual sex and lively single life of Western capitals is not available to Muslim men for financial and social reasons. Money is necessary for marriage. If they are unemployed or underemployed they cannot get married and, therefore, do not have sex. It is not an accident that young men with no hope of marriage are lured into jihad in part with the promise of virgins in the afterlife. It wasn’t an accident that the Tunisian revolution was touched off by a young man with an “illegal” vegetable cart humiliated by a corrupt female police officer.

Marriage is not only a euphemism for sex: a wife, job, home and family are the attributes of adulthood. But without jobs, marriage is postponed and young men often remain in their parents’ homes well into their 30s. To be fully grown but less than an adult in the eyes of society is a great humiliation.

Islamic radicalism has no answer to the problem of the rise of educated and ambitious young people while corruption and repression combine to limit the economic and social opportunities available to them. Religious despots are not a positive alternative to secular despots.

The Taliban, al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, however, are motivated by the belief that what they do is good, important, moral and righteous. They are not only reacting to what they believe is wrong with the West, but what is right for them.

Our Western heritage – not of electoral politics necessarily – but free speech, rule of law (meaning a single set of laws equally applied to everyone regardless of religion, race, gender or political status), free market economics, independent judiciaries, property rights and tolerance is, in fact, responsive to the conditions faced by demonstrators across the Middle East and North Africa. It is appalling, and more than a little bit condescending, that in a misguided attempt at political correctness neither the U.S. government nor our Western allies appear willing to talk about the universal benefits of Western Civilization.

There is a tragic legacy when these values are not extolled.

In living memory, Europe abandoned its liberal tolerance and the Holocaust was the result. Abandoning the defense of traditional European liberalism and Western civilization now would be a tragedy.

In the end, the young Muslim men and women of the Middle East are on to something. It is for us to decide whether and how we can help. It is not known, however, whether it would help for free societies to speak confidently about the benefits of Western civilization and our willingness to share it with those willing to listen and participate. There is a far greater certainty, however, that if the United States does not see it as part of our policy the alternatives will leave future generations in the Muslim world farther and farther behind economically and socially. And that cannot be good for them or for us.

Shoshana Bryen is JINSA’s Senior Director for Security Policy