Western commentators constantly highlight the strategic importance of the Middle East because of its huge oil reserves, ongoing turmoil and strategic location.
However, a leading American strategist contends the region is now “less relevant than ever” and so should be downgraded. Joseph Poprzeczny reports.
A leading American strategist, who is neither an isolationist nor amongst the growing number of Congressional opponents to America’s involvement in Iraq, has urged a military pull-back from the Middle East.
Edward Luttwak, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, has argued in the latest issue of the English intellectual monthly, Prospect (May 2007), that Middle Eastern experts fall victim to three misconceptions whenever arguing for military or other forms of engagement in the region.
The first mistake, says Luttwak, is “five minutes to midnight” catastrophism. “Why are Middle East experts so unfailingly wrong?” he asks.
“The lesson of history is that men never learn from history, but Middle East experts, like the rest of us, should at least learn from their past mistakes. Instead, they just keep repeating them.”
According to Luttwak, the experts keep warning of some great catastrophe that will break out in the Middle East, as if “five minutes to midnight” was upon us. But whenever crunch time comes, “nothing much” happens.
He says that what invariably occurs is “the same old cyclical conflict which always restarts when peace is about to break out, and always dampens down when the violence becomes intense enough”.
“Humanitarians should note that the dead from Jewish-Palestinian fighting since 1921 amount to fewer than 100,000 – about as many as are killed in a season of conflict in Darfur,” says Luttwak.
Strategically, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been almost irrelevant since the end of the Cold War, he contends.
As for the impact of that conflict on oil prices, he concedes these were disruptive in 1973 with Saudi Arabia’s embargo, but that was the first and last time the “oil weapon” was used.
“For decades now, the largest Arab oil-producers have publicly foresworn any linkage between politics and pricing, and an embargo would be a disaster for their oil-revenue dependent economies,” Luttwak says.
The relationship between Middle Eastern turmoil and oil prices isn’t straightforward, he contends, and global dependence on Middle Eastern oil is declining.
The second repeated mistake is what Luttwak calls “the Mussolini syndrome”.
History had shown that, before World War II, Western military chiefs accepted Mussolini’s claims of great-power status because he commanded sizeable military forces.
“His army divisions, battleships and air squadrons were dutifully counted to assess Italian military power, making some allowance for their lack of the most modern weapons, but not for their more fundamental refusal to fight in earnest,” says Luttwak.
However, most Italian soldiers were unwilling conscripts who hailed from Italy’s undeveloped south or its almost equally undeveloped sharecropping northern villages.
“Exactly the same mistake keeps being made by the fraternity of Middle East experts,” he says.
“They persistently attribute real military strength to backward societies whose populations can sustain excellent insurgencies but not modern military forces.
“Now the Mussolini syndrome is at work over Iran.
“All the symptoms are present, including tabulated lists of Iran’s warships, despite the fact that most are over 30-years old; of combat aircraft, many of which (F-4s, Mirages, F-5s, F-14s) have not flown in years for lack of spare parts; and of divisions and brigades that are so only in name.
“As for Iran’s claim to have defeated Israel by Hezbollah proxy in last year’s affray, the publicity was excellent but the substance went the other way, with roughly 25 per cent of the best-trained men dead, which explains the tomb-like silence and immobility of the once rumbustious Hezbollah ever since the ceasefire.
“It is true enough that if Iran’s nuclear installations are bombed in some overnight raid, there is likely to be some retaliation, but we live in fortunate times in which we have only the irritant of terrorism instead of world wars to worry about.
“Even the seemingly fragile tanker traffic down the Gulf and through the Straits of Hormuz is not as vulnerable as it seems – Iran and Iraq have both tried to attack it many times without much success, and this time the US Navy stands ready to destroy any airstrip or jetty from which attacks are launched.
“As for the claim that the ‘Iranians’ are united in patriotic support for the nuclear program, no such nationality even exists.
“Out of Iran’s population of 70 million or so, 51 per cent are ethnically Persian, 24 per cent are Turks (‘Azeris’ is the regime’s term), with other minorities comprising the remaining quarter.
“Many of Iran’s 16-17 million Turks are in revolt against Persian cultural imperialism; its 5-6 million Kurds have started a serious insurgency; the Arab minority detonates bombs in Ahvaz; and Baluch tribesmen attack gendarmes and revolutionary guards.”
The third and greatest mistake of Middle East experts is what Luttwak calls “the very odd belief that these ancient nations are highly malleable”.
Advocates of hardline and softline policies fall prey to this misconception. Those suggesting targeted violence against seemingly threatening Middle Eastern regimes (“the Arabs only understand force”) contend this will result in compliance.
“But what happens every time is an increase in hostility; defeat is followed not by collaboration, but by sullen non-cooperation and active resistance too,” he says.
“It is not hard to defeat Arab countries, but it is mostly useless. Violence can work to destroy dangerous weapons but not to induce desired changes in behaviour.
“Softliners make exactly the same mistake in reverse. They keep arguing that if only this or that concession were made, if only their policies were followed through to the end and respect shown, or simulated, hostility would cease and a warm Mediterranean amity would emerge.
“Yet even the most thinly qualified of Middle East experts must know that Islam, as with any other civilisation, comprehends the sum total of human life, and that unlike some others it promises superiority in all things for its believers, so that the scientific and technological and cultural backwardness of the lands of Islam generates a constantly renewed sense of humiliation and of civilisational defeat.
“That fully explains the ubiquity of Muslim violence, and reveals the futility of the palliatives urged by the softliners.”
Luttwak says that what he calls the “operational mistake that Middle East experts keep making” fails to recognise that “backward societies must be left alone”.
He says: “That brings us to the mistake that the rest of us make. We devote far too much attention to the Middle East, a mostly stagnant region where almost nothing is created in science or the arts – excluding Israel, per capita patent production of countries in the Middle East is one fifth that of sub-Saharan Africa.
“The people of the Middle East (only about five per cent of the world’s population) are remarkably unproductive, with a high proportion not in the labour force at all.
“Not many of us would care to work if we were citizens of Abu Dhabi, with lots of oil money for very few citizens.
“The Middle East was once the world’s most advanced region, but these days its biggest industries are extravagant consumption and the venting of resentment.
“Unless compelled by immediate danger, we should therefore focus on the old and new lands of creation in Europe and America, in India and East Asia – places where hard-working populations are looking ahead instead of dreaming of the past.”
Luttwak’s urging to effectively ignore the Middle East is, of course, open to criticism and a request for further explanation.
Perhaps the most obvious point critics could make is to remind him that the United States did precisely what he recommends with respect to Afghanistan after Soviet forces pulled out in February 1989.
Throughout the 1980s the US supplied various Mujahideen fighting units operating from Pakistan with munitions, including deadly Stinger missiles that impeded the deployment of Soviet helicopters and other aircraft.
The US decision to discontinue involvement in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal has been roundly criticised because the various Mujahideen groups launched an internecine war that the fundamentalist Taliban exploited to impose their purist variant of Islam.
And it was Taliban-controlled Afghanistan that Osama Bin Laden’s Al–Qaeda (The Base) used as a training ground and springboard to launch the 9/11 attacks upon New York’s twin towers and Washington DC.
American involvement in Iraqi affairs during the 1980s was also minimal, on a scale that Luttwak would undoubtedly approve.
Yet its leader, Saddam Hussein, went on to attack and occupy Kuwait and further threatened to take over Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, the Emirate states and the entire southern coastal region of the Persian Gulf.
Hussein’s actions and what he threatened within the Middle East can by no stretch of the imagination be seen as a direct military threat to America and the West. But it did directly threaten the West’s economic interests.
Did not Hussein’s Kuwaiti adventure, and what it may have led to, justify the subsequent military response by a grand alliance of Western and Arab forces?
On the other hand, the more recent US-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to a far less satisfactory outcome.
Was it a wise move by America’s George W. Bush, Britain’s Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard’s to topple Hussein, rather than emulate earlier American Presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton’s approach of tolerating Hussein, albeit at arms length?
No doubt these questions, along with Luttwak’s unusual and thought-provoking thesis, will continue to be debated for years to come.
– Joseph Poprzeczny.