Perpetuating the status quo serves no one’s interests, except the groups that thrive on instability. The cost of not directly dealing with this situation is surpassing the cost of directly doing so.
Nearly every country in the Middle East is at war with itself or one of its neighbors. Armed groups of international terrorists and disgruntled former military servicemen occupy lands of sovereign nations, instituting reigns of terror not seen on such a scale in decades. The United States has intervened on the side of Iran—a sworn enemy—in the ISIS conflict of Iraq and Syria but has supported a coalition fighting against Iranian interests in the Yemen conflict. All the while the US and other Western allies negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran in the cocoon of political neutrality in the Swiss Alps. And, just to makes matters more confusing, the US – Israel relationship is at a historical low point.
These are truly confusing times.
A recent Foreign Policy article entitled Operation Charlie Foxtrot aptly describes the bizarreness of the current situation. By the way, Charlie Foxtrot is military shorthand for saying that something is a “cluster f…” I’m sure you can figure out the rest. The article explains that the Obama administration is clearly not at fault for all of the chaos playing out in the region, but that it certainly is guilty of strategic incoherence. I think that this point is extremely valid.
I want, however, to advance this concept beyond simply what the US should do. While the US certainly has a unique role to play as the world’s largest military and economic super power, it is also part of many alliances and organizations that have a vested stake in the future status of the Middle East. These groups include NATO, the OECD, the World Bank, the IMF, the G8, and the UN, among others.
None of these organizations seem to have much to say about the future of the Middle East. They all seem to want peace and prosperity. But they don’t have much to offer beyond stale platitudes and empty gestures.
This is what I call malignant neglect. As opposed to benign neglect—a term used to describe a hands off approach that helps by reducing unnecessary interference—malignant neglect is a policy that abandons a challenging situation by refusing to take a clear position. The world right now is sitting by and watching the Middle East tear itself apart with little prospect for regional peace or security.
Millions of people in the region are facing horrifying levels of insecurity. And it’s only getting worse. The Arab Spring appeared to be a crack in the façade of several authoritarian regimes, the opening of which should have heralded the flowering of openness and opportunity so rare in this part of the world. Sadly, the groups that have benefitted most from the Arab Spring seem to be multinational terrorist organizations.
The demise of Gaddafi in Libya and the weakening of Assad in Syria haven’t brought peace and prosperity. These events, tragically, have empowered Al Qaeda and spawned ISIS. How is it that ragtag terrorist outfits can outmaneuver the richest and strongest nations on Earth? There’s no magic to it. Al Qaeda and ISIS have figured out how to appeal to these people in a time of need and offer them something of value. The West, conversely, is sitting by trying to figure which side to support.
Glacially slow decision making and shifting stands on important issues are producing a policy of malignant neglect. Red lines become blurred lines. Blurred lines become vacuums. Vacuums become sanctuaries for terrorist groups.
Perpetuating the status quo serves no one’s interests, except the groups that thrive on instability. The cost of not directly dealing with this situation is surpassing the cost of directly doing so. The region has proved, again and again, that it lacks the political will to manage its own security. Regional powers would seemingly rather advance their sectarian interests than establish a broader system that serves the whole.
The people of the Middle East are more than oil drillers. They are a broad and diverse collection of societies that have benefitted little from the advances of the rest of the world since the end of the Cold War. Apart from Dubai and a couple of other aberrations, few areas of the region are much richer or freer than they were in 1989.
It’s time that the great powers of the world—not just the US—take a proactive stance in stabilizing the Middle East.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano