Op-Ed: The Middle Eastern Conundrum

Whether it wants to or not, America must get involved

By Probir Kumar Sarkar

The Middle East and its surroundings have long been tormented by disorder. Sectarian strife, the competition of clans, ethnic skirmishes, and the rivalry between Shiite and Sunni have plagued the region for decades, and the events of the last few years has only made the situation worse. The Arab Spring brought renewed instability rather than reform to Libya and Yemen, among other nations; the Syrian Civil War spread ISIS across war-torn Iraq; and the persecuted who fled to Israel half a century ago have become persecutors in Palestine. The situation is now overwhelmingly elastic, and Western foreign policy overflows with calls for peace but is frozen for lack of a clear course to reach it.

Despite its humanitarian rhetoric, America has seldom engaged in a war that did not serve its own interests. Its present-day ‘War on Terror’ is a war on instability, on independent belligerents who can threaten nations while remaining free from accountability. But the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown only how war breeds more instability, and it has made the United States wary of getting involved for a third time.

That is why, now more than ever, the fault lines in the Middle East must be untangled before effective action can be taken. The threads of conflict are hard to follow, however, not only because they are constantly shifting but because of the crisscross of factions and interests spread over the oil-rich region. Nonetheless, much can be traced back to the Cold War.

The Ruins of a Cold War

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 left in tatters various regimes which had held power thanks to Soviet backing during the second half of the twentieth century. America too had unquestioningly supported numerous authoritarian regimes willing to bolster its geopolitical aims in the continual chess game of Soviet-American rivalry. In the subsequent unipolar world of 90s-era globalization, the last remaining superpower and its competitors turned their attention to trade and commerce, as the market index became the sole measure of success.

Tensions in the Middle East were not laid to rest alongside those of the Cold War in 1989, however. The socialist and secularist forces in the region faltered when Moscow withdrew, while the autocrats and Islamists propped up by the American order lost what little credibility remained to them as their corruption and lack of popular ideological foundation became more and more evident.

Bereft of foreign backing, various urban regimes lost legitimacy, strength, or both, and battled-hardened rural warlords knew no other way to power than that of the gun. Impoverished and disenfranchised youths looked for something beyond nationalism to captivate their sentiments. Bolstered by the excesses of oil wealth, al-Qaeda and other pan-Islamic organizations quietly grew in number and resources.

The old political geography that had been shaped to manage the region plunged it into conflict: traditionalists and royalists in one group, formerly pro-Soviet secularists in the other. They were united only by …

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