The Middle East — The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be

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A former future of international interference. James Gillray's 1805 etching

“The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be”
— Yogi Berra

Neither President Obama, the Republican leadership in Congress nor the rag tag Republican presidential field have done much to alleviate most Americans’ concerns about the uncertainty in the Middle East and the likelihood that ISIS will soon strike in the United States. President Obama minimizes the threat by calling ISIS “a bunch of killers with good social media.” The Republican leadership fans the flames of fear by attempting to close our borders to refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands merely because of their religion, hoping to garner political advantage from a humanitarian tragedy.

Most of us will never have the chance to experience the Middle East in person, but it is incumbent on each of us to try to better understand this seemingly borderless world that threatens to consume our country in fear and religious bigotry.

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A video released by ISIS in early 2014 showed a bulldozer pushing down a rampart of sand that had marked the border between Iraq and Syria. As the machine destroyed the revetment, the camera panned down to a hand-written poster: “End of Sykes-Picot.

Map of the Sykes-Picot Line / via (Click to enlarge.)
Map of the Sykes-Picot Line / via
(Click to enlarge.)

Sykes-Picot refers to the borders that British and French diplomats, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, drew in secret during World War One — originally giving Syria, Mount Lebanon and northern Iraq to the French, and Palestine, Transjordan and the rest of Iraq to the British, single-handedly eviscerating the governments of the old dying Ottoman Empire, creating artificial nations governed by kings, generals and dictators. ISIS took credit for what so many Arabs had sought for almost a hundred years: the unraveling of the borders by which the French and the British divided the Arab people.

In reality, ISIS had little to do with destroying borders or ending Sykes-Picot. Civil wars, corrupt leadership, poor education and globalization have each played a significant role. Borders have lost their meaning throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. The US-orchestrated collapse and overthrow of Gaddafi left Libya’s borders non-existent. Tunisia is now in danger because its borders with Libya and Algeria are open to arms shipments. ISIS uses its borderless existence to extend its influence from Fallujah to Nigeria.

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This lack of respect for borders is not limited to Arabs. For the last twenty years at least, the United States has shown no respect for borders in the Middle East. We invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and our bombers continue to fly over Iraq, Syria and Libya, bombing whatever rebel force or terroristic organization we are fighting that month. Sometimes we blow up the same tanks and anti-aircraft equipment we supplied only weeks before, and sometimes we blow up innocent civilians all in the name of keeping peace. Our local police show more respect for political and state borders in the U.S. than our military shows for national borders in the Middle East. We are not alone. The Saudis are bombing Iraq and Yemen. The Jordanians are bombing Syria. France was bombing in Syria long before the Paris tragedy. Now Russia is joining the fray, we’re just not sure who they are bombing.

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Should we be surprised that ISIS and other terroristic organizations threaten to cross our borders, threaten to bring the fight to Paris, London, Moscow and the US? Should we be surprised that ISIS is calling for civil war in France? If we have no respect for borders, why should they? We take sides in another country’s civil wars and internal affairs, but are outraged when others threaten to respond in kind. We feel it’s perfectly legitimate to take sides against a current despot such as Assad in Syria, but are mightily offended when Russia or China choose to support his regime. Thanks to almost a hundred years of foreign interference, cruel dictators and continual civil wars, the Middle East is now the perfect breeding ground for violent extremism, the perfect soil in which an ISIS can flourish.

In my own opinion, the United States has been a major part of the problem in the Middle East for decades, including our claim of trusteeship over the oil and our support for dictatorships and military regimes that cooperate with our own military or economic objectives. But to cast blame doesn’t help address the issue. What should we do?

First, we must stop linking terrorism to a religion practiced by over 1.5 billion people. Linking a group of violent jihadists to the Muslim faith is the same as claiming all Christians are snake-worshipers. ISIS and like organizations are about power and control, not faith and peace. When a group of radical terrorists tried to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993, they were arrested and brought to justice. We didn’t declare war; we brought them before the United States Justice System where they were tried and convicted. We must remember that the actions of an individual or group of terrorists are neither the fault of a nation of civilians or it’s religion. Terrorists are criminal and should be treated as such. Admittedly, these terrorists have proven themselves capable of setting up a form of governance, but they are still criminals.

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To alleviate the nation’s fears, Obama and the Republican leadership must work together for a change. Obama must acknowledge our fears are real, and the Republicans must quit politicizing them. Working together, our government can surely develop a plan to minimize the risk without giving in to our fears or giving up the very liberties on which this country was founded.

Self determination is vital. / via
Self determination is vital. / via

ISIS can’t be dealt with in isolation but must be understood as an outgrowth of civil wars, which has lead to virtual anarchy. Defeating ISIS, Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group in a vacuum only provides more fertile ground for another like group. Civil wars must end before internal order can be restored and sustained. The solution ultimately lies not with another treaty negotiated by modern day Sykes and Picots, but by emerging Arab leaders who have a sophisticated understanding of the region and have the capacity to break the strangleholds caused by lack of Arab participation.

To me, the solution is obvious; to others it may seem naïve or simplistic — it will take altruism and foresight, traits uncommon to most nation-states. The answer lies in the Middle East and with the people of the Middle East. Other world powers such as the United States, France and Russia must do their part to bring order and cease fires, but they must put aside their differences, give up their own special interests and direct their actions to support policies developed by responsible leaders in the Middle East. The safety of those of us in the West doesn’t depend on the access to oil or acquisition of territory, but rather on the creation of a peaceful and prosperous region where terrorism has no value or attraction.