Fractured lands

The New York Times has published an exceptionally long article about the collapse of the Middle East, the chaos of what used to be functioning governments, the misery and streams of refugees that it has produced.
It's good journalism, telling its story through the eyes of individuals interviewed over the course of several years.
As analysis and explanation, it is provocative, but limited.
It blames the colonialists of a century or more past, rather than anything more recent.
It's hard to quarrel with the accusation against European powers that created countries that included a variety of ethnic and religious groups have backgrounds of conflict, intermingled as well as having their own areas, and often living at peace..
Perhaps only strong governments, with little concern for individual rights could keep the various communities from one another's throats. And along the way, those governments also throttled the awakening of anything like the individual rights or democracy known further to the west.
Shame on the colonialists and the dictators that kept the peace.
But what about naive westerners, most notably Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who thought they might help by taking down a dictator, and beating the drums of equality, human rights, and democracy?
That seems to have escaped the New York Times.
The article proceeds in the style of left-wing Obama-style Democrats in castigating the Sisi government for pummeling civil rights, but without taking note of the war being fought by al-Sisi's government against Islamists in the Sinai, who have the help of cousins in Gaza.
Pessimism prevails. 

"After 16 months of traveling in the Middle East, I find it impossible to predict what might happen next, let alone sum up what it all means. In most every place . . . the situation today looks worse . . . The repression of the Sisi regime in Egypt has deepened; the war in Syria has taken tens of thousands more lives; to add to its other problems, Libya is now hurtling toward insolvency. If there is one bright spot on the map, it is the apparently solid and committed international coalition that is now working toward the final destruction of ISIS.That said, I am reminded (that) “ISIS isn’t just an organization, it’s an idea.” It is also a kind of tribe, of course, and if this incarnation is destroyed, the conditions that created ISIS will remain in the form of a generation of disaffected and futureless young men . . .  who find purpose and power and belonging by picking up a gun."
The author goes on to cite one of his informants who has found a road to personal and family hope, but it involves leaving the Middle East and trying her luck in Austria.

Israel doesn't smell very good in this piece. That should not surprise us. This country has long had a problem with the New York Times, despite the disproportionate incidence of Jews who  have owned it, worked for it, or read it.
The problem goes back to the early news of the Holocaust, which the Times chose to bury a long way from its front page.
The present article includes several pictures of Arabs suffering from Israeli bombardments. The author "failed to meet a single (Egyptian) who supported the Israeli peace settlement," He quotes an Iraqi Kurd who expresses how he would deal with a village re-conquered from the Islamic State.

"You know what I would do? I would go to an Arab and ask to borrow his bulldozer. Then I’d bring in an Israeli adviser — they’re very good at this sort of thing — and in two or three days, I would erase this place.”
What's most faulty in the piece, and in the approach to the Middle East that Barack Obama expressed in his Cairo speech of 2009, and the aspiration to democracy that George Bush used to explain his invasion of Iraq, is a naivete about cultures.
Islam is right in the middle of it, but it's too simple to say that the violence is entirely due to the doctrines and practices of Muslims. Islam developed, and remains concentrated in a region only lightly touched by the sentiments idealized in the democratic west. 
We should remember that something beside respect for others prevailed in the currently democratic west not so long ago, and still exists in the country called home by Barack Obama and the New York Times.
I'll paraphrase a Muslim friend who wonders how people in the west, who have enjoyed the generations since World War II and its humanitarian enactments, and a few bright spots of greater age, can expect enlightenment from people whose culture remains closer to that of the religious wars that marked Europe in the Middle Ages.

By this analysis, an important source of frustration created by Arab Spring turned to Arab winter is not only Muslims or others in the Middle East, but ignorant and ethnocentric westerners who destroyed what was holding the Middle East back from the explosion that has been endemic. The New York Times author notes that it is not only ethnic and religious divisions that the Iraq and Libyan invasions and the Arab Spring tore open, but just beneath them the divisions of) tribe and clan and subclan."
Those who attacked cruel strongmen, and cannot resist attacking the imperfections of relative moderates like Mubarak and al-Sisi created the greater numbers of horrors represented by the destruction of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, with deaths and refugees in the millions, bringing problems of ethnic and religious tensions with them to Europe and elsewhere.
Not the least of the problems for the west is the decline in the status of the United States. What American clumsiness helped to create by way of Iran's revolution was brought forward by later destructions of regimes in Iraq and Libya, and a choice of Islamists over a functioning government in Egypt.

"Today, the annual American subsidy to Egypt is less than $1.3 billion, down from more than $2 billion in Mubarak’s heyday. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and other gulf states have subsidized the Egyptian government with an estimated $30 billion since Sisi took power, and given the Saudis’ own record on such matters, they seem unlikely to pester their client state over issues like political prisoners or freedom of expression. The simple fact is that the West in general, and the United States in particular, now has less influence over the Egyptian state than at any time since the early 1970s."
Then there was Presidential waffling about chemical weapons in Syria, and the ascendance of Russia in that country.

We have a mess in the Middle East, the impotence of the most powerful and at least partially enlightened western country, and widespread dismay among Americans about whoever is the next occupant of the White House.
Middle Easterners, at least some of them unenlightened, recognize the impotence of the West, with whatever that means for the spread of western influence.

Comments welcome, enlightened or otherwise.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem