Middle Israel: Osama and the powers that be

Turkey, Russia, and China had better reconsider their takes on the Arab upheaval.

Erdogan and Ahmadinjad Turkey and Iran_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Erdogan and Ahmadinjad Turkey and Iran_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
On the face of it, Osama bin Laden’s targeted killing and the eventful biography it sealed have nothing to do with the upheaval across the Arab world and the Muslim world that sprawls beyond it. In fact, they are intertwined within a great arch of social discontent and political wrath that stretches from the Maghreb’s Atlantic flank to China’s Pakistani rear.
The Indian home security minister’s warning Monday, that Pakistan is harboring more terrorists, came while Libyan and Tunisian refugees continued flooding Italian shores and knocking on France’s doors, and while Egypt’s gas exports (not only to Israel) were halted by terrorists. Meanwhile, Yemen’s prime minister reneged on his own signed commitment to leave office, Syria’s hereditary president – the one who several weeks ago still boasted that his country was “stable” because it was “resisting Israel” – was massacring his own people daily with rifles, grenades and tanks, just after his Libyan colleague had done his own people with airplanes, choppers and artillery.
The crises along this politically malignant Afro-Asian belt did not just “erupt.” They had been brewing for generations during which every Arab leader abused every Arab society while the world looked the other way. Bin Laden’s emergence from this landscape was but a symptom of its political decadence. As any student of the region knew, its ailments ran deep and had nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Alas, everyone – including, for a while, Israel – became resigned to the delusion that if only that one conflict were somehow removed, happiness would sweep the Middle East.
How? How would characters like Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar Assad or Ali Abdullah Saleh bring happiness anywhere, let alone to entire nations? This is not what they were programmed to manufacture, or even just peddle. Like most modern Arab leaders, they were in the leadership business for tribalism, greed, hedonism and belligerency.
They spent decades jailing dissidents, squandering resources, muzzling the media, fanning conflicts, nurturing ignorance, inciting the uneducated, and bullying courts, parliaments and unions.
Now, the West that tolerated all this abuse is finally appalled – if not by the slaughter in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, then by the migratory pressure on Europe. Still, whatever its motivation, the West is at least waking up to understand that Arab government is the world’s No. 1 problem, and that treating it is not only a matter of justice for the Arab citizen, but a matter of security, stability and prosperity for the entire international system.
Beyond the West, alas, they still don’t get this.
FIRST, THERE is China, for whom the Arab-Western rift seems distant and irrelevant. “What do we care,” say Beijing’s mandarins, “The bin Ladens of the world will never mess with us, and we will never care about the Arabs’ freedom more than we would about the Martians’.”
Well, that may be true, but China should still care about the Arab political meltdown, if not because of freedom, then because of economics. An abused Arab world is bad for business, the West should tell Beijing; it pressures commodity prices, it depresses consumer demand, and it destabilizes currencies. How does any of this serve China’s interests? Then there is Russia. “What do we care,” say Moscow’s neocapitalists, “the more Arabs kill Arabs, the less they sell oil, and the less they sell oil, the more we sell oil, and for higher prices” – a sound logic which is, of course, beside the Russian apathy toward Arab freedom, or anyone else’s for that matter. Well, that may be sadly convincing, but Russia, too, should care because an abused Arab world feeds the Islamist terror that to the Russians actually matters greatly, as it has hit them repeatedly.
And then there is Turkey. This country’s current government has volunteered to cheerlead the Arab ruse that all would be well in the Middle East but for Israel. Well, now Turkish diplomacy has been exposed in all its recklessness.
First, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s exhortations that “Israel is killing babies in Gaza” emerged as major-league hypocrisy, considering his silence in the face of his friend Assad’s shooting into crowds, funerals and apartments. Then, his quest to play regional arbiter proved hollow, as both Gaddafi and Assad ignored his attempts to mediate in their respective crises. And then his “zero problems with neighbors” rhetoric emerged as a sad joke, as Turkish daily Hurriyet reported this week that Ankara was planning to build “safe havens” on the Syrian side of its border should a “potential influx of refugees” materialize. In other words, the self-styled “friend of the Syrian people” is ready to dump Syrian asylum-seekers in tent cities and, while at it, violate Syrian sovereignty.
ALL THIS is dwarfed by Ankara’s biggest mistake, which was to prematurely eulogize America. Since the moment he reached power, Erdogan has been thumbing his nose at Washington, evidently assuming that its days as a superpower are numbered.
Well, be America’s future what it may, this week it has reminded its undertakers that it remains resolute, focused and lethal, especially when provoked; and Turkey has been provoking Washington for nearly a decade.
And so, like China and Russia, it had better reconsider its assumptions about the world’s future and its place in it.
The fundamentalism that made bin Laden tick – so to speak – was fueled by the Muslim world’s marginalization while under Ottoman rule. The sultans’ decision not to navigate the high seas, their banning of the printing press, and their failure during the Industrial Revolution to understand its meaning condemned a previously flourishing Muslim civilization to ignorance, oppression and destitution. As historian Bernard Lewis observed, all this eventually gave rise to the fundamentalists’ sense of humiliation and lost glory. Now, only massive investment in Arab enlightenment and development will undo this.
This is the main challenge in today’s world, and addressing it must top the international system’s agenda if it is to avert the war of civilizations that bin Laden craved.
Conversely, if the likes of China, Russia and Turkey prefer to see this war flare after all, they just got a reminder that no matter how long it lasts, how much it costs and where it spreads, Western civilization, led by America, will fight this war – and win it.