The Region: What went wrong?

Fifteen years ago, a new Middle East seemed set to emerge. Why have those hopes fallen by the wayside?

middle east 88 (photo credit: )
middle east 88
(photo credit: )
Here's a way to assess the Middle East's current state that's a real shocker: compare it to the hopeful expectations of 15 years ago. It's remarkable how far things have gone in the opposite direction. Of course, back in 1991 there were good reasons to be optimistic. Almost precisely a decade and a half as the clock runs backward, the US-led coalition defeated Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and drove his troops out of Kuwait. And so it seemed: • After so many years of failure, Arabs and Iranians must know their ideas and systems weren't working. • Radical regimes, given Saddam's defeat and the collapse of their best ally, the USSR, were relatively weaker than ever. • Gulf Arab states were ready to work closely with Washington to survive Iraqi, Iranian, and Islamist threats. Peace, stability, and economic development seemed more desirable ends than an endless struggle risking prosperity, interests, or even survival. • The United States was now the world's sole superpower, giving everyone an incentive to get along with it. • Since the Palestinians, gaining nothing after decades of radicalism and terrorism, were now so weak and isolated, surely they would moderate and make peace with Israel. • Radical Islamist movements had failed to overthrow any Arab regime. The masses were shunning them and the rulers outmaneuvering them. • Syria had participated in the 1991 anti-Iraq coalition and now seemed ready to negotiate seriously with Israel. • Iraq, isolated and under sanctions, would surely not make any more problems. • Iran's reform movement was advancing and might take over or moderate the Islamist regime. • Failed Arab development policies showed the need for democracy and a more open economy. WHAT WENT wrong? Just about everything. Briefly, the regimes were able to rationalize their failures by blaming the West in general, the United States in particular, and Israel. Posing as defenders of the Arabs and Muslims, using their traditional methods, the regimes retained control both in Iran and every Arab state without making real concessions. A brief list of bad outcomes includes: Saddam's obduracy, failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iranian government's continuing, even deepening, radicalism and drive toward nuclear weapons, little progress toward democracy, stronger radical Islamist groups, and more terrorism. Instead of responding to the situation effectively by changes, the main ideas governing the Middle East during the previous half-century were reaffirmed. The problems so visible at the start of the 1990s did not bring down regimes or force any far-reaching restructuring. Bad happenings include: • Instead of being either cooperative or intimidated, Iraq's government defied the world rather successfully. Saddam was ready to make his people suffer - and let the West be blamed for it - rather than make concessions. Instead of Iraq it was most of Saddam's opponents who were worn down. The US-led attack ejected Saddam but Iraq still has lots of problems. In the Arab world, the regimes and media portray the terrorists as heroes even as they murder thousands of Arabs and Muslims. • Rather than weaken as a result of failures, radical Islamism mutated into new forms, including the Jihadism of al-Qaida and the organizing-electoral strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood groups, both involving lots of terrorist violence. Today, radical Islamist views seem more popular in the Arab world than they were in 1991. • Defying "pragmatism," the Palestinian movement rejected compromise solutions, continued violence, and has now even turned to radical Islamist Hamas. If ever there was a time for the Palestinians to make a compromise peace, recognizing they could not achieve their maximal goals, the 1990s offered that opportunity. By the end of 2000, Palestinian attitudes had largely reverted to those of 20 years earlier. Israel was demonized and a new generation was taught to belief in the illusion of total victory. • Rather than triumph, the Iranian reform movement was sabotaged and repressed. Instead of moderating, the Iranian revolution is more extreme, dangerous, and apparently entrenched than in the early 1990s. • While the United States was the world's sole superpower, events showed its limited power to make changes in the region. Anti-Americanism is at all-time highs in the Arab world and this cannot all be blamed on a certain incumbent American president. Every American action has been counted as further proof of its interference and perfidy. • The democracy movement has grown but is still tiny. Elections have more often benefited Islamists than moderates. • While high oil prices help, Arab socioeconomic development is still quite stagnant. None of the main Arab states has drastically changed its ways. The average annual increase in per capita consumption for the Middle East was only 0.7 percent between 1980 and 1997, compared to 6.8 percent for East Asia. By the way, given this record the idea of Hamas, other radical Islamists, or Iran moderating because that is the "pragmatic" thing to do doesn't look so good. Ok, you ask, why don't I write about all the good things that have happened in the Arab world and Iran since 1991? Certainly, there are such things but, after all, I'm supposed to write at least 800 words.