First posted on my short-lived blog Tharwalizations
Interest, principle, reality and time. What do we do when all these things conflict, and begin to push and pull us in different directions? How can we manage the crises that emanate from the complex interactions of these basic facts of our daily subsistence, our historical journey, our ongoing quest to know who we are, our continuing experimentation with the fabric of life and existence, in a desperate attempt at self-actuation and self-actualization?
There are no easy answers here of course, especially within the context of Middle East politics.
Still, and on the intellectual level, the conflict under consideration and within the context of contemporary ME politics, often manifests itself as a heated debate, rife with the usual sonorous speechifying and the mutual verbal vilifications that tend to characterize existentialist, or to be more specific existentializing, if not even self-existentializing, polemics, between those who would like to think of themselves as “pragmatists,” if not “realists,” and those who may not mind at all being described as “ideologues,” although, personally, each one of them would rather reserve the term “visionary” for him/herself.
Within the context of contemporary ME politics, and ever since the tragic events of 9/11, and increasingly since the US-led invasion of Iraq, the pragmatists seem to advocate engaging unruly regimes and movements, including the Syrian and Iranian regimes and the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, offering them a nice assortment of big juicy carrots in order to secure their compliance on certain key issues, this in the hope of avoiding a repeat of an Iraq-style scenario, one for which the final chapter should also be written soon and almost regardless of the potential fallouts on the internal situation in that country.
For indeed, the pragmatists advocate steering the course of policymaking away from any kind of open-ended involvement in the internal affairs of ME countries, where the dynamics are always too obscure and unpredictable and where the political and social situation always all too fragile.
The ideologues, on the other hand, contend that what the pragmatists have been advocating has already been tried for decades and has so far failed in generating the “right” kind of dynamism that can help incorporate the region into the more developed part of the world as docile client states, for this status represents the best that both camps, that is, the ideologues and the pragmatists, are willing to offer these states.
Be that as it may, and while the failure to draw these states into the desired relation-type cannot be solely blamed on the policies of the developed states, the policies themselves did not, nonetheless, require major review and overhaul, if not reversal. This led the ideologues to adopt a more interventionist, assertive and downright belligerent approach to the region as a whole, even vis-à-vis some of their staunchest allies, including Saudi Arabia which had produced most of the 9/11 terrorists.
The failure to incorporate the ME states (an argument that applies to the Broader Middle East and North Africa Region) into the desired system was not only due to the nature of the policies adopted by the developed states, even with regard to their policies regarding the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Nor was it related to the refusal of the existing regimes to have their states incorporated as client states per se. Nor do worsening economic conditions represent a sufficient condition in this regard.
At the core of the rejectionist tendencies we currently witness in the region, with all its manifestations, from the mere increase in social conservatism and religiosity to clear cut terrorist practices and attacks, is a psychological-cultural ethos that posits one form of messianism and Manifest Destiny against another. Islam has always been a missionary faith, and the Muslim worldview has always placed the Ummah at the cosmic center. For the Muslims to be located at the margins of things these days, for them to be on the receiving end of a condescending treatment and worldview, no matter how justifiably so in practical terms (ethical and moral considerations aside, for this whole matter, recourse to moralization by all sides notwithstanding, has always been more about power relations and politics than anything else), is something that all too simply unacceptable.
But since a more positive and proactive approach to rejection requires a more thorough reevaluation of the basic tenets of the Islamic worldview and its traditional assumptions, not to mention a more serious confrontation with the agents of sociopolitical authoritarianism in the countries involved, opting for the more passive path of increased religiosity while showing clear sympathies with the more extremist and radical currents was the safest and easiest choice.
Meanwhile, the more “bold” and “adventurous” elements seem to have found a more appealing, as it is indeed self-deluding, alternative in asserting a more purist and ahistorical version of the faith using it as the basic drive for confronting those “usurpers” of one’s rightful place under the sun.
Looking at things from this perspective, neither the pragmatists nor the ideologues can be judged as being completely wrong. Intervention is a must – the region needs it, and the world needs it. Left to its own devices, there is enough inertia in the region to withstand all internal pressures for change, development and modernization for a very long time.
But the world is not going to wait for it to change at its own pace. The processes of globalization have long unleashed themselves upon us, and they are too blind. But the powers that be in this world are not, and although, these forces tend to generate problems (in the form of atavistic reactions, among other things) in their societies as well, they are still better positioned to manage these forces to their advantage.
As for the legitimacy of seeking to assign a client status on most countries in the ME, frankly, and moralizations aside, states can only be incorporated on the basis of their level of development. And yes, the more developed states are not going to be so wholly supportive of underdeveloped states’ drive to improve their lot in this world, if this is going to clash with their interests, somehow. For why should they step up rivals for themselves? In fact, how could they do that? Their political systems and electoral processes are bound to produce governments that are meant to seek the best possible arrangements for their electorate and lobbyists. As such, the policies that these states are bound to adopt most of the time will not be guided by a sense of enlightened self-interest, but by immediate interests of the most powerful and effective lobbies involved.
In a sense then, the entire game is rigged against “us,” the peoples of the Middle East, and it is getting more and more rigged against us all the time. So, and whether we like it or not, we need to push for breaking the current stalemate, albeit through the auspices of external powers, and albeit the immediate and even intermediate consequences are more likely to be troubling than positive. This is why the “ideologues” in the developed camp seem to be our best allies at this stage, while the ideologues in our midst are our worst enemies.
Throughout all of this, crisis management is the best skill we need to acquire.