Yesterday’s Opinion Pages in The New York Times asked, “Can the United States stay engaged with modern democratic Middle Eastern countries that have sizable anti-Western populations?” The answers by the chosen debaters were reasonable. The question was misleading.
Modern democratic Middle Eastern countries don’t exist—with the exception of Israel. Now let’s be clear: Millions of people in the region want their nations to move into the category of “modern democracy.” But millions more don’t share that desire. The recent attacks on American embassies in Egypt and Yemen—and the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya—reflect real differences with the modern democratic West that can’t be papered over. Kings? In the Middle East, they rule as well as reign. Ayatollahs? They run Iran. Autocrats? Syria’s makes headlines daily. Elected presidents? Yes, even those—but men ruling over fractured states where the rule of law has yet to be established let alone extended to all citizens.
Emotions in the U.S. are raw now. That’s understandable. So it’s time for a reality check, which I’ve reduced to three salient points (although I welcome you to add more).
1. Societies in the Middle East really do have different worldviews. Take free speech. In the U.S., we cherish it. Sometimes we abuse it, but still we uphold it even when we fault the abusers. The Middle East? Someone—not Washington—made a hateful film about Muhammad. Most Americans condemn and dismiss it. Egyptians and Yemenis stormed our embassies. Sudanese forced their way into the German embassy. In Tripoli, Lebanon, one person has been killed in a protest. These stories are still unfolding. Political dissenters? I can yell “Screw Obama!” ‘til the cows come home. In the Middle East, dissenters face intimidation, imprisonment or death. Iranians and Syrians, among others, can tell you.
2. American power to foster change is limited. (Read Slick! for a satirical take on that.) The world is not a machine that can be repaired by a competent mechanic. In part, our options are restricted precisely because the Middle East is not like us. What we believe to be rational, progressive arguments often fall on deaf ears. Moreover, we’re condemned when we don’t step in (Egypt) and reviled after we do (Libya). Does anyone really want to send U.S. troops into Damascus?
3. The Middle East will remain a political and religious powder keg for a long, long time. Europe experienced centuries of bloodletting before achieving peace. The horrors of World War Two and the Holocaust are less than seven decades behind us. In the Middle East, the forces of Islamism (by which I mean theocratic dictatorship, not Islam) battle those seeking modernity, with or without a Muslim flair. Add to that Islamists battling among themselves. And stir in age-old clan, tribal and ethnic animosities. Can you say “Iraq?” With prudence, we can contain the fire. But only the people of the region can extinguish it.
Should we then turn our backs on the Middle East? No. The world is far too interconnected. Moreover, those of us who support Israel’s right to exist cannot risk a second Holocaust through disengagement. Let’s hope those in power or seeking power in Washington will adopt both perspective and patience. Because as we also saw this past week, a shot from the hip often lands in the foot.
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Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at email@example.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.