By James A. Kidney
Endless wars over dry desert lands. Ancient Muslim myths promulgated to the young by old men demanding a return to the nomadic life of 700 years ago or longer, an unachievable goal pursued at the cost of those young lives, but not of the old. If your dreams are not of the nomadic Muslim life as described in the Quran, demand instead that we relive the equally ancient lives recounted in the Old Testament and the Torah, with all the violence, hatred and – again – mythology those texts provide. In the Middle East, it is easy to find those far more loyal to an ancient, tribal story of division as a substitute for logical and scientific thinking, modern achievement, and a welcoming community.
But why not look to restore the past in the Middle East? The present and a thousand years of history have little in which the region and its people can take pride. The Arabic Middle East has contributed almost nothing to the advance of humankind since the burning of the great library in Alexandria.
Only the physical boundaries of the nations of the Middle East are visible products of the 20th century. They were fixed by white men from Western Europe during World War I, with neither knowledge of, nor concern for, the many thousand-year-old divisive issues among the tribal peoples. Neither the Enlightenment nor the Industrial Revolution found footing in the lands east of the Mediterranean Sea. Modernism was and mostly still is rejected.
Modern societies east and west, however, always want to meddle in the area. Oil was the excuse not long ago. What is the excuse now? Nevermind. The Middle East is an itch on the underbelly of the West. It must be scratched.
A new boundary was added in May 1948 at the direction of the British and the United Nations. Britain was the white Christian occupation force in Palestine. It gave in to pressure from the U.S. and other allies to create the nation of Israel out of a large chunk of the protectorate of Palestine. The mostly Muslim residents of Palestine were neither consulted nor protected. Nearly all of the Jews who came to occupy Israel came from somewhere else and it is the descendants of those refugees who are Israelis now. It is clearly the Palestinians of today who have more credit in claiming their land.
For some reason unknown to moral logic, we lament the removal of Native Americans from most of the U.S., are ashamed of our denial of citizen and human rights to former slaves and their descendants, and find obscene the despicable cruelty to Jews in Europe and elsewhere. But it is OK — highly right — to seize the lands of the Palestinian Muslims for the Jews with nary a thought as to how they would survive or be treated. Thousands of years ago it was the land of the Jews, according to the Torah. It also was the land of the Muslims, according to the Quran. The U.S. and the UN opted for the Jews. Harry Truman, a good man acting with the best intentions, was the Andrew Jackson or Jefferson Davis of Israel.
Given the 20th century focus on reclaiming the sites of stories a thousand years old, the creation of Israel on May 15, 1948, is recent history, worthy of a deadly fight. Netanyahu, Trump and, it must be said, the increasingly orthodox citizens of Israel, seem anxious to replicate Jackson’s Trail of Tears across the desert lands of Gaza and the West Bank. There is almost no doubt the goal of current leadership in Israel and in the United States is to drive the Palestinians from their homelands altogether, a crueler version of Mitt Romney’s proposal in this country to make life so miserable that immigrants will “self-deport.” That is what is meant when Trump and Jared Kushner call for “peace” and blame the increasingly desperate Palestinians for their violence. The fencing in and economic isolation of Gaza and the West Bank (a smaller and smaller area after Israeli settlements), brutally enforced by Israel, are not deemed actions that are violent or even subject to criticism. The Netanyahu-Trump-Kushner call to Palestinians, stripped of hypocritical rhetoric, is “Get Out.”
“Get Out” would be a good idea. But it is for the United States to “get out” of the Middle East. We don’t need to be there to protect Israel as a Zionist homeland. Our military can strike from aircraft carriers and bases in Italy and Turkey to answer any genuine threat of harm to Israel from its hostile neighbors. Israel itself has a strong defense force, as it has proven time and time again. The U.S. does not need to be present in the Middle East to protect Israel.
And the U.S. certainly does not need to meddle with wars and internecine struggles in all the other countries of the region. We are practically self-sufficient in oil. We can even export oil to Europe. The oil producing nations of the Middle East need the West much more than the West needs them.
But what of the struggling refugees under the cruel dictatorship of Bashar Assad? And of the undemocratic theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Iran, with their Sunni/Shia divisions dating to some bad relationships among descendants of Mohammed back in about 700 A.D.?
They are not our problem. Indeed, providing hope – especially pointless under Trump – to Arabs suffering under the cruel impulses of their leaders is itself cruel. Further, how are these nations ever to change if those who suffer leave rather than use what meager resources they have to fight back?
Other than to end the suffering, why should the U.S. care who controls Syria, Iran or Saudi Arabia? It is simply not our role to make the choices for the peoples of these countries.
But, critics and columnists proclaim, the Russians (or the Chinese) will step in if we do not. There will be the dreaded “vacuum in the Middle East” if the U.S. ignores the region.
What would Russia or China do with these nations if under their influence? They are hardly great markets for Russian and Chinese goods. The nations are remote from the places the U.S. (or Russia and China) has genuine interests, such as Western Europe or the rapidly growing nations of South Asia or the more venerable economic model of Japan. Does anyone genuinely believe the bellicose dictators of Iraq and Syria would surrender their power to Putin or adopt a different form of government at the urging of Xi, reducing their own personal power?
Russia, like the U.S., spent years trying to subdue the least powerful and most backward nation in the region – Afghanistan. Russia was run out on a rail. The U.S. is only hanging on. If Russia or China wants to fill the Middle East “vacuum” in Afghanistan or Syria, they will only be sucked up, not grow more powerful.
Abandoning the Middle East except to provide military support to Israel in the case of an existential external threat does not implicate any genuine U.S. interest. Nor is “abandoning the Middle East” an isolationist stance. One need not support Trump’s overall withdrawal from the interconnected world merely to recognize that we have no interest in the Middle East comparable to our stakes in Western Europe, China, Japan, Mexico, South and Central America or South Asia. Those all are, to one degree or another, viable, modern nations contributing to their own economies and societies while barely nodding to ancient rivalries. This is not to say there are no important tensions – see China’s China Seas grab – but with respect to nearly every nation in these regions the risk is substantially offset by actual and potential gain.
No such calculus is present or likely in the Middle East, a land of sand built, in a few places, on oil and home to ancient and irrelevant rivalries still stoked at white heat by theocratic and merely power grabbing leaders. Yet this is where the U.S. has expended treasure and the aforementioned young men and women to gain — what? Nothing very lasting or significant, that is certain.