Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Middle East Deserves Less Attention

Cross-posted over at The Agonist.

Edward Luttwak, writing in the May Prospect Magazine, has an intriguing proposal for American foreign policy. Essentially, he says we need to pay less attention to the Middle East. Some excerpts from his article:
The greatest error repeated by middle east experts of all persuasions, by Arabophiles and Arabophobes alike, by Turcologists and by Iranists, is also the simplest to define. It is the very odd belief that these ancient nations are highly malleable. Hardliners keep suggesting that with a bit of well-aimed violence ("the Arabs only understand force") compliance will be obtained. But what happens every time is an increase in hostility; defeat is followed not by collaboration, but by sullen non-cooperation and active resistance too. It is not hard to defeat Arab countries, but it is mostly useless. Violence can work to destroy dangerous weapons but not to induce desired changes in behaviour.

Softliners make exactly the same mistake in reverse. They keep arguing that if only this or that concession were made, if only their policies were followed through to the end and respect shown, or simulated, hostility would cease and a warm Mediterranean amity would emerge. Yet even the most thinly qualified of middle east experts must know that Islam, as with any other civilisation, comprehends the sum total of human life, and that unlike some others it promises superiority in all things for its believers, so that the scientific and technological and cultural backwardness of the lands of Islam generates a constantly renewed sense of humiliation and of civilisational defeat. That fully explains the ubiquity of Muslim violence, and reveals the futility of the palliatives urged by the softliners.
I don't know if the promise of Islam "fully explains" Muslim violence. But as harsh as he judges Islamic culture, his point that Arabic and Islamic culture is a lot less malleable than we (and especially the neo-cons and liberal hawks) presumed is utterly correct. But this only supports his main argument, which is that strategically, the Middle East is just not as crucial as we all seem to think it is. I'm sure you're thinking (as I was) "What about the oil?" Luttwak makes an argument on that score, but I think it's his weakest point, as he seems to make an assumption about the oil supply that I think might be unwarranted. But then again, maybe it isn't.

So it's somewhat counter-intuitive to imagine that, at this time that we're battling insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we would be best served not to be there at all except to the most limited extent that serves our interests. Given how things have gone thus far, I can't see how that approach would be any worse.

No comments: