The recent fall of Fallujah, Iraq, to an al-Qaeda-linked group provides an unwelcome reminder of the American resources and lives that were expended from 2004 to 2007 to control the city — all that effort and nothing to show for it. Similarly, outlays of hundreds of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan did not prevent the release of 72 prisoners who have attacked Americans.
These two examples point to a larger conclusion: Maladies run so deep in the Middle East (minus remarkable Israel) that outside powers cannot remedy them. Here’s a fast summary:
Water is running out. A dam going up on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia threatens to cut Egypt’s main water supply by devastating amounts for years. Syria and Iraq suffer from water crises because the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are drying up. Growing the narcotic qat plant absorbs so much of Yemen’s limited water supplies that Sana’a may be the first modern capital city to be abandoned because of drought. Ill-considered wheat-growing schemes in Saudi Arabia have depleted aquifers.
People are also running out. After experiencing a huge and disruptive youth bulge, the region’s birth rate is collapsing. Iran, for example, has undergone the steepest decline in birth rates of any country ever recorded, going from 6.6 births per woman in 1977 to 1.6 in 2012. This has created what one analyst calls an “apocalyptic panic” that fuels Tehran’s aggression.
Poor schools, repressive governments, and archaic social mores ensure abysmal rates of economic growth. Starvation haunts Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
Vast reserves of oil and gas have distorted nearly every aspect of life. Miniature medieval-like monarchies like Qatar become surreal world powers playing at war in Libya and Syria, indifferent to the lives they break, as a vast underclass of oppressed foreign workers toils away and a princess deploys the largest budget for art purchases in human history. The privileged can indulge their cruel impulses, protected by connections and money. Sex tourism to poor countries like India flourishes.
Efforts at democracy and political participation either wither, as in Egypt, or elevate fanatics who cleverly disguise their purposes, as in Turkey. Efforts to overthrow greedy tyrants lead to even worse ideological tyrants (as in Iran in 1979) or to anarchy (as in Libya and Yemen). One commonly roots for both sides to lose. Rule of law remains a fata morgana.
Islamism, currently the most dynamic and threatening political ideology, is summed up by a morbid Hamas declaration to Israelis: “We love death more than you love life.” Polygyny, burqas, genital mutilation, and honor killing make Middle Eastern women the world’s most oppressed.
Middle Eastern life suffers from acute biases — often official — based on religion, sect, ethnicity, tribe, skin color, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, age, citizenship, work, and disability. Slavery remains a scourge.
Conspiracy theories, political zealotry, resentment, repression, anarchy, and aggression rule the region’s politics. Modern notions of the individual remain weak in societies where primordial bonds of family, tribe, and clan remain dominant.
The Middle East suffers from an urge to snuff out whole countries. Israel is the best-known potential victim, but Kuwait actually disappeared for half a year, while Lebanon, Jordan, and Bahrain could be swallowed up at any time.
Middle Eastern states spend outsized amounts of their wealth on intelligence services and the military, creating redundant forces to check each other. They venture abroad to buy tank, ship, and plane baubles. They devote inordinate resources to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, and the platforms to deliver them. Even terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda plot to acquire WMD. Cutting-edge methods of terrorism develop in the Middle East.
Economic and political failure creates large bodies of refugees. Afghans have made up the world’s largest refugee population since the 1980s; Syrians now threaten to overtake them, sowing poverty and chaos in their lands of refuge. Desperate souls attempt to leave the region altogether for Western countries, with more than a few dying along the way. Those who make it bring their region’s maladies to such tidy countries as Sweden and Australia.
Nineteenth-century diplomats dubbed the Ottoman Empire “the Sick Man of Europe.” Now I nominate the whole Middle East as the Sick Man of the World. The region’s hatreds, extremism, violence, and despotism require many decades to remedy.
While this process perhaps takes place, the outside world is best advised not to expend blood and treasure on redeeming the Middle East — a hopeless task — but on protecting itself from the region’s manifold threats, from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and harems to mega-terrorism and electromagnetic pulse.
— Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2014 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.