18 October 2014

Vox: “How America lost the Middle East”

The problem isn’t that America has gotten weaker. It’s that the Middle East has changed. When the Middle East’s biggest problems were about conflict between formal governments, the United States had a lot more influence. But today, the Middle East is defined by a shifting, impossibly complicated web of ethno-religious tension, weak and failed states, and ascendant terrorist organizations. The collapse of central governments and rise of powerful non-state actors breed problems that foreign powers, even the world’s only superpower, simply cannot address.

This power struggle played up sectarian divisions in a very bad way. I don’t think that the Saudis and Iranians are engaged in a sectarian war with each other, said F. Gregory Gause, a University of Vermont professor who studies the politics of the Middle East. But they use sectarianism. This battle for influence is played out not in military conflicts between the two states, but in civil conflicts in weak Arab countries … the Saudis will back the Sunnis and Iranians will back the Shias because those are natural allies. And the Saudis and Iranians don’t have to force themselves into these fights; the local players invite them in. That’s exactly what happened in Syria and Iran. In both cases, Iranian-backed Shia central governments are fighting Sunni rebels that have received heavy Saudi support.

Zack Beauchamp

A thorough overview of a most complicated situation, where a satisfying solution is increasingly hard to find. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East seams to be playing out like a smaller version of the Cold War, where two powers of comparable strength avoid direct conflict, fueling local wars in their satellite states instead. The best (and maybe only) reasonable thing to do could be to try to prevent the crisis from growing even more violent and extreme and to support the feeble attempts at democracy in the other Arab states.

Despite those thrilling revolutionary days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the Arab Spring doesn’t look like it will yield a real democracy anywhere but the country where it started, Tunisia. Still, it is likely to mean more responsive Arab politics over the long haul. Expectations that this would happen quickly were extremely unrealistic. We forget that following the revolutions of 1848—Europe’s “Springtime of Peoples”—democracy took another 70 years to consolidate.

Francis Fukuyama

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