From December 2006 through the late summer of 2007, four foreign policy commentators reached for the same 1980s movie title, Back to the Future, to describe the peregrinations of US Middle East policy in the oft-proclaimed twilight of the neo-conservative moment. There was confusion, however, as to what past was being summoned to replace the present. For Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the failure in Iraq has forced the White House back to the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution, when the US acted as armory and automated teller for an Arab-Israeli entente assembled to stare down the Islamic Republic. For Fouad Ajami and two fellow neo-conservative sympathizers, it is the State Department “realists” who have reset the time machine, hearkening back to the realpolitik of the Cold War to thwart President George W. Bush’s democratizing instincts.
This magazine never believed that the neo-conservatives were rooting out Cold War thinking from Washington nor that their commitment to democracy was terribly deep. If anything, the neo-conservative moment, as epitomized by the invasion of Iraq, evoked an age before the United States aspired to supremacy in the Middle East, a time of conquest and colonial mandates. Nonetheless, we share the affinity for the phrase “back to the future,” precisely because it hints that a simple return to the past is impossible.
The occasion for Ignatius’ column was the July 2007 announcement by the State and Defense Departments of $63 billion in new military aid for Egypt and Israel and arms sales to the Arab Gulf states. It is hard to conceive a move more at odds with pressure on these governments to democratize. More to the point, the deals were a reminder that US ties to these governments have been heavily militarized—and conceived primarily in geostrategic terms—for years. Massive transfers of weaponry have long been Washington’s preferred method of propping up client states from afar. Flush with oil money, the Gulf states are spending on military hardware and infrastructure in amounts that recall the sprees of the 1970s and the early 1990s. At the same time, US-allied armies in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere are taking advantage of the inflows of American cash to become serious players in their respective economies, in effect, catching up to their counterparts in Pakistan, where the military owns a disproportionate share of the productive assets. Thus does the US secure the assent of Middle Eastern officers’ corps to its overall strategy, and perhaps, as in Pakistan, to the detriment of the civilian component of the state.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, however, there is no going back to the realists’ edifice of preceding decades. Nor can the strategic picture be encapsulated as an inflammation of the “arc of crisis,” the term popularized by Carter-era National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski for the stretch of autocracy and insurgency from South Asia to the Horn of Africa. The number of clients has increased: Not only is the US arming and training new allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also airlifting war materiel to Lebanon, not a major recipient historically, and renewing the once suspended armament of proxies in Pakistan, the empire’s eastern reach. And, of course, a physical US military presence undergirds the regional order more than ever before, with hundreds of thousands of combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bases sprinkled liberally across the Mediterranean and the Gulf. As is obvious from the headlines, the destabilizing effect of these US deployments on the region is greater than the garrisons of the past, even as client states increasingly depend on American soldiers and weaponry for their own stability.
The “Middle East,” then, is expanding—on Pentagon wall maps and in the media ether. With the outbreak of civil war in Iraq came the genre of news analysis that fixates on the ethnic-sectarian divides of the Middle East as dispositive of the region’s hopeless fragmentation and illiberalism. As Western observers present it, these divides, too, are spreading inexorably eastward to engulf Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nothing can be done to stop the fission, this media genre posits, and so a clutch of self-anointed big thinkers are tempted to redraw the boundaries of states along more “natural” lines.
Witness the widely circulated article in the January/February 2008 edition of the Atlantic Monthly by Jeffrey Goldberg entitled “After Iraq.” Noting that Middle East watchers once pondered the question of whether there would be one or two states in Israel-Palestine, he continues: “Today, that question seems trivial when compared with this one: How many states will there one day be between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates River? Three? Four? Five? Six? And why stop at the western bank of the Euphrates? Why not go all the way to the Indus River?” The Atlantic Monthly editors helpfully illustrate Goldberg’s musings with a multi-colored map showing a Greater Jordan that has swallowed the West Bank and the northern Najd; a Greater Syria that has annexed central Lebanon and northwestern Iraq; and a Greater Yemen that has taken over the mountainous ‘Asir province of southern Saudi Arabia. Iraq is predictably split in three. A new Kurdistan straddles modern-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Iran (identified as “Persia”) has also lost majority-Arab Khuzestan and Balochistan to independence, and its northwestern valleys to Greater Azerbaijan, but expanded eastward toward Herat. Pakistan has been stripped of Balochistan and Pashtunistan. Afghanistan has ceased to exist. The map traces its lineage to a similar exercise printed in the July 2006 Armed Forces Journal and devised by an American Colonel Blimp named Ralph Peters, who, with characteristic bluntness, calls his new boundary lines “blood borders.”
Goldberg decries “a poverty of imagination” among those who would dismiss his remapping project as disruptive of the current state system. The state system is dissolving anyway, he says. Of course, it is nowhere written in stone that today’s borders must perdure—and realist fretting about the stability of client states has indeed helped to crush many movements for self-determination in the Middle East and beyond. But Goldberg and Peters, like the more consequential proponents of “soft partition” of Iraq in official Washington, seem oblivious to the crucial distinction between genuine movements from below and separatism stoked by (in Goldberg’s own words) “white men wielding crayons.”
A related Western optic that has widened of late is that of “the tribe.” In a reprise of classic colonial thinking, US planners in Iraq are busily gathering as much information as possible about which confederations predominate on what alluvial plain and which clans police what hamlet. Tribal affiliation, a famously slippery and historically constructed concept among anthropologists, is a key feature of the “Human Terrain Systems” whose contours the US military endeavors to record in conflict zones (perhaps, they hope, with the aid of a few anthropologists). Bush’s wars have birthed a generation of intelligence analysts who may not relate to the reasons why Iraqis resent foreign occupation, but definitely know their Dulaymis from their Jabouris and their Abu Hasanayns from their Abu Samhadanas. It is almost as if, having appreciated the limitations of the “clash of civilizations” theme during the war on terrorism, the war’s prosecutors have found comfort in the shop-worn tropes of deep-seated sectarian-ethnic conflict and tribalism.
The categories of sect, ethnicity and tribe are not, of course, mere figments of the Western imagination. These subnational identities exist, and Middle Eastern regimes and other elites have long manipulated and exacerbated them for their own purposes. But taxonomies of communal difference simultaneously oversimplify the region by erasing other kinds of solidarity—say, class—and render it overly complicated by missing more prosaic (even American) drivers of fragmentation, say, wariness of central authority. Further, just as one must study the policies of Saddam Hussein to understand sectarian tension in Iraq and one must learn about the practices of Pakistani juntas to fathom ethnic insurgency in Pakistan, so the interventions and perceived goals of the region’s superpower—now, not so distant—help to structure the inter-communal contention of the expanded Middle East.
Heading back to the future, there can be no restoration of the American century in the Middle East, either the one over which realists and liberal internationalists thought they presided or the one of which neo-conservatives dream. Power is too diffuse and fluid, the means of subversion and resistance too plain. The scope and magnitude of the disaster in Iraq will defeat any effort to escape without serious consequence for US hegemony. Seen in this light, Washington’s attempts to manage Pakistani politics and its profligate transfers of the instruments of war to Middle Eastern allies seem like pieces of an improvised frame of containment, aimed at reining in forces of indeterminate strength and direction, but whose orientation is palpably uncongenial to US grand strategy. Sadly for the peoples of the expanded Middle East, however, it is only the cultural dominance of imperial logic, and not its practice, that is behind the times.