Motivated by two excellent writings on the recent political dynamics in the Middle East, here are some longer-term political and economic assessments about the region – which always seems larger politically than its actual geographical boundaries.
Motivations for regional political behaviors: Historically, there have been three of these: religion, tribal power and greed, which makes the Middle East both traditional and anachronistic, especially when one considers the religious reformations that much of the world experienced hundreds of years ago. Ignoring this, the Middle East continues to be stuck in a religious time warp. Add the 1948 reinsertion of the new state of Israel into the region and the post-World War II political world assured itself of hundreds of more years of regional religious conflict.
Furthermore, the Middle East, when compared to the rest of the civilized world, with few exceptions, continues to be frozen in a colossal state of social and cultural ignorance, and there appears little internal motivation for change. Where else are girls shot for going to school?
Strong preference for corruption: Likewise, there seems no real interest in changing the sad reality of everyday life in the region, which is one of total corruption from the smallest neighborhoods to the highest officials. Rather than developing the political institutions necessary for the lessening and eventual elimination of endemic corruption – which in much of the area is more akin to organized crime – the various competing factions seem to prefer it to other forms of political life. And with this goes the understanding – and tacit acceptance - that minorities of any kind will be treated with merciless contempt and discrimination by whatever corrupt figure or group is in power.
The most genuine, expensive and recent attempt at constructing a democratic model was inserted as part of the U.S. occupation of Iraq – and was a failure – as no faction saw it as a viable alternative to a corruption based system. And, as the area gets poorer and poorer as a result of modern economic realities, corruption reaches the level of gang warfare in many local regions. This is a clear longer-term trend and one with no visible incentive for change.
Oil and opium: It is probably true that, if it were not for oil and opium, the Middle East would be a vast wasteland, in that no one in the rest of the world would care about what happened there or who was in charge. Ironically perhaps, this also seems the longer-term general trend for the region. As oil ceases to become the central revenue for the assorted corrupt regimes in power, the super rich clans and families will gradually vacate the region and move to the relative safety of Europe, where most of them are already long established.
Opium is also a cash crop of the region, and will likely continue to be a replenishable source of hard currency and political power in the various "ungoverned" regions for the indefinite future. But oil – for a number of reasons - has a diminishing future as a source of world power: For example, OPEC has already lost the power to set world oil prices as increased world supplies are allowing more traditional economic models to operate.
Violent change coming?: The more radical factions in the region, including both established governments and the larger organizations (most corrupt to the core) have a great deal in common with the 20th century transitory and aggressive regimes of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. Both of these regimes met with violent ends, and as a result, the countries changed for the better, albeit in ways that were extremely traumatic for most people living there.
Is the same kind of end in store for the more aggressive nation-state actors in the Middle East, especially if they move toward a military nuclear capability? Some obviously think so, and there are already various scenarios for how the super radical nation-state of Iran - just for example - comes to an end at the hands of the Saudis, assisted by the Pakistanis and the Chinese, or the Israelis, on their own.
And, what about Pakistan?: The Pakistanis have long been a real nuclear power and have "heavy" bilateral relationships with both China (to offset India) and Saudi Arabia (to offset Iran). As such, their political and military elites may be the only ones in the region who, along with the Saudis, have thought through the longer-term strategic realities raised above. However, Pakistan is also famously and totally corrupt – from head to toe – and has large ungoverned regions and many radical and violent internal factions. So, in the longer term, and considering the internal struggle for the ultimate political control and destiny of Pakistan, the outlook is not good.
However, in the shorter term, the smart money seems to be more in line with their pragmatic approach than with the complex diplomatic relationships we are pursuing with Iran and Syria, which are in the "regime prolonging" category. In fact, this seems like the last thing our policies and diplomacy should be supporting – and, it’s not surprising why the Israelis are apoplectic about it.
What’s next?: There are historical reasons why the Middle East remains stuck in time. And few who had any choice in the matter (excluding those who are part of a corrupt regime/clan/family with a pipeline to the treasury) would choose to live there. In addition, the glory days of the oil-based economic/political influence for the region seem truly numbered, while meaningful freedom/democracy of any kind will likely never happen there, especially for girls and women. And, these downward societal and economic trends for the region will likely continue absent violent or other dramatic change bought about by some set of external influences.
Will this happen? We should probably hope that it does and plan that it will – this because the shrewdest actors in the region, e.g., Pakistan, the Saudis and Israel are already preparing for it.
So should we.
Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.