Observations about our current dilemmas in the Middle East

Much of my thirty five years in the Foreign Service was concerned with the Middle East. I know a lot about it, but not much that is directly relevant to the multiple crises that rage there. I’m glad I’m not in the State Department now, running around like a one-armed paperhanger, putting out fires, counseling Congressional staffers, writing position papers, staying up all hours and raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels with nobody to say thank you. For I would have no magic formulas, and even if I did nobody would listen to me.

So, for now, I’ll just set down a few points that might bear indirectly on the present congery of country crises. I’ll move from west to east.

Morocco is different from most of the other countries currently under scrutiny in that the monarchy is sanctioned by the prevailing religion. Before modernization the Palace had its own network of relationships with traditional political structures down the line and these remain, parallel to modern government institutions. I’m not saying this makes the monarchy immune to antiestablishment forces like those sweeping Egypt and Yemen and so forth, but it is a somewhat different ball game.¬†Algeria by contrast may be a bit more fragile. The Berbers in the Kabylie have less by way of traditional access to modern sources of national power. There is a real sense of national identity in Morocco that has deeper roots than anything comparable in Algeria.

Tunisia is probably going to be ok. There is a strong enough middle class to carry the day.

Libya is a godawful mess and I have no idea how it will turn out. I see as one possible outcome a partition with Qaddafi staying on in Tripoli and a rebel regime in Benghazi while the UN has another disputed border to adjudicate and monitor, not to mention a host of other problems. When I think of India/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, not to mention Ireland, I cannot believe that partition anywhere is likely to be a solution that makes everyone go home and settle down. God forbid!

Egypt is of course sui generis but with its strong history and sense of national identity it will probably muddle through, after a rocky transition.

Lebanon has been transforming itself without changing very much for at least three, or four, or maybe five millennia now, and looks to stay on par.

Syria: why are the media not mentioning that its southern region around Dera’a is Druze, separatist, with a long history of rebellion against central authority going back at least to the 1930’s? What happens there is not necessarily a precursor of what happens afterwards in the rest of the country.

Iraq: ‘Nuff said. A lesson for all of us. We broke it, we owned it, now it is time to disown it, leave it on the doorstep of the neighbors. And the sooner the better.

Yemen is as different as any of the others but my direct knowledge there is limited to one brief visit about fifty years ago and I pass.

Saudi Arabia: Here again I have virtually no direct experience. I am impressed by the argument that the regime there is entirely indigenous, not colonial, but I don’t know the extent to which that may ¬†render the House of Sa’ud immune to the kind of shocks now threatening Yemen and other regimes in the neighborhood.

So there you have it. I hope it helps inform the debate, at least in a small way.

Carl Coon 3/25/11


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