West just can't leave Middle East

Why are we in the Middle East? This is the real question that the Madrid bombs pose for Europe and the United States, and for the nations of that region themselves. The struggle in which we are all caught up is, ultimately, neither about Iraq nor about terrorism narrowly defined.

The intra-western quarrel over Iraq and the growing fear of terrorism tend to obscure the fact that those almost certainly responsible for last week’s assault on the Spanish people are not just against American intervention in Iraq but against all kinds of western action and influence in their region. They even go beyond that to deny that the Muslim and western worlds impinge upon one another naturally, are shaped by some common traditions and are subject to the same forces.
It is, indeed, the reality of converging societies and cultures against which they are in revolt, aiming at a separation as brutal as it is unrealistic.

The new Spanish prime minister has called the occupation of Iraq a fiasco. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But that is in the end a tactical issue, concerning the best forms of western action in the Middle East, and the best choices for Middle Easterners themselves.

It is also Thursday’s issue, for the Iraq intervention can now only be modified, not undone. To make policy in order to win points in an argument that is essentially over is irresponsible, whichever side of the argument is sustained, whether by American Republicans in Washington or Spanish Socialists in Madrid. We have to return to the fundamental fact that the intention of al-Qaeda and its allies and associates, the driving aim of this ideology, is not only to get western forces out of Iraq, but to get the west in all its manifestations out of the whole region. Not just its soldiers, but its businessmen, clerics, scholars, teachers and aid workers. And not just westerners, but those Arabs who have allegedly become westerners in their hearts.

It is the contention of al-Qaeda and its allies, or at least it is the illusion that guides these groups, that western support for Arab regimes and for Israel, and the insidious western cultural influence that goes along with that support, are the two great obstacles standing in the way of a purification and renewal of the Muslim world. Once the west has been cowed into a retreat, then the real war for power and religious dominance in the Middle East can begin.

Given the complex realities of the societies they imagine they will at some point control, and the utter inadequacy of their own resources—other than for destructive purposes—their ambitions are certainly doomed to fail. But on the way to that failure they can clearly do grave damage to both civilisations.

It has to be said that “Why are we in the Middle East?” is nevertheless a legitimate question, as it has been ever since Napoleon landed on Egyptian shores in 1798. The same mixture of motives evident then—to liberate, to modernise, to learn and understand, but also to bend to our purposes and to exploit—is still visible today. It may be possible to say that exploitation is a less prominent element today than it was in the past. That depends on how the oil industry, western economic activities and advocacy of free markets, on the one hand, and western political relations with the sclerotic regimes that rule much of the Middle East, on the other, are perceived. But a simple theory of dependency and control is not convincing. Middle Eastern regimes appear to be simultaneously dependent and autonomous, cooperative and cantankerous, open to advice and heedless of it; or, in other words, not too different from other nations the world over.

Still, could “we”, however defined, just go, as the al-Qaeda types wish? Would that be better for us, in terms of protecting ourselves from terrorist attacks, and might the outcome in the Middle East be better if we could somehow leave them to fight out their internal quarrels on their own? Merely to put the question shows how unreal is the notion of departure. We can’t leave because of oil, because of Israel, because of the possible further spread of weapons of mass destruction, and not least because of the way in which Europe and the Middle East affect one another economically, socially and culturally.

Above all, this is a zone in demographic upheaval as its youthful population races ahead of local capacities to socialise, educate and employ. This is a phenomenon that rocks Iran as much as Egypt; that exacerbates the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; and that unavoidably overflows the region as it exports both its best and its worst, able and hard-working migrants as well as angry extremists.

Yet the very diaspora that makes Europe and America vulnerable to attacks is also a resource in preventing attacks. Who can doubt that the specialists, agents, and translators tracking the terrorists are already being drawn from the ranks of that diaspora, and more will be in the future? This is only one of hundreds of connections, benign and malign, that tie us together. There is no escaping the embrace in which Europe, America, and the Middle East are locked.

Given this embrace, one thing that is not going to happen, it can be predicted, is that outside attempts to influence the Middle East will cease. Another is that such attempts, although they may be better judged, will always be risky and have unpredictable consequences. The American rightwingers who urged intervention in Iraq on the Bush administration had the idea that a transformation of the region could spring from a single dramatic act. A year later it is clear that, while the theory may still ultimately prove to hold some truth, it could be a long time before we find out. Preventing Iraq from becoming a disaster rather than generalising its success across the region, while simultaneously defending, and not always successfully, against terror attacks, are the problems of the day.

In times of such upheaval separation has its attractions, as does isolation. The Middle East seethes with notions about how the west is undermining, destroying and ruling from behind. In Europe, a dual anti-semitism, directed at both Jews and Muslims, can be traced to the same cause. So can a certain kind of anti-Americanism, distinct from measured criticism of American policy, which seeks to trace every problem and danger back to Washington.

As Spain demonstrates, it may be that in future the western leaders who will have to deal with the consequences of the Iraq intervention will not be those who led it. But deal with it they must, as well as take other decisions that may prove equally hazardous, if the pernicious idea that the west and the Islamic world have separate futures linked only by hostility is to be defeated. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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