The Middle East on the Brink: Prospects for Change in the 21st Century 


William B. Quandt

University of Virginia

September 1995



As the century draws to a close, those of us who care about the Middle East should reflect on what a remarkable era the region has been passing through. Just a century ago, the Ottoman empire was still intact and was struggling to find a constitutional formula to keep its increasingly assertive national groups together. That effort failed, in part because of World War I. Then the imperial powers of the day, primarily Britain and France, intensified their domination over most of the area. Inevitably, foreign domination gave rise to nationalist movements, and within a few decades newly independent countries, including Israel, were taking their place in the United Nations.


All of that happened, more or less, in the first fifty years of the current century; and the past fifty have been spent by various leaders and regimes trying to make the resulting national states work. On occasions, they have resorted to force, and sometimes to diplomacy, to settle a wide variety of inter-state disputes. On the domestic front, leaders have tried to create viable economies and provide a modicum of social justice for populations long denied the most elemental of rights. Everywhere, populations new to independence have struggled with the clash between modernity and various forms of tradition. Small wonder, given all of these challenges, that the Middle East in recent years has seemed like a troubled, confused, unstable, sometimes violent region, a region of "uncertainties", to use the theme of this year's conference. Many wrenching changes have taken place in a relatively short period.


We should not focus only on what has gone wrong, or poorly, in the Middle East in recent years. There have been some real achievements. Colonial rule was ended almost everywhere with comparatively little resort to violence (Algeria being the noteworthy exception). Despite the artificiality of borders, especially in the Arab world, most inter-Arab disputes did not lead to war (Saddam's invasion of Kuwait stands as the most glaring counter-example). The Arab-Israeli conflict, which so dominated the life of the region until recently, has been partially resolved, and the near-term prospects for war have been reduced. And here and there in the region, genuine development has taken place; great works of literature and art have been produced; and life expectancy and basic literacy have improved dramatically. All of these achievements deserve recognition.


On balance, however, one must conclude that the twentieth century has not been kind to most peoples of the Middle East. Far too many have died in wars; far too many have lived in poverty and ill health; far too many have been deprived of basic human rights; some, notably Palestinians and Kurds, are still denied secure national existence; far too many may still die in future wars in which weapons of mass destruction may very well be used; and far too many still live under repressive, unaccountable political regimes. For a region rich in human and natural resources, this is not a record to be proud of.


And the worst part is that none of this was inevitable. Of course, one can always find excuses -- colonialism and imperialism were particularly harsh in the Middle East; foreign powers did continue to intervene even after most countries had achieved independence; loyalty to the new states was often weak in the face of both local primordial attachments and broader ideological claims; the Arab-Israeli conflict was devastating in its impact. And the list can be extended.

But when all the excuses are made, all the extenuating circumstances accounted for, one point remains to be emphasized: Many of the problems of the Middle East today are the results of decisions made by leaders who could have acted otherwise. Choices were available, and bad decisions were made time after time. Many of those responsible for disastrous developments are still in power. This suggests that the source of the region's unhappiness, to a very large degree, lies in the political realm -- not with its culture, not with the structure of its society, not with its economic potential -- but with its politicians. In short, those who have acquired power have often used it poorly on behalf of their peoples. If the next century is to be different in fundamental ways from the present one, this core political deficit will have to be overcome.


My belief is that the biggest challenge facing the Middle East in the years to come is the development of better systems of governance. This means governments that are accountable, in some acceptable manner, to their people. Without some means of accountability, mistakes, which all governments make, cannot readily be corrected; the art of compromise, necessary in any healthy polity, will not flourish; and individual rights will be ignored.

Some will say that this view assumes that a Western model of government can be exported to the Middle East. My answer is that accountable, responsible government can take root anywhere and in several different forms. And such governments will be no more foreign to the region than the mukhabarat states that now exist (with their uncanny resemblance to the repressive, bureaucratic regimes of the former Soviet empire) or the GCC monarchies which, in their modern guise, have little to do with long-established tradition and much to do with consumerism, patronage, and corruption, all ingredients found in other places where sudden wealth coincides with unbridled power. One must look hard today to find what is authentic about regimes of the Middle East and what is simply a local variant of the game of politics and privilege. Leaders, of course, want us to believe that they are ruling in the best interests of their people, who are not ready for western-style democracy. Until "their" people have been given a chance to express themselves, we should be very skeptical of all such self-serving claims. (Ironically, these "Oriental despots" are espousing a kind of Orientalism, arguing that they and their people are different, exceptional, immune to the rules that govern the lives and feelings of ordinary people elsewhere. We should not be taken in by such theories of Middle East "exceptionalism".)


Excuses for the status quo also come from cynics who argue that people get the governments that they deserve. I have never quite known how this is supposed to work in dictatorial systems. Does it mean that "bad people" deserve "bad governments"? Such a view is remarkably simplistic. After all, many people today enjoy democracy who just a decade or so ago were ruled by dictators. It would be hard to make the case that the "people" somehow changed in such a short time. What does seem to be true is that dictatorships, once they take root, are difficult to dislodge, and most people are not prepared to go to the barricades to fight for political freedom. It takes extraordinary circumstances for people to revolt.


It is certainly understandable if Middle Easterners are skeptical about importing some western models of government. After all, the colonial powers that ruled them professed to be democratic and respectful of human rights. Disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the West, they seek indigenous traditions upon which to build more responsive, humane and stable political systems. And such traditions exist in the Middle East. In the late-Ottoman period government interfered relatively little in people's everyday lives, distinctive communities often lived side by side in harmony, the entrepreneurial spirit was given wide scope to express itself freely, people crossed administrative borders easily, intellectual exchange within the region and with the outside world was normal, and concepts of individual and communal rights were seriously debated by intellectuals. Of course there is no going back, and there were many unpleasant sides to life in the previous century, but some of the principles of limited government, of tolerance for those of other nationalities, of open borders and economic exchange are not just Western inventions. They have roots in the region.


Unfortunately, the combined effect of colonial domination and fierce struggles to establish independent states has been to weaken traditions of tolerance, civility and pluralism. We have witnessed in this century a messianic era of intense nationalism (which has sometimes degenerated further to ethnic particularism). This disease struck Europe in the interwar period and is flaring up again in the Balkans. It has also been a feature of today's Middle East, although one can detect the emergence of a more pragmatic style of politics in many countries. Perhaps ordinary people in the Middle East have concluded that they will be better off without modern zealots who believe they are God's chosen people, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian.


Each major national group in the Middle East has been guilty in this century of this type of exclusivist zeal. There is no shortage of examples -- from the modern Turks, who argued that they were the race from which all others had descended; to Zionists, claiming Biblical sanction for their expropriation of land; to Arab Baathists who proposed a mystic bond that would erase the very real differences among Arab peoples, and who showed little tolerance for minorities in their midst; to the arrogance of the Shah, who saw in his Aryan people a racially superior breed, even while treating ordinary Iranians with contempt; to the pretenses of current religious zealots who claim that God is on their side. Who needs such visions today? Are Israelis, Turks, Arabs and Persians -- Muslims, Christians and Jews -- so insecure in their national and religious identities that they must be told by their leaders that they alone of the peoples of the Middle East deserve pride of place? I doubt it. These claims are simply the tactics of power-hungry demagogues in the region, Middle East versions of Miloševic and Mussolini. By this point in the twentieth century, we should have little trouble spotting the seeds of fascism in claims of religious or racial superiority.


Based on the evidence to date, when politics and religion are closely mixed in the Middle East, religiosity suffers and extremism wins out. But this need not be so. Indeed, popular religious traditions are often much more tolerant than the official, politicized versions. Sufiism may be looked upon with contempt by religious scholars, but as a popular form of Islam it has promoted a spirit of tolerance and personal piety. Religious leaders in all communities have strong traditions to draw on that respect the rights of individuals, that resist oppression, and that uphold a moral code for society.


One of the manifestations of the crisis of governance in the Middle East, of the lack of accountable leadership, and of dictatorial methods is the frequency of reckless decisions that have led to disasters Let us pause for a moment and reflect on just a few of the decisions made by Middle East leaders that have contributed to the region's misery in the past generation. Of course, we do not have the luxury of experimenting with history to find out what difference it might have made if other leaders had been on the scene to make different decisions, if more Mandelas and de Klerks, to say nothing of Gandhis or Havels, had been on the Middle East scene instead of the Saddam Husseins, Khomeinis and Sharons.


We can start our list of unfortunate decisions with Gamal Abd al-Nasser's ordering of his troops into the Sinai in mid-1967. Nasser's defenders will say that he was provoked, that he fell into a trap, that the Soviets supplied false information, and that Israel was the first to fire in the 1967 war. All of that may be true, but in those crucial days of May it was Nasser who took the initiative to turn a relatively quiescent front of the Arab-Israeli conflict into a battlefield. Leaders must bear the responsibility for their decisions, and Nasser, whatever his earlier achievements, was responsible for taking his people, along with other Arabs, into a war with Israel for which they were not prepared. Think how different the Middle East might have been if there had been no war in 1967. Of course, it might have happened later. But not necessarily; or not necessarily in the same way.


Wars, because of their appalling human and economic costs for societies, reveal most clearly the disastrous quality of leadership in the region. Saddam Hussein deserves the prize for the worst leader in this regard. He not only took his country to war with Iran in 1980 -- ignoring the very sound principle of never attacking a revolution -- but he also then added to his people's misery by invading Kuwait in 1990 in a war that, once the West decided to intervene, he could not possibly win. Along the way, he was guilty of launching the Anfal campaign against his own Kurdish people. This man alone is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, untold suffering, and a setback to his country's economic prospects that will take decades to repair. And none of it had to happen.


Although Iraq was the aggressor in 1980, Khomeini bears the responsibility for deciding to fight on after recovering Iranian territory in 1983. Rather than accept a truce and turn to the task of rebuilding Iranian society on the model he had propounded, Khomeini sought to punish Saddam for his impertinence. And how many more Iraqis and Iranians died because of this old man's intransigence? Again, the numbers must be in the hundreds of thousands. In the end, when Khomeini decided to "drink poison" in 1988, he had nothing to show for the added years of war. His troops were just where they had been, plus or minus a few kilometers, in 1983, and the economy was in ruins. Yet the war did help Khomeini to consolidate power and to eliminate all opposition.


Israel, despite its democratic form of government, has also had autocratic leaders who have made decisions in secret that have been disastrous for its people and for its neighbors. A case in point is Ariel Sharon's war for Lebanon in 1982. Yes, the cabinet went along, as, perhaps, did the U.S. government, but few had any idea how grandiose Sharon's plan really was. And ultimately the plan failed, but only after tens of thousands were dead, much of Beirut was in ruins, and the delicate balances of Lebanon's political fabric were ripped almost beyond repair. At least democracies offer remedies, however imperfect. Alone of my list of leaders who have taken their countries into foolish wars, Sharon was temporarily removed from office because of public outrage at his conduct. Democracies do not prevent bad decisions, but they have much more resilient self-correcting mechanisms than dictatorships.


The horror of war magnifies the impact of bad decisions. But other less dramatic decisions may be equally catastrophic in the long run. We really do not yet know the consequences of some economic choices, but we can easily imagine the day when some angry Middle East citizens will ask who made the decision to drain the fresh water aquifers under the Libyan and Saudi deserts, or under the West Bank? Will it be faceless bureaucrats who are blamed, or international consulting companies, or greedy politicians? Whatever the outcome, we can already say that these decisions, which may affect millions of people, have been made in secret, with no accountability, and possibly with large payoffs and kickbacks involved. Until political systems open up to public scrutiny, this is how decisions will be made.


The Middle East has not only suffered from a "democracy deficit". There has also been a related "development deficit". Simply put, a small proportion of the population of the Middle East -- perhaps ten percent of the total -- lives very well, while the rest lives in very modest conditions or on the borderline of poverty. This in a region that produced well over 150 billion dollars in oil revenue in 1980 alone. The development problem becomes most evident when we look at what regimes have produced for their people with the resources that they have at hand. And here international comparisons are telling. The best source to go to is the UN annual Human Development Report, which assesses each country in the world in terms of a variety of measures of human development -- literacy, economic well-being, life expectancy -- and a composite score is given to each country. One can quibble about the indicators, but they seem to be applied without any apparent bias. How do the countries of the Middle East compare with those of Latin America, South Asia, or East Asia, for example?


Most Middle East countries have a higher rank with respect to per capita income than they do on human development. If these numbers are reasonably accurate, this means that regimes are doing a poor job in translating wealth into improvements in the everyday lives of their citizens. Countries elsewhere, at the same level of per capita income, are doing more for their populations in terms of health and education. This could be due to the fact that wealth is going primarily to the elite; or is going into foreign bank accounts; or is being spent on the military sector at the expense of the civilian sector. We do know that defense spending consumes much more of national wealth in the Middle East than elsewhere in the world, and some of that is due to conflicts in the region. But defense spending alone is unlikely to account entirely for the development deficit. Poorly designed economic and social policies bear part of the blame as well. Here again, governance is at the heart of the problem. Leaders are making bad choices in economic and social policies, and their people are suffering as a result.


What, if anything, can the West, and the United States in particular, do to help facilitate the transition toward better governance and more equitable development in the Middle East? Not too much -- that is, the United States and other developed democracies cannot simply impose their model on the Middle East. But there are ways in which the West can be more helpful, if only at the margins. First, there is a continuing role for the United States in particular to help contain and resolve regional conflicts. If successful, those efforts might free up considerable amounts of capital for development instead of arms acquisitions. Second, the rich countries should make their markets available to exports from the Middle East. It is hypocritical for the United States to preach free markets to the Egyptians, for example, and then to limit their access to our textile market. Third, the rich countries can decide to forgive or to reschedule debts of poor countries. (For example, a post-Saddam Iraq will be desperate to have the sanctions ended, debt repayments waived, and demands for reparations dropped. How these issues are handled will have an enormous impact on Iraqi society).


Up until now, I have said little about an issue on which I have spent most of my professional career -- the Arab-Israeli conflict. Speaking one day after the extravaganza on the south lawn of the White House, I am not sure what to say. Is this really a moment to feel good about the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace, as the spin-masters are eager to have us believe? Or should we conclude from this recent round of negotiations that the chance for real peace is slipping away? At each stage of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, it has taken some time to gain perspective on current events, and the same will be true of "Oslo II". But my early assessment makes me pessimistic about the next stage of negotiations. It is not so much a matter of figuring out whether the proverbial glass is half empty or half full. It is more the growing conviction that this may well be the last negotiated agreement between Israelis and Palestinians for many years to come. Instead of building momentum for peace, inspiring mutual trust and confidence, this agreement could portend a long, dry -- and possibly quite violent -- period ahead.


The reasons for my pessimism are several. By now, we can see what the pattern of negotiations is likely to be. Israelis determine how far they are prepared to go; the Palestinians protest and threaten to walk out; the Americans urge both sides to be reasonable; and after many delays and much shouting, the Israelis get most of what they initially offered. This is not surprising, given the power disparities, and the lack of any real leverage on the Palestinian side, but it does suggest that the next phase of negotiations will be extraordinarily difficult. There, the parties will be dealing with settlements, borders, Jerusalem and refugee claims. Based on how difficult these recent talks proved to be, it is hard to imagine that Israel and the Palestinians will reach mutually agreed positions. So, instead of Israel living in peace alongside a viable democratic Palestinian state, it looks increasingly as if Israel will remain in control of much of the West Bank and Gaza, but at one step removed.


Perhaps my initial assessment will prove wrong. Certainly we should welcome any real move toward ending the Israeli occupation over much of the West Bank; we can applaud the release of political prisoners; we can admire the political courage that it took to keep returning to the negotiating table in the face of fierce domestic opposition; and one can hope that the upcoming Palestinian elections will produce a responsible, accountable government. If Oslo II is really just an interim step on the way to a final agreement, then its terms per se are not of such great importance. But if the final agreement remains elusive, this "interim" deal could well turn out to be the "final" agreement, in which case Palestinians will feel cheated, Israeli settlers will have proved their political clout, and we may well see political extremists in both camps gain strength. We might see a "settlement" that fails the crucial test of legitimacy in the eyes of one or both constituencies. Without some sense that both security and justice have both been achieved, no agreement stands much of a chance of lasting. That we should have leaned from the ill-fated May 17, 1983 agreement between Israel and Lebanon.

While it is hard to judge the merits of this interim step without knowing where it will lead, it is not difficult to describe the outlines of an Arab-Israeli peace that would have a chance of lasting. More or less, we know what each side needs to do -- the territorial concessions the Israelis will have to make, the commitments to peace that will be required of the Arabs, the security arrangements that will accompany any agreement, the payoffs, the formalities -- all of this is well understood. But what we do not know is whether the political will exists in Israel, in Syria, and among the Palestinians to take the remaining hard decisions.


What we do know, alas, is that Washington is not very interested in providing leadership, or acting as a catalyst, or pressuring the parties to do what they must for the sake of peace. This is not to say that the current Administration is indifferent. It would like to see peace, it would like to host more grand events on the south lawn of the White House -- but it does not want to exert itself, it does not want to spend much capital, political or otherwise, and it seems to have few creative ideas of its own. And Congress is even worse. Few in either house have much interest in the Middle East or knowledge to buttress their opinions. They mechanically vote each year for billions in aid to the region, but largely because they know that this stance is politically sanctioned by the pro-Israeli lobby. But can they bring themselves to provide promised debt relief to Jordan; to help the emerging Palestinian entity; to send a token peacekeeping force to the Golan? We will see in due course, but the signs of independent thinking on Capitol Hill on Middle East affairs are few indeed.


Without American leadership to help, the burden of peacemaking lies primarily on the shoulders of Rabin, Asad and Arafat. Each will have to show strong leadership if peace is to be secured. Rabin will have to deal with Israeli extremists and settlers who oppose any further territorial concessions; Arafat will have to mobilize the large majority of Palestinians who favor peace in the face of the determined opposition of the minority that feels the Palestinians have nothing to gain from the peace process; and Asad will have to transcend his narrow, parochial view of Syria's interests to lead his country into a new set of relations with its neighbors. Each needs to be able to point to the gains that will justify the risks, and this is where the United States could conceivably help. But I have given up hoping that this Administration will lead the peace process. Once the hard work has been done by others, they will be there to tell us how they really orchestrated the whole thing from behind the scenes -- or by telephone. And if it fails? Will they also take credit for that?


As the pall of reelection year politics begins to descend over Washington -- and soon over Tel Aviv as well -- it seems unlikely that American politicos will do much to help the forces of peace. Instead, we will hear pointless calls to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to cut off funding to the PLO because it has not yet crushed Hamas, and no one will think to criticize the continuing building of settlements and expropriation of land in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Small wonder that Likud leaders can say to their followers that Israel does not have to make a choice between settlements and support from the United States. It can have both.


If the peace effort fails, the consequences will be terrible for the region. It will mean more suffering for Palestinians and Israelis; it will mean a strengthening of extremist sentiment at the expense of moderation and pragmatism; it may mean the return to power of Likud; it could weaken the underpinnings of the Egyptian-Israeli peace. None of this need happen, however; an alternative is on the horizon. Without being polyannish, one can imagine the emergence of a zone of peace in the Eastern Mediterranean in the coming decade that would allow for a flourishing of democratic politics and economic growth in Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon, with beneficial spillover in Syria and Egypt as well.


If this corner of the Middle East, possibly along with North Africa and Turkey, enter the next century in conditions of improved governance, greater economic prosperity, and peace, a genuine revolution will have taken place. We could then look forward to seeing a Middle East in which real national independence might be achieved, cultural life might recover from the dead hand of bureaucratic control, diversity might be seen as a source of strength, individual rights would not be considered a threat to collective identities, and wasteful spending on arms might be reduced.

Needless to say, this vision is far from becoming a reality; but it is not a vision that is foreign to the aspirations of the people in the region, who, after all, are not so different from people elsewhere. They, like others, hope for lives of security, identity, economic well-being, peace, and justice. For too long they have been deprived of these elemental rights, either by foreign powers who saw the Middle East as little more than a chess board on which to play out their rivalries, or by indigenous regimes who valued power and gestures over tangible accomplishments for their people.


We cannot predict the future in the Middle East. Uncertainties abound on all fronts. In confronting those uncertainties, leaders and citizens of the Middle East will need to be guided by a vision of the future, a future that need not resemble the recent past. Central to that vision should be accountable governance, equitable development, and peace.