Future of the Middle East

politics and culture — By on February 1, 2008 at 5:02 pm

If you’re interested in the intersection of culture and geography with politics, and if you have any interest in the Middle East, then I highly recommend a story from the recent issue of The Atlantic. Titled “After Iraq,” the story written by Jeffrey Goldberg looks at how history, geography, culture and politics have combined to give us the current muddled and violent situation in the Middle East, and also considers how the map of the region could be redrawn in the future.

Some key excerpts:

As America approaches the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the list of the war’s unintended consequences is without end … The list includes, notably, the likelihood that the Kurds will achieve their independence and that Iraq will go the way of Gaul and be divided into three parts—but it also includes much more than that.

Across the Middle East, and into south-central Asia, the intrinsically artificial qualities of several states have been brought into focus … it is not just Iraq and Afghanistan that appear to be incoherent amalgamations of disparate tribes and territories. The precariousness of such states as Lebanon and Pakistan, of course, predates the invasion of Iraq. But the wars against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and especially Saddam Hussein have made the durability of the modern Middle East state system an open question in ways that it wasn’t a mere seven years ago…

Of course, the current turbulence in the Middle East is attributable also to factors beyond the miscalculations of both the hubristic, seat-of-the-pants Bush administration and the hubristic, seat-of-the-pants French and British empires. Among other things, there is the crisis within Islam, a religion whose doctrinal triumphalism—Muslims believe the Koran to be the final, authoritative word of God—is undermined daily by the global balance of power, with predictable and terrible consequences … and there is the related and continuing crisis of globalization, which drives people who have not yet received the message that the world is now flat to find solace and meaning in their fundamental ethnic and religious identities.

But since 9/11, America’s interventions in the region—and especially in Iraq—have exacerbated the tensions there, and have laid bare how artificial, and how tenuously constructed, the current map of the Middle East really is. By invading Iraq, the Bush administration sought not only to deprive the country of its putative weapons of mass destruction, but also to shake things up in Iraq’s chaotic neighborhood; toppling Saddam and planting the seeds of democracy in Iraq would, it was hoped, make possible the transformation of the region. The region is being transformed; that transformation is just turning out to be a different, and possibly far broader, one than imagined.

What might this regional transformation look like? Goldberg goes into great detail in the article, but for starters:

The most important first-order consequence of the Iraq invasion, envisioned by many of those I spoke to, is the possibility of a regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites for theological and political supremacy in the Middle East…

There are likely second-order consequences, as well. Rampant Kurdish nationalism, unleashed by the invasion, may spill over into the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran…

Then there are third-order consequences: in the next 20 years, new states could emerge as old ones shrink, fracture, or disappear. Khuzestan, a mostly Arab province of majority-Persian Iran, could become independent. Lebanon, whose existence is perpetually inexplicable, could become partly absorbed by Syria, whose future is also uncertain…Kuwait is another state whose future looks unstable…Bahrain, a majority-Shiite country ruled by Sunnis, could well be annexed by Iran (which already claims it), and Yemen could expand its territory at Saudi Arabia’s expense.

The list goes on. It’s a dizzying but fascinating look at a troubled and important region of the world.

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