The Frustration and the Hope
The establishment of the modern Middle East was largely an imperialistic enterprise focused on geopolitical strategy and access to oil. After WWI mandates, primarily those given to Great Britain and France, were put into place to govern what had been the Ottoman Empire. Simultaneously, vast reserves of oil were available to Western powers with the industrial know how to extract it. This led to competing claims by the British, French, Soviet, and American governments which made agreements with the autocratic rulers of the Gulf States in order to secure their oil interests. By the end of WWII, geopolitical concerns over oil were further complicated by competing claims over land in Palestine, fostered as a result of British promises to the Arabs and the Balfour Declaration. Growing Zionism and the horrors of the Holocaust brought waves of immigrant refugees to eretz Israel.
When the Cold War came to an end, many Arab nations as well as the Palestinians lost their primary backer; this changed the geopolitical landscape once again. The brief period of hope generated by the Oslo Accords quickly gave way to an exponential growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank as attempt after attempt at peace stalled. Given the rapidly growing use of oil, however, the primary goal in the region seemed to be securing the steady, reliable flow of oil. This only strengthened Western relations with autocratic rulers, particularly in the Gulf states. After 9-11 these relations with rulers known for the suppression of their people took on greater meaning as we relied on them for access to the region to fight our “War on Terror.”
By the end of 2010, a history of protest, the proliferation of media from Aljazeera to Facebook, and economic deprivation provided new challenges for autocrats in the heady early months of 2011. Ben Ali was exiled from Tunisia, Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt, and Gaddafi was ultimately defeated and killed in Libya. Although there seemed to be a common narrative, experiences varied from country to country, and it soon became clear that in many places such as Bahrain and Syria protest could still be violently crushed. More than three years of conflict in Syria has led to civil war which has evolved into a regional proxy war for geopolitical power and the front line for the longest “civil war” in history between Sunni and Shia sects of Islam.
This unit establishes a context for some of the big questions that have plagued the region historically and then addresses the current issues and conflicts. There are many issues yet to be resolved and more which keep multiplying. Many of these, such as the form the new democratic governments in the region take, will have to be decided by the people themselves. Yet, the United States clearly has its own interests in the region, including an unshakable alliance with Israel and a seemingly unshakable hostility with Iran that only makes their growing nuclear abilities all the more frightening. In order to steer the best course though such troubled waters, it is necessary to understand the obstacles that could, at any moment impact our navigation. Events are dynamic and there are no comprehensive strategies given the conflicting interests; the best that can be hoped for is an understanding of the complexity of the issues of the region so as to have the most informed opinions on foreign policy as possible. In that spirit the unit ends with a modification of the CHOICES option discussion included in The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy. The enlarged focus combines elements from the CHOICES Teaching with the News resources for the conflict in Syria, the Iranian Nuclear Program, and the Arab Spring. The literary elements of the unit include Amy Wilentz’s Martyrs’ Crossing and Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men.