The 9/11 attacks and the ensuing "war on
terror" have provided an opportunity for the U.S. foreign policy establishment,
suffering from Enemy Deprivation Syndrome since the Cold War's end, to settle
on a potential new bogeyman. It is radical Islam, or the "Green Peril"
a term I used in an article 15 years ago in Foreign Affairs,
spring 1993. I challenged Samuel Huntington's clash-of-civilizations paradigm,
which predicted that the West and Islam would engage in a long and bloody struggle
over control of the Middle East, including its oil resources.
The neoconservative ideologues who hijacked President George W. Bush's foreign
policy apparatus have embraced Huntington's notion of a confrontation between
Islam and the West. They see it as a way to justify American military power,
to establish U.S. hegemony in the Middle East while imposing American values,
the so-called "freedom agenda," to deal with the rise of Islamofascism,
a Khomeini-like creature, armed with a radical ideology, equipped with nuclear
weapons, and intent on launching a violent jihad against Western civilization.
According to this neoconservative dogma, which Bush has attempted to apply
in Mesopotamia, a free and democratic Iraq would become a model for political
and economic reform in the Arab world and the broader Middle East, and a series
of mostly peaceful democratic revolutions would be unleashed from the Islamic
frontiers of China, through Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, to the Balkan
borders. Hence, following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Bush supporters recalling
the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union's collapse
expected the democratic dominoes to fall in Syria and Iran, while arguing that
Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" and the planned election in Palestine
reflected the shape of things to come.
At the same time, even the more liberal and internationalist foreign policy
pundits like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, critical of some
aspects of the neoconservative agenda, insisted that the U.S. needed to launch
a massive campaign to help modernize/democratize/liberalize/secularize the
Arab Middle East and by extension the entire Muslim world, preferably through
public diplomacy and education, and as a last resort, military force.
Indeed, against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in two major wars in the
Middle East and the increasingly assertive position of Iran and its regional
allies, a consensus is evolving among Washington's chattering class about the
obligation to launch a Wilsonian campaign to bring the Middle East into the
modern age, while extinguishing radical Islam. Washington's failure to do that
would not only endanger Israel and other Mideast allies. With stratospheric
energy prices igniting anxiety in Washington over access to Persian Gulf oil
resources, the civilization-clash theory has acquired a economic veneer. Imagine
if Osama bin Laden controlled the Middle East's energy assets, a.k.a. "Arab
Oil," and used them as a "weapon" against the West!
New foreign policy paradigms, like new religions and political ideologies,
are produced by intellectual entrepreneurs hoping to win status and influence
over those seeking power. At the same time, politicians use these worldviews
to mobilize public support as they lead the nation/people/class against an
outside threat that allegedly challenges core interests and values. From this
perspective, the new Islamic bogeyman promoted by entrepreneurial neocons has
clearly served the interests of Washington's Iron Triangle of bureaucrats,
lawmakers, and interest groups, as well as foreign players who have pressed
for growing U.S. military engagement in the Middle East.
For the Iron Triangle, the Islamic threat very much like Communism
during the Cold War helps create expanding budget pressure for defense,
covert operations, and the current favorite interest group, while allowing
foreign players like the Israelis, the Indians, or the many 'Stans to highlight
their own roles as Washington's regional surrogates. At the same, neocon intellectuals
and their adjunct brigades of "terrorism experts" have increased
their access to governmental decision-making and the media and reaped other
political and financial rewards.
The problem is that foreign policy paradigms are intellectual constructs that
reflect the imaginations of their producers and the interests of their promoters,
not necessarily reality. As a result, when policies formed on the basis of
such conceptual frameworks are implemented, reality tends to bite. Hence, during
the Cold War, the notion of a global and monolithic Soviet-led Communism made
it inevitable that the U.S. would confuse the national interests that drove
the policies of Vietnam, China, and Cuba with the global interests of the Soviet
Union, leading to disastrous U.S. policy outcomes. Similarly, after the Soviet
Union had vanished into thin air, Americans discovered that the collapse of
Communism failed to unleash political and economic freedom in the former Soviet
Empire. Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia have acquired membership in the
Western club, a reflection of their European political cultures, while many
of the more backward 'Stans have embraced authoritarian political orders and
statist economic systems. Russia seems to have chosen its own unique Third
Way of state capitalism.
During the 1990s there was talk in Washington about the challenge the West
was supposedly facing from a new East Asian model, represented by Japan and
other emerging economies in the region. The champions of this model included
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's leader, and Huntington, who embraced the idea of
a "Sinic" civilization. They argued that unique East Asian Confucian
values such as family, corporate, and national loyalty, the precedence of society's
stability and prosperity over personal interests and freedoms, and a strong
work ethic and thriftiness are why East Asians support authoritarian governments
and the collective well-being rather than democracy, and why state-managed
capitalist economies are more successful than Anglo-American ones. But the
Asian financial crisis of the 1990s and the region's diverging political and
economic systems (Singapore vs. Taiwan) have undermined the notion of a monolithic
and successful Asian model, although China's dramatic economic rise may have
Similarly, the time has come to challenge the grand idea that the Muslim world,
or the Middle East, or the Arab world terms that seem interchangeable
in the American media has a unique and monolithic political and economic
culture that makes it resistant to the West's modernizing effects. Note that
here again, a multitude of labels, including democracy, capitalism, secularism,
and feminism, are used in association with modernity and Westernization.
The proponents of this idea suggest that only an American-led effort to "export"
democracy to that region of the world would bring about the necessary cultural,
political, and economic reforms, making Middle Easterners/Arabs/Muslims "more
like us." "Us" includes a not very monolithic West, with America's
Deep South, where racist legislation predominated until the 1960s; Switzerland,
where women were finally given the right to vote in 1971; the Anglo-Saxon model
of capitalism; Germany's social capitalism; libertine Las Vegas and prudish
Salt Lake City; and "law-abiding" Northern Europe and "corruption-infested"
Southern Europe. And so it goes.
Hence, careful study of the cultural, political, and economic entity called
the West reveals diverse and evolving attitudes about what it means to be a
Westerner in the 21st century. This depends very much on values and interests,
political principles, religious faiths, racial background, economic and social
status, gender, education, sexual orientation, and even the political and the
economic systems citizens embrace under certain environmental conditions and
The fact that there isn't a one-dimensional Westerner makes it easier to understand
why the one-dimensional Muslim or Arab doesn't exist either except,
that is, in the rival twin minds of radical Muslims who promote the ideology
of al-Qaeda and the Christian Right Westerners who advance neoconservative
Notwithstanding Washington's propaganda regarding the global threat of Islamofascism,
there are no common ideological foundations that unite the various strains
of Islamic-influenced groups. The hugely divergent groups include the secular
Arab nationalist movements of Ba'athism and Nasserism, combining socialist
and fascist ideologies imported from Europe; Saudi Arabia's dominant and strict
religious doctrine of Wahhabism; the revolutionary and millennialist dogma
that guides the ruling Shi'ites in Iran and their Middle Eastern satellites;
the Kemalist secular, republican, and statist tradition of Turkey, challenged
now by modernist and pro-free-market and democratic Islamist parties that want
Turkey to join the European Union; the tolerant and multicultural societies
and capitalist economies of Indonesia and Malaysia; the radical Islamists of
South and Central Asia; Westernized, multiethnic, and multireligious Lebanon;
and, finally, Moammar Gaddafi's strict and somewhat bizarre form of the Islamic
revolutionary system in Libya.
From this perspective, the Muslim world or the Middle East or the Arab Middle
East is a mosaic of nation-states, ethnic groups, religious sects, and tribal
groups, and a mishmash of political ideologies, economic systems, and cultural
orientations. Some of these players have gradually joined the modern age and
play an active role in the global economy: Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, and
the UAE. Others have clearly remained on the margins of the recent economic
and technological revolutions: Sudan, Mauritania, the Gaza Strip, and Yemen.
Most Islam-dominated states find themselves somewhere in between: Egypt, Jordan,
Saudi Arabia, and Libya.
There is no doubt that some parts of the Middle East are "notable for
[their] disturbingly low profile in matters of economics and globalization,"
as Zachary Karabell, a Middle East expert and investment banker, put it. After
all, the region, with its 350 million people, located at the intersection of
Europe, Asia, and Africa and renowned for its historical legacy as the Cradle
of Civilization as well as its huge energy resources, would be expected to
be on par with other leading emerging economies. Its GDP is more than $900
billion a year. Its economic growth rate is about 5 percent per year.
The recent rise in energy prices has benefited some parts of the region, in
particular the booming oil states in the Persian Gulf. In contrast to the oil
explosion of the 1970s, these states are now investing their profits in the
region, encouraging stock market growth, a surge in real estate developments,
and the building of modern economic infrastructure that is helping to turn
the UAE and other Persian Gulf states into centers of global commerce and finance
At the same time, there are signs that Arab economies that have been ruled
for decades by military dictators Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and now perhaps
even Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Libya are taking important steps to
reform their economies and open them to foreign investment and trade. Through
the efforts of France and the rest of the EU, the creation of a European-Mediterranean
economic club could accelerate this process and encourage the return of expatriates,
including many professionals and businessmen, from the West.
In a way, Western powers have been responsible for the fact that military
dictatorships retarding economic reform have controlled Mideast nation-states
for so long. The geostrategic competition among outside powers, especially
during the Cold War, encouraged the U.S. and its allies to exploit regional
conflicts like the Arab-Israeli one and to provide military and economic support
to local strongmen who were supposed to serve the outsiders' interests. But
the time has come for Western powers, particularly the EU, to focus efforts
on an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to create incentives for the region
to open up to the global economy. This includes liberalizing their economies,
reducing tariff barriers, and encouraging direct foreign investment.
While free trade is not a panacea, it could be a necessary building block
for a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East. It could encourage the rise
of a professional middle class with values more in tune with modern ideas and
technologies. That effort could also help reduce poverty and economic inequality,
and all of these could foster what Erik Gartzke, a Canadian political economist,
describes as "capitalist peace."
Indeed, when globalization seems to be bypassing the Middle East, it's important
to remember that the region was once a center of global commerce, and that
its merchants and traders Syrians, Lebanese, Jews, Armenians, Greeks,
and others helped spread the culture of business across the Mediterranean
and throughout the world. That old Spirit of the Levant could be revived under
these conditions of capitalist peace and help transform the Middle East from
the global economy's backwater into one of its most powerful engines.
This originally appeared in The