Monday was a rough day for moral clarity in the Middle East. We heard from the respected Amnesty International that up to 13,000 Syrian prisoners were tortured and hanged in a government jail. The American president promised to expand military spending significantly, just days after putting Iran “on notice” for test firing a missile that Iran was fully allowed to test fire. The executive and legislative branches of the Israeli government both approved Apartheid-like colonial policies to expand Jewish settlements on stolen Palestinian land. Yemeni rebels fired a missile at a military installation near the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, marking a dangerous new escalation in that conflict.
These were only a few of the problematic developments across the Middle East that highlight one of the most serious threats that our region faces: the de-linking of one’s actions from any serious consequences because of those actions. Government leaders, opposition militant groups, foreign powers, and everyone else in between can do anything they want in the Middle East, without serious fear of accountability or retribution. So acts of cruelty, savagery, or even near-barbarism mostly go unpunished, regardless of the perpetrators or the victims. Only a few hapless minor criminals who do not have the protection of a major local or foreign patron get caught, tried, and sent to jail for a few years.
Our Arab region’s terrible de-coupling of political acts from both moral standards and legal constraints or consequences did not happen suddenly. In recent decades we have seen millions killed or exiled in Sudan, by Sudanese primarily; ferocious warfare in Syria and Iraq that includes barrel bombs, starvation sieges, and suicide attacks by governments and militant terrorists; drone attacks by the U.S. against Arab militants and civilians in several countries; Lebanon’s civil war atrocities from 1975-89; Israel’s non-stop colonization, sieges, and killing or imprisoning of Palestinians in large numbers since 1967 and before; the inhuman warfare in Yemen that includes attacks by Yemenis and by neighboring Arab Gulf powers, with the active association of the United States and Great Britain; and the examples go on and on.
This reflects a quarter-century of slow unraveling of established governance systems and state orders—mostly since the end of the Cold War around 1990. When the United States and Russia became less directly concerned with the Middle East, local structures of political order and mechanisms of “stability” slowly eroded. Local powers emerged and took control, often fighting each other to the death, as we witness today in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, though similar tensions in other Arab countries persist at lower intensity levels.
Many have theorized about why this has happened mainly in the Arab World. This is an important discussion, if it can offer credible and verifiable insights into the root causes of why we have allowed our region to become a killing field for sectarian thugs, a shooting gallery for local warlords, and a proving range for foreign military salesmen.
Until we achieve a better understanding of those reasons for our descent into a political battlefield devoid of moral values or legal and political constraints, we must sadly admit that most Arab countries have no real significance to the rest of the world, with the exception of some who produce energy. And only some who produce energy, not all of them; for we have seen now how the world gets on fine without full oil production from Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. So even oil and gas reserves do not guarantee you protection as an Arab country. Israel is able to protect itself and in any case can count fully on U.S. support in case of any real threats.
So, the Arab region has little or no strategic significance to anyone. It can burn to its heart’s content, it seems. I suspect this is because no Arab country has been able to achieve genuine full sovereignty, meaning effective domestic and foreign policies that lead to increased well-being, opportunity, security, and—most critically—international respect for its citizens. Some Arab states seek instant respect by throwing their military weight around, and they end up only spreading chaos and human misery to even more countries. Other Arab states seek instant respect by becoming active cogs in the global neo-liberal economic-entertainment order, by hosting golf tournaments or car races, or building the world’s biggest amusement parks or fried chicken fast food outlets. Others yet seek instant respect by offering their services as security partners and sub-contractors for global powers.
Monday’s news should remind us, sadly, that these and other desperate strategies do not work; they do not breed respect for Arab states, but rather decrease it. They cause the world to view us as utilitarian tools that can be picked up and abandoned in an instant. So when we start neglecting the needs and rights of half our low-income or marginalized people, concentrate state wealth in the hands of a few dozen families, and ultimately shoot and bomb each other, the world powers watch with bewilderment—or, as in Syria and Yemen, they join the fray and shoot away with abandon. The fact that our power elites do not seem to grasp this elementary reality is as troubling as their lack of ability to achieve genuine sovereignty and self-respect for Arab cultures and peoples that had achieved those feats several times in history.
Rami G. Khouri is a senior fellow at the American University of Beirut and the Harvard Kennedy School. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global