Last Act in the Mideast

Article excerpt

Despite the Libyan intervention, the era of Western meddling in the region is coming to an end.

Ever since Britain and France set out to dismember the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, the West has been engaged in an incoherent, haphazard, episodic, but more or less relentless effort to impose its will on the Middle East. Methods have varied. Sometimes the "infidels" have employed overt force. At other times they have relied on covert means, worked through proxies, or recruited local puppets.

The purposes offered to justify Western exertions have likewise varied. With empire falling into disfavor, the pursuit of imperial aims has required conceptual creativity. Since 1945 resistance to communist subversion, a professed antipathy for brutal dictators, support for international law, and an enthusiasm for spreading freedom have all been pressed into service (albeit selectively) to legitimize outside intervention. Today's "responsibility to protect" extends this tradition, offering the latest high-minded raison d'etre for encroaching on the sovereignty of Middle Eastern states whenever the locals behave in ways that raise Western ire.

Underlying this great variety of methods and professed motivation, two things have remained constant across the decades. The first is an assumption: that Arabs, Persians, Afghans, and the like are incapable of managing their own affairs, leaving the West with no choice but to act in loco parentis, setting rules and enforcing discipline. The second is a conviction: that somehow, some way, the deft application of Western power will eventually fix whatever ails the region.

At first Britain served as principal enforcer. Roughly since the Suez crisis of 1956, the lead role has fallen to the United States. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, Americans hesitated to become too deeply involved in places that seemingly offered little but grief. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s--not so incidentally, decades when the U.S. became highly dependent on imported oil--that ambivalence diminished. With the promulgation of the Carter doctrine in 1980, it disappeared altogether and the American instinct for activism kicked into high gear.

The results? As with the British, so with the Americans: an endless series of plots, alarms, excursions, and interventions ensued. Indeed, to combine first British and then American efforts to pacify the Middle East into a single seamless narrative is to describe an epic march to folly. Despite stupendous Western expenditures--the United States spent trillions trying to decide the fate of Iraq alone--the region as a whole has remained unpacified, untamed, unstable, and unpredictable. …