I had the opportunity to go to a luncheon on "Sectarian Violence in the Middle East" on Monday in San Diego, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank out of Washington. It was two panelists and a moderator. One panelist member was Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic Studies at Notre Dame. The other was Mona Yocubian, who works for USAID.
The two panelists didn't agree on everything, but the moderator was able to pull out some common ground about the current crisis with ISIS and such.
1. The first is that the current situation is more complicated than ever.
I was probably the least informed person in the room. The number of individual groups in the Middle East is mind numbing. It's not just Sunni and Shia. There are Alawites and Hezbollah and all sorts of other gradations. They ally for somethings, pull against each other for others.
Dictators like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, perhaps even Hosni Mubarak, were oppressive leaders who did/do evil things. But their removal in each case has left a vacuum of group fighting against group that, at least for the moment, seems even worse than before. Who's to say where it will all go?
My Monday reading group (Charles Taylor) has highlighted a complicating factor that wasn't discussed--the impact of modern individualism on the Middle East. Individualism has empowered radical Muslim individuals to leave saner communities and separate into factions of radical individuals like Al-Qaeda.
And as this event indicated, even Middle East experts themselves don't always agree on the analysis or prescription. That puts any US administration in a tough spot, needing to listen to multiple voices before making any decisions.
2. A second is that America and the West need to be very cautious about the way we intervene.
It seems like we push on one problem and two more spring up somewhere else. So we support the removal of Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood takes over. We don't know who to support in Syria. Bashar al-Assad is a bad guy, but the other side has become ISIS, which is a bad guy, maybe even worse.
On the panel, Moosa thought we needed just to stop intervening and to let the situation take its course, to let Saudi Arabia and the other countries of the region fight their own battle. There was vocal support and a significant pocket of clapping around the room for that.
Yocubian, who of course is in the broader Obama administration, took a more nuanced approach and suggested there are many things we can do in terms of aid and such that do not necessarily involve military intervention. She pointed out that Obama has tried to be very careful about intervening and that there are of course many hawks in Congress who think he should be intervening more. I know I thought we probably should have intervened before ISIS took Mosul and took over billions in monetary assets.
Obviously it's very complicated. I get that our intervention almost always seems to create more problems later. But you can't let Hitler take over the world either. Eventually it comes home to roost, when you might at least have nipped something in the bud. Liberals don't like Obama for intervening at all. But, given that he comes from that camp, surely it says something when he intervenes. Surely it says that it was REALLY important to intervene in this case or he wouldn't have done it.
Moosa advocated something like those capitalists who would have us just let an economic crisis play itself out without doing anything about it. Just let the Middle East play itself out and it will eventually right itself.
I disagree, even though I agree we should intervene as little as possible. In economics, I disagree in part because of the three or four years of Hades in destroyed lives. Better five years of moderate economic pain than three years of total decimation. It certainly seems to have worked in the recent economic crisis. How many small groups (like Christians in the Middle East) would be wiped out as the region rights itself?
I disagree secondly because I doubt it really would right itself. There has to be some unifying factor that can transcend factionalism. This is arguably in fact what happened in the origins of Islam. A common deity, a common ethic, a common sense of human worth, allowed rival factions on the Arabian peninsula to come together (of course the expansionary wars against non-Muslims helped too ;-).
3. My notes are at the office, so I don't remember what the moderator's third take-away was. I may have merged it above. I'll make up one that was also clear from the session. :-)
Most of us are way out of our depth on these issues. Policy and decision makers need to be listening to lots of different experts on the Middle East. Inevitably, our leaders have to make these decisions, but they need to make them with fear and trembling, talking to a lot of other people, including the leaders of other countries. We surely need to pray for them. The smartest of the smartest are hardly able to untie these knots.