How We Got Here: Making sense of the Middle East landscape


A Turkish tank overlooks the nearby Syrian city of Kobani. (Getty)

Starting in 2011, the so-called Arab Spring that was imagined by idealistic Westerners to be the dawn of democracy in the Arab world toppled the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and generated a prolonged civil war in Syria. The most dangerous of the Arab extremist movements, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was elected but so misgoverned the country that it was evicted by the army leaders it had itself installed. After the American withdrawal from Iraq, that state virtually disintegrated, and the Shiite 60 percent majority is now under the influence of the Iranians, which was the last thing sought by the United States when it invaded and disposed-of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The American pursuit of democracy caused the elevation of the terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah in Gaza and Lebanon in free elections (undemocratic governments democratically elected); and Turkey elected a somewhat Islamic government in 2002, which has excoriated Israel and pandered to its former wards and dependents in the Arab world. Iran is in hot pursuit of nuclear weapons, with the result that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt are all clamoring for the U.S. or even Israel to deprive Iran of its nuclear military capability.

As al-Qaeda was pounded by the Americans, a new Islamic militant group, the Islamic State (IS), arose in the Sunni 20 percent of Iraq; it has defeated the regular army of Iraq and invaded Syria, and has become a fourth force in the civil war in that country, against Assad, the secular Arab moderates, and the other Islamist factions. The IS calls for theocratic government of the Sunni Arabs, and makes little distinction in the odium in which it holds Jews, Christians, and secular or insufficiently fervent Muslims. In one of the few dividends of the ever-escalating mayhem, no one pays any attention to the Palestinians, and Israel’s cordiality is being sought by former bloodthirsty enemies.

The Turkish government detests Assad so profoundly that it supports IS in Syria, instead of reoccupying the country itself, as it should; the world — including the nearly 2 million Syrian refugees, among whom are almost all its Christians — would welcome such an occupation of Syria. Saudi Arabia is so outraged at Russian and Iranian assistance to Assad and Hezbollah, and so irritated by the Iranian nuclear program, that it is steadily lowering the oil price (Russia and Iran cannot economically sustain an oil price below $70 per barrel). In the shambles of Iraq, the Kurds have effectively seceded from that country, with 20 percent of Iraq’s population and most of its oil, and are leading the battle on the ground against IS and replying to Turkey’s hypocritical support of IS by enflaming Turkey’s 20 million Kurds, who claim to have set up an autonomous zone in southeastern Turkey.

The steady decline of the oil price (assisted by increased American production and declining Chinese imports) has already forced Russia out of Ukraine and, if it does not stop the Iranian nuclear military program, Israel is standing ready for an aerial assault on the program, with broad Arab and even Turkish support. Iran is cooperating with the United States against IS, and it is feared by the Saudis and Israelis that the Obama administration will acquiesce in Iran as a nuclear threshold state, in which case the Republican leaders in Congress will try to legislate against any such understanding. The relatively quiescent International Atomic Energy Agency confirms that Iran is stonewalling inquiries it promised to assist. Because of terrorist attacks in North Sinai by the Muslim Brotherhood in some sort of collusion with IS, Egypt’s military government has declared IS, which still has only about 30,000 members, “a threat to the existence of Egypt.” In these circumstances, Israel is widely expected to attack Iran (with Saudi and Egyptian support), and it is also widely feared in the region that Iran will attack Saudi oil-refining and -shipping capacity to try to reinflate the world oil price. In that scenario, all the countries in the region, including Turkey and Israel, would side with the Saudis, who are trying to shift oil shipments from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, where they would be less easily impeded. The Middle East might then sort out its own problems somewhat, without more interference from outsiders, who have done little but muddy the waters these 35 years.

It must be admitted that, since the Camp David Accords in 1978 — except for President Reagan’s sale of AWACS reconnaissance aircraft to Saudi Arabia in exchange for a reduced oil price to squeeze the USSR and Iran, and the Gulf War of 2003 — foreign intervention in the Middle East has been an almost complete multinational, multi-partisan failure. Western Europe’s only policy has been to be more favorable to the Arabs and less friendly to Israel than the Americans, and Russia and China have just been irresponsible and rather ineffectual mischief-makers.

Revolutionary movements always move to the left until they can’t be more extreme and there is a reaction. We are there with the Islamic State; and chaos always yields to the quest for order, and we can’t be far from that either. The Middle East may yet struggle to the merciful end of the Obama administration without blowing up. Then either Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush (though neither is a likely candidate for Mount Rushmore), or another contender, could still prevent or destroy the Iranian nuclear program from the air; and force Turkey to choose between expulsion from NATO and the end of EU preferences, and playing a role in calming Syria and Sunni Iraq and accepting an independent Kurdistan. The exhausted and disorganized Arab powers that haven’t already done so might then be so shaken that they will finally recognize the right of Israel to coexist as a Jewish state beside a Palestine with sustainable borders. Either way, to adapt a Polish phrase, “In death there is hope.”


— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at

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