The Death of Middle East Idealism
Despite decades of Western interventions and dreams, the region is in dire shape and getting worse.
Lebanon was supposed to be different. The tiny Levantine country might have been in a “rough neighborhood,” to use the think tanks’ favorite cliché. It might have shared a long border with Syria, where the worst war of the 21st century still rages. It might have still been scarred from its own civil war, which lasted 15 years and featured an impossibly long roll call of factions and figureheads. But Lebanon had still managed to achieve something that few ever thought it could: relative stability. Its government, which divides power among religious groups, was seen as a model in a region that desperately needs one.
Now Lebanon is facing its greatest crisis since its civil war. An economic meltdown triggered by debt—Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world—has seen the Lebanese pound lose two thirds of its value and long lines stretch outside banks. Food is becoming unaffordable. The country’s once-strong middle class is in danger of falling into poverty. One army veteran told the New York Times that his pension, previously worth $800 a month, is now worth only $200.
The chaos in Lebanon hints at a greater uncomfortable truth: the lamps are going out all over the Middle East. The region is facing, depending on whether you run hot or cold, either its worst crisis in recent memory or only the latest in a chain of crises. Either way, it’s called into question yet again America’s policy there, which has long been premised on a determination to promote freedom and democracy. This approach is an idealistic one and for years it’s been utterly detached from reality.
The contrast between America’s expectations for the Middle East and the reality is stark. In Iraq, hopes of a post-Saddam democracy have yielded mass corruption and discontent, with powerful militias, Iranian influence, and a resurgent ISIS all auguring more violence to come. In Libya, hopes of a post-Gaddafi democracy have yielded a Somalia on the Med, with the most likely outcome another military strongman seizing power. In Syria, hopes of a post-Bashar al-Assad democracy have yielded a brutal nine-year-long civil war that Assad has effectively won. In Egypt, Arab Spring aspirations have yielded a dictator even more repressive than was Hosni Mubarak.
In Yemen, another Arab Spring revolution has yielded another dirty war that’s seen the United States team up with the Saudis to kill civilians en masse. In Afghanistan (stepping outside the technical Middle East for a moment), 19 years of American occupation have yielded a comeback-kid Taliban and one of the most corrupt governments on the planet. In Turkey, George W. Bush’s preference that Ankara join the European Union (he actually wanted that) has yielded a dictatorial state seeking to roll back Ataturk’s reforms. And in Iran, the implacable enemy of the Middle East idealists, decades of pushback have yielded a Tehran with influence extending across Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and into Lebanon.
Now, throw in the decline of oil, courtesy of the Russian-Saudi economic war and the coronavirus price plunge, which has gut-punched the Middle East’s petro-states. Throw in, too, the coronavirus itself, which has shaken Turkey and Iran in particular and threatened to ravage war-torn Yemen. Do all that and you’re left with a dire picture, one in which impossibly complex sectarian and tribal politics have combined with impossible-to-foresee events to utterly defy America’s designs. There is some debate as to whether Vietnam or Iraq is America’s greatest wartime failure of the past 100 years. But there can be little doubt that the Middle East overall is its greatest strategic failure. The gulf between what the idealists wanted it to look like and what it actually looks like yawns like the Grand Canyon.
Consequently even some of the idealists say they aren’t really idealists anymore. We still need to remain in the Middle East, they say, but our purpose should be to prevent terrorism, not affect a region-wide transformation. Some of them, like Bret Stephens, have openly criticized the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda and endorsed secular strongmen like Egypt’s Abdel al-Sisi. Others, like Elliott Abrams, have wrought themselves into hilarious contortions, trying to explain the failure while also dodging the fault. Abrams back in 2014 wrote a piece for Politico in which he claimed the Middle East had been wrecked by, not the Bush administration, not the Arab Spring, but…Barack Obama. Obama, you see, was guilty of “hubris.” That’s true, of course, but he also wasn’t the one claiming that we were going to “rid the world of evil.”
It’s always difficult to watch an idealism die. In letting go, its adherents have to abandon their long-held beliefs, which can feel, as the ex-socialists used to say, like an amputation. Far easier to claim, as does Stephens, that they actually supported something very different, or, as does Abrams, that counterrevolutionaries intervened and ruined the entire project. Those excuses sound off the lips of some jaded communist or frustrated Jacobin, which is no coincidence. America’s Middle East idealism dovetails more easily with left-wing thought than right-wing. Most of the neocons were former leftists; their progenitor was Woodrow Wilson. The idea of an indispensable nation charged with spreading universal values was espoused by the French revolutionaries long before it was by American conservatives.
An idealism hovers at 30,000 feet. It deals in broad concepts and isms, romantic notions and visions, rather than the tedious realities of governance. There is little room in its thought process for the quotidian: preventing the museums from being looted, keeping the lights on, paying the national bills. Hence an idealist might have looked at Lebanon last year and seen democracy; its people, meanwhile, were wondering why the trash wasn’t getting collected. In Iraq and Libya, it was assumed these little details would naturally follow, that Ahmed Chalabi or various dissidents would take charge and attend to the planning on the ground. Instead both nations got stuck in the teeth of sectarianism, economic crisis, historical enmities, none of which were visible from that bird’s eye view.
Hence do some of the idealists now say the Iraq war was a good idea; it was just the planning that went awry. Therein the last redoubt of the foiled left-wing revolutionary: true fill-in-the-blank was never really tried. As Irving Babbitt said of Rousseau, “In his theories Rousseau is a wild revolutionary dreamer, but timid and circumspect in the last degree in everything that relates to practice.” Likewise did the Middle East idealists always think harder about the dream than whether there existed a spit of land on which it could actually be realized. Once we aspired to freedom and democracy abroad. Now we’re just hoping Lebanon can avoid the abyss.