Thursday, January 10, 2008

The President’s Excess Baggage: Three Fallacies About the Middle East


President Bush is off on an eight-day whirlwind tour of the Middle East. He starts in Israel with the hope of solving a thorny problem of a peaceful settlement of Palestinian and Israeli differences. Woefully neglected by Condoleezza Rice, his present secretary of state, this remains a puzzle whose solution has stymied every American president since Harry Truman.

Our President carries with him to the region several fallacies that have been embraced or promoted by him. Unfortunately, he is fond of ignoring the reality that his misbegotten preemptive war against Iraq may have destroyed the delicate balance of the Middle East forever.

Fallacy No. 1. If a Palestinian state were created, many of the world’s problems would suddenly disappear.

Speaking realistically and at the risk of seeming callous to the loss of human life, deaths as a result of fighting between Jews and Palestinians since 1921 total less than 100,000, or about as many as are killed in a season of slaughter in Darfur. Moreover, while it would be nice if the Israelis and the Palestinians could settle their differences, it will do little or nothing to resolve the other continuing conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia or Indonesia. For example:

It will not stop Muslim-Russian violence in Chechnya.

It will not stop Muslim-Igbo (Christian) violence in Nigeria.

It will not stop Muslim-animist violence in Sudan,

It will not stop Muslim-Hindu violence in Kashmir.

It will not stop Muslim-Buddhist violence in Thailand.

It will not stop Muslim-Christian violence in Indonesia and the Philippines.

It will not stop inter-Muslim violence between traditionalists and Islamists.

It will not stop violence and between Sunnis and Shia,

It will not stop violence by radical Islamists against the West for past or present, real or imagined transgressions.

Fallacy No. 2. We must attack Iran to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on an atomic bomb.

It is understandable for Americans to worry about an Iranian bomb, but no more so than a North Korean bomb. In either case, if what we fear is the use of nuclear weapons by either state, there is absolutely no reason to think our strategy of conventional nuclear deterrence, employed successfully for more than forty years during the Cold War, would be less effective today than it was in the past.

Indeed, deterrence would be more effective against such weaker nuclear adversaries than against a stronger one like the Soviet Union. Destruction in such cases would no longer be mutual; for either nuclear weaker nation, Iran or South Korea, it would still be very much assured destruction. Why the Bush administration doesn’t perceive this is beyond comprehension. Perhaps they have begun to believe their own trumped-up fear mongering.

There is another and more real aspect to our worries about terrorists getting their hands on fissionable materials. If we are concerned about nuclear bomb materials falling into the hands of terrorists--and we should be--the Middle East should not be the main focus of our attention. Why would potential perpetrators of a nuclear attack waste time waiting for the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb when the materials and technology needed to develop a nuclear weapon are already in circulation on the world’s nuclear black market?

The threat is real—petroleum money can indeed subsidize dangerous actions against the United States and its interests—but the Middle East is not even close to being the source of that threat. Several regions should demand our attention in order to confront the threat of nuclear terrorism. These are less likely to be in the Middle East and more probably will be in Russia or the states of the former Soviet Union.

More than six years after 9/11, the U.S. commitment to the security of nuclear material in the former Soviet Union is still insufficient and being ignored. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, supposedly an expert on the Soviet Union, apparently is unaware of the threat posed by such poorly guarded nuclear materials. This is not surprising. By her own admission she could never imagine that planes could be used to bring down buildings in suicide attacks.

The misguided emphasis on threats posed by Middle Eastern countries and groups like al-Qaida and Hizbollah continues to cause our inaction elsewhere. For example, the growing instability of Pakistan, a nation with anywhere from 30 to 80 nuclear bombs, should cause concern over the possibility that these weapons could fall into the hands of disgruntled, Taliban-friendly Islamists. Yet Pakistan is not on Mr. Bush’s itinerary.

Fallacy No. 3. We have not paid enough attention to the Middle East.

The truth is we are much too engrossed in the affairs of the Middle East, yet it is a region about which we are still abysmally ignorant. Nevertheless, it could immeasurably profit from our benign neglect,

The peoples of the countries of the Middle East constitute less than five per cent of the world's population, and are remarkably unproductive. In fact, a high proportion of the population of the backward countries of the Middle East is not in the labor force at all. Consider Abu Dhabi, a city and an emirate overflowing with oil money and very few citizens. The majority of its population is made up of expatriates from other countries that do the actual work.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia's 27.5 million inhabitants also live off the oil revenues and do very little work, leaving that to the 5.5 million foreign technicians and laborers. Even with astronomically high oil prices, Saudi Arabia's annual per capita income ($13,800) is only about half that of the $25,800 per capita income of Israel, which has no oil.

The Middle East (excluding Israel) is an economic and technological backwater. A region that for centuries was the world leader in science and mathematics is now the global laggard in these subjects. In this largely stagnant area almost nothing is created in the sciences or the arts. If we take patents as an example and again exclude Israel, the per capita creation of patents in countries of the Middle East is one-fifth that of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, itself a region not given to abundant inventiveness.

Centuries ago the Middle East was a seat of learning and the known world’s most advanced region. Today, its principal industries are (1) extravagant consumption by the moneyed classes, (2) wasting time sitting around in coffee houses, and (3) voicing bitter resentment against the West.

If the Middle East as a region is seen today as threatening, it is not because its countries are unusually powerful or menacing, but because most of its undereducated, unemployed and illiterate young people have too much time on their hands and are engaged in a virtually hopeless battle against political repression at home and economic irrelevance abroad. The intelligent, disaffected middle-class male youths who join Islamic fundamentalist movements and who became the perpetrators of the 9/11 disasters recognize that the status quo in the Middle East does not serve a majority of its inhabitants well—but they nevertheless blame the West for this.

The stagnation of the resource-rich countries in the Middle East should come as no surprise. Experts have long noted that countries rich in natural resources are frequently poor in everything else. According to the UN's 2004 Arab human development report, at only 63 per cent, the Middle East boasts the second lowest adult literacy rate in the world (after sub-Saharan Africa). Its dependence on oil means that manufactured goods account for just 17 per cent of exports, compared to a global average of 78 per cent. Moreover, despite its oil wealth, the entire Middle East generated less than 4 per cent of global GDP in 2006.

Anyone who says we are dependent on the Middle East because of its rich supplies of oil simply isn’t familiar with current statistics. Today the region produces lass than 30 percent of the world’s oil. Only about 17 percent of American oil imports comes from the Persian Gulf. In fact, most statements about U.S. dependence on the Middle East for our oil conveniently fail to note that Canada is currently our number-one supplier of petroleum, with Mexico second.

Until oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938, it was a land of Bedouin shepherds and oasis date farmers who may perhaps be forgiven for failing to catch up with the outside world by continuing their backward ways. Saudi oil export revenues today account for 90–95 percent of the Kingdom’s export earnings, 70–80 percent of its state revenues and roughly 40 percent of the country’s GDP. As a result, oil producers have at least as much reason to be concerned about sustained high oil prices as do oil consumers. Once an advanced economy, Iran is an even better example of the negative effect of an abundance of petroleum. Although it exports only 2.8 million barrels of oil daily, as compared with Saudi Arabia's more than 10 million, oil still accounts for 80 percent of Iran’s exports because its industry and agriculture are now so unproductive.

Vice President Dick Cheney is forever bleating about the strategic importance of the Middle East to justify our occupation of Iraq. But despite its vast petroleum resources, this undeveloped region is less relevant than ever. It would be far better for the United States if we stopped meddling in the Middle East and turned our attention to working with the vibrant and creative nations of Europe and Asia—places where hard-working populations are toiling and looking toward the future, not sitting around puffing on hubbly-bubbly pipes and dreaming of long-gone glories of the past. A genuinely serious effort to make the United States less dependent on petroleum for our energy needs should also be a top priority.

Labels: , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?