The Endless Muddle East Imbroglio: Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace?

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Greek historian
Thucydides (c. 460–400 B.C.) constantly sought historical perspective,
saying c. 410 B.C.: "History repeats itself." Indeed.

So the U.S.
War on Iraq smacks more and more of our Vietnam War revisited, or
Act II. As Iraq itself teeters on civil war between its ruling Shiite
and Sunni factions — apart from the coolish Kurds in the north —
in a U.S.-fostered Iraqi government. As Iraqi insurgents steadily
kill or maim US soldiers by the thousands and by the tens of thousands
of Iraqi forces and civilians. As some 150,000 pro-Hezbollah protesters
take to the Baghdad streets earlier this August, shouting "Death
to America" and "Death to Israel."

For its part,
Israel in historical perspective has been around for a long time.
Recall the role played by Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea
two millennia ago, a man who ineptly helped expedite the crucifixion
of Jesus and boost Christianity into a major world religion — who,
as tradition has it, committed suicide when back in Rome.

My point is
that knowledge of current Middle East intrigue and violence
may not be enough to understand it fully. Fuller understanding calls
for historical context, a handle on the setting of vital events
along the way and on long-term trends. So the worldly-wise reader
anxious to grasp what’s behind Middle East politics today faces
stern self-demands for perspective to unmuddle the long-troubled
Middle — or in my word, Muddle — East.

Harvard historian
Samuel B. Huntington made a creditable push at such unmuddling with
his 1997 scholarly work The
Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
Now along comes a highly readable, less toney, book, at 153 pages,
including a table of references and 16 maps. It is Middle
East Realities: Understanding the Conflict
by Oliver James
(PublishAmerica, Baltimore) available at bookstores like Barnes
and Noble at $19.95 a copy.

Mr. James
is a retired executive of a major international oil firm with long
experience in the Middle East, including ten years in Lebanon, eight
years in Saudi Arabia, and eight years in Belgium where he had responsibility
for the firm's business in the Middle East and Africa. He earned
advanced degrees in engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic and
in management from M.I.T. Mr. James writes well, with his credits
including a novel set in the Middle East, Prisoners
of Circumstance

His Middle
East Realities book goes over the histories of key players in
the Middle East, probes the genesis of today's conflicts, treats
some of its longtime myths and realities. He declares: "We
are engaged in a war against terror without clearly understanding
the enemy we face or the inspiration behind the zeal that drives
him to bring harm to us — at any cost."

At any cost?
Mr. James seeks to give the worldly-wise reader a keener grasp
of this burning issue which seems to grow more and more costly and
intrusive. He reminds us of a point made by historian Arnold Toynbee
who said civilizations tend to die by suicide, much less by murder.
Question: Is our terrorist-hounded Western Civilization itself on
such a bent?

Mr. James
traces the argument that alienation between Jew and Arab goes back
to the Old Testament. Abraham’s two sons were half-brothers. One
son was Isaac, acclaimed the father of the Jewish people, who was
the second son of Abraham, born of his aging wife, Sarah. Ishmael,
who is regarded as the patriarch of the Arab peoples, was Abraham's
first son, born of Hagar, Sarah's maidservant.

The author
sees the humble origins of the Islamic Empire with the birth of
Mohammed to a family of modest means in the city of Mecca in 570
A.D. Mohammed was orphaned as a child yet soon joined his guardian
uncle to make regular trips from Mecca to Jerusalem as part of a
caravan of merchants plying their trade between those two points
and places in between. Repeated contacts with Jews and Christians
likely impacted on the fertile mind of Mohammed who as a young man
became convinced of the existence of one all-powerful, all-merciful
God. Said to have received a vision from the angel Gabriel, he began
to preach his message of one God in Mecca.

But his message
ran afoul of the authorities in Mecca who began to persecute him.
In 622 AD Mohammed fled to Medina 200 miles to the north where he
soon headed not only a new religion but a zealous political machine
legislating law and establishing order. Thus did Mohammed begin
to conquer Arabia in the name of Islam with his successors reaching
far beyond. By 750 AD the Islamic Empire spanned from Spain in the
west to India in the east, per a map supplied by Mr. James. He reminds
us that expansion was not the whole story, that today we have a
legacy of Islamic cultural values. For example, we employ Arabic
numerals, we see that algebra and algorithm are Arabic words.

But Christian
Europe did not welcome the Islamic challenge to its hegemony, and
beginning in 1096 it launched the first of eight crusades that spanned
174 years. But none of the crusades ever reached the lasting goal
of Christian rule over Jerusalem. Worse, as the author comments:
"From the Muslim Arab viewpoint the crusades were a form of
unprovoked aggression, raw western imperialism — a Christian u2018Jihad'
in a very real sense."

The rise of
Zionism in Europe in the late 19th century is tracked. Zionism stood
for the world Jewry seeking a homeland in Palestine. A key milestone
on the road to such a homeland occurred 1917, at the height of World
War I. This was the Balfour Declaration, named after Britain's foreign
minister, Lord Arthur James Balfour. The politics of the declaration
was plain. The British government was anxious to win support for
its bloody, costly war effort from the potent Jewish community at
home and abroad. As quoted by Mr. James, the Declaration reads:

Majesty's government views with favor the establishment in Palestine
of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use its best
endeavors to achieve this objective, it being clearly understood
that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious
rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the
rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in other countries."

The declaration
was endorsed by the League of Nations in 1922 and became the basis
for the later partition of Palestine occurring after WW II. But
the ethics and wisdom of Britain offering the Jews land "over
which it had neither dominion or rights" to a people dispersed
in many others countries remain in serious question for Mr. James
and many others. Islamic resentment goaded war.

The 1948–1949
War on Israel came from combined attacks by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan,
Egypt, and Iraq. Then came the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 Six-Day
War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and, importantly, the rise of Palestinian
leader Yasser Arafat, described here as a "freedom fighter,
a guerilla, a statesman, a leader, a terrorist, a Nobel Peace Prize
recipient, a survivor, a father figure for a displaced people ….
" So for Israel and her Arab neighbors, the author comments
that "neither side has known real peace or security in nearly
100 years of contiguity."

Is a solution
possible? Maybe. Maybe not. Oliver James notes that killing does
not eliminate terrorism. It is necessary to determine and deal with
the root cause of the discontent that leads people to kill themselves
to harm us. Tough-minded Mr. James supplies his history-laden 11
points in his program for peace, including "creation and recognition
of a Palestinian sovereign state" and "establishment of
trade, educational and cultural exchanges between Israel and Palestine."

I say that
the James point-up of trade is the thing, that it bodes well for
more than just bilateral trade. Ludwig von Mises saw trade as "social
cooperation" and "consumer sovereignty,” as inherently
friendly and peaceful. Thomas J. Watson, founder and head of IBM,
worried over the dubious results of World War I and the League of
Nations in the 1920s and 1930s. Watson was impressed by how trade
— and the freer the better — benefits workers and consumers regionally
and over the world, by how they and others could prod their respective
governments to wage peace. And so Watson widely promoted in the
1920s and 1930s his motto of "World Peace Through World Trade."

Doesn't the
Watson motto apply to today’s galling Middle East — and far beyond,
to our terror-ridden Western Civilization itself? For doesn’t the
message of Thucydides and Oliver James for historical perspective
lend strength to spreading and implementing the social-cooperation
idea of “World Peace Through World Trade”? Before it is too late?
For where is the wisdom, the foresight, the hindsight, when armed
forces — no matter whose — go on a war-is-hell rampage shooting
or bombing actual or potential customers and investors?

I close with
a quotation by Thucydides, and put it the context of not only favorable
trade but unilateral free trade: “We secure our friends not by accepting
favors but by doing them.”

24, 2006

Peterson [send him mail]
is an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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