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


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:

"His 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.”

August 24, 2006