Husain Haqqani and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross said the person who “solves” the Middle East situation would be very rich, but both men did their best to simply relate the troubling circumstances of the world hotspot to the Chautauqua audience.
Haqqani, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 until 2011, and Gartenstein-Ross, counter-terrorism expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, took the Amphitheater stage Monday morning to begin the week’s discussion on “The Middle East Now and Next.”
Haqqani, a repeat visitor to Chautauqua, has much affection for the U.S., but he said two of the country’s weaknesses are in history and patience. Both factors contribute to the ongoing trouble of understanding and handling Middle Eastern affairs. Born in Pakistan, he originally came to the U.S. as a journalist for the State Department in 1985.
The speakers’ goal was to set the stage for the week, which would examine Middle Eastern countries at length, Haqqani said.
“I would say that the most important characteristic of that region today is that, essentially, the states and the countries that we all know about are all or mostly contrived by outsiders,” Haqqani said.
According to both men, many of the problems that plague the Middle East can be continually traced back to the colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Borders were drawn with no care or thought given to the indigenous peoples’ identities or cultures. For example, Syria was a country that was defined by a bargaining agreement between the United Kingdom and France in 1919 after World War I.
After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, its allies in Austria-Hungary became nation-states based on ethnic and cultural norms, while its own seat of power became Turkey. However, the Middle East was still apportioned and governed by arbitrarily drawn borders, Haqqani said.
This is how the Sunni minority rose to power over a Shiite majority in what became Iraq. A similar situation happened in Syria when the French militarized an ethnic minority that later used the training to take control. It is also why Pakistan is usually thought of in relation to the Middle East, despite it having more in common with India.
“I dwell on this because a lot of what is happening in the Middle East is about identity,” Haqqani said. “It’s about nation formation. Many of these states ended up having authoritarian governments, usually of the powerful minorities [that were backed by colonialists].”
Haqqani compared these countries’ origins to America’s. The U.S. began as a homogenous nation of white — primarily Christian — European immigrants, and its laws written by landowning men. A nation is a shared ideology that binds together otherwise distinct groups, he said. However, radical ideologies have taken hold of the Middle East.
The contrived structure in some cases forced upon the populace is coming apart, Gartenstein-Ross said. In places of identity crisis, such as Iraq and Syria but extending into Muslim communities globally, there are rises of extremist organizations such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.
According to Gartenstein-Ross, what differentiates the Islamic State group and al-Qaida is their grasp of the Internet and social media. While these tools have been used for good, such as in the Arab Spring of 2011 that swept through countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, they are also being used by radical extremists with ill intentions.
“The story of ISIS’ rise really comes from [America’s] expectations over the years being flouted and turned upside down,” he said.
Both men reiterated this is an ideological conflict with the immediacy of the information age in which fringe ideas spread faster and deeper than before. In broadest terms, Gartenstein-Ross said the Islamic State group is to al-Qaida what Netflix was to Blockbuster.
“So if you’re a jihadist in Chautauqua in 1980, you might never come across someone who shares your beliefs,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “Today, if you live in Chautauqua and are a jihadist, you can be in touch right away with fighters in ISIS.”
In an area where borders and nation-states are fluid, alternative forms of political organizing have taken root. It is this new form of statism that enables the Islamic State group, which Gartenstein-Ross describes as “brutal a form of Islamist law as you can possibly imagine,” to hold territory the size of the U.K.
Haqqani said the U.S. has made four incorrect assumptions about the Middle East that are emblematic of its larger misunderstandings. First, he said an outsider determining the fates of the people there doesn’t work, and inorganic cultural ideas do not transfer well. He also said assuming a Western idea will fit at all is a mistake — as is collapsing a system and expecting democracy to spring up in response.
The problems of the region go deeper than the worst extremist groups. If the Islamic State group were to somehow disappear from Iraq tomorrow, there would still be Sunni resentment and many other ethnic and cultural problems to work out, Gartenstein-Ross said. But a consequence of such an openly genocidal radical group means al-Qaida, Hamas and Hezbollah have been “rebranded” as more moderate, he said.
“There’s essentially going to be this great battle of ideas, and it’s not going to be consigned to the region,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “It’s going to be occurring on a global scale as it already is — as you can see from spillover like the attack in Chattanooga and the Charlie Hebdo attack in January.”
As for what is ahead, Gartenstein-Ross predicts a revolution within two or three years. Both warned against another American weakness: over-optimism.
A strategy to deal with radicalism and jihadism could look like the containment strategy the U.S. used during the Cold War, Haqqani said.
“You have to accept and understand that the region has governments that lack legitimacy, and they’re ones that do not deliver any services for the people,” he said. “Organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah gain a lot of respectability by providing services to poor people.”
That is why organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida gain a foothold in regions, Haqqani said. Removing extremist organizations will be a multi-fronted and generational effort.
But both men agreed the key is to find new “substates” on a local level and build from there. The mission is to find local, indigenous ideas that can flourish on their own.
However, Gartenstein-Ross expects the Middle East to be “a mess” for the foreseeable future.
“I look at this in terms of how these trends intersect with what’s happening in the broader world,” he said. “It’s getting harder for Westphalian states to govern, to wield power, for reasons of debt, economies in shambles, ecological challenges, resource scarcities. All of these things are making it harder to be a state, in addition to the advances in technology that have fundamentally changed economic marketspace and the space for political organization.”